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The ANC of 2019

- Professor Susan Booysen

Zebra stripes, leopard spots and the troubled king of the political jungle.

For the African National Congress, this week’s provincial elective conferences epitomised the cases of the striped zebra versus the leopard and the spots that are so difficult to change.

The outcome of the ANC Gauteng provincial conference was held to epitomise the new zebra ANC – bringing together the factions – after the fact of delegates voting in, collectively and in close emulation of the December 2017 Nasrec elections, leadership that is a mixed bag of slate representatives. In Gauteng some of new provincial executive committee (PEC) members were CR17 people, others were Ramaphosaist but wanted to oust the David Makhura contingent from power, and the ANC Youth Leaguers that emerged included some staunch Zumaists.

The zebra metaphor symbolises therefore the forced acceptance that the ANC Model-2018 is a complex and constrained political “animal”. The new “unity ANC” – made possible through the de facto confirmation that provinces like KwaZulu-Natal are falling in behind Ramaphosa, at least for purposes of Election 2019 – has a compromised character that extends beyond the mere politics of factions.

The biggest compromise is the fact that the “new ANC” (after the conferences confirmed to be under Ramaphosa rule, until further notice), cannot reinvent itself as a virginal party that has not been in government for a quarter of a century. It cannot escape from having faltered frequently on ethics, morality, and pushing socio-economic transformation to the limits that were possible within constitutional parameters. Neither can it deny the damage to democratic institutions it has bequeathed to the nation.

The “new ANC” came face to face this week with these complicating factors, as Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provincial structures were reinventing themselves to try to claim a seat on the Ramaphosa bandwagon so as not to miss out on remaining the 2019 king of elections.

The Gauteng ANC’s election results in particular saw uncomfortable questions about ANC reinvention clashing with governance skeletons. On the list of the PEC elected ones were Qedani Mahlangu of Life Esidimeni infamy, Jacob Khawe of the failed mayorship of Emfuleni, and Brian Hlongwa under whose watch Gauteng health is said to have lost R1.2-billion to fraud and corruption. Among the Youth Leaguers who made the PEC are those who a mere few years ago objected to media reportage of the Zuma travails, accusing the media of having an agenda against the ANC.

These Gauteng examples are a mere drop in the ocean of ANC leaders and prominent ones across the provinces, municipalities and national government whose ongoing employment and endorsements testify to the difficulty of changing the spots. It is as if the ANC’s Through the Eye of a Needle is closer to a fairy tale than an election manifesto.

These developments reinforced the ANC’s dilemma: Jacob Zuma and his capture exploits epitomise the ANC-South Africa’s problems, but the difficulties go further and deeper and span the factions. It is so widespread that the ANC will implode itself, across factions, if it tries to cleanse itself entirely. Therefore, unity does not signal a “new dawn”; the ANC cannot truly invent itself as a new political organisation, and opposition parties themselves are too weak to force this change now that the Ramaphosa zebra has sprung to life.

The ANC organisationally and in government bargains on the likelihood of short memories and blanket forgiveness in light of the hope of the new dawn. Secretary general Ace Magashule talks about the need for political education – no mention that political education was high on the agenda of the ANC in Mangaung 2012, or even at the ANC at its National General Council of 2000… Gauteng Premier David Makhura promises, again, the abolition of e-tolls. He is silent on his previous powerlessness when in the aftermath of the ANC-Gauteng’s near-defeat of 2014 there was an e-tolls panel, which ended up being toothless in the face of national override.

These contradictions highlight the ANC’s struggle to emerge, in time for Election 2019, as the respotted leopard that is responsible and accountable, and is integrity-guaranteed, in fact, a new post-liberation party. In Gauteng (and much of the rest of the country) reliance on Struggle credentials, and the injustices of the imperfect first round of liberation from racism and colonialism, will not work as campaign message. Asserting that its 25 years in power have been the evidence of its ongoing conduct of the Struggle would also struggle to fly with voters.

The main fly in the ointment is the ANC’s record in government. The question: how to persuade voters that the so-called new ANC has the ability – despite appearances – to govern better come another term in power. The Ramaphosa high-hope wagon might very well help the ANC across the election victory line. But that, in its own right, will only be half the battle won.

Moving ahead, to remain in effective control of South African politics, the ANC will need to learn how to conduct itself in South Africa’s new style of democracy: where the governing party is held to account not by often-weak opposition political parties, but directly by people and communities that do not necessarily channel their demands for government action and accountability through the system.

The ANC beyond Election 2019 might very well continue in government, but will govern amid a vibrant, growing form of direct democracy – which can render the ANC weak, powerless and embarrassed, even if it is in “power”.

South Africans have lived partial socio-economic liberation, combined with intractable problems with accountability through the institutions of representative democracy, for the past 25 years. This has turned them, increasingly, to disillusionment and cynicism. The ANC, if it remains in power (probably by current indications), will have to show that it can rule in tandem with the new democracy of direct accountability via conventional and social media, and democracy through direct action on the ground and from communities.

The “king of the jungle” will, at best, be sharing its territory – even if voters endorse the old spots.

Susan Booysen, Professor in the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on the Daily Maverick.