🔒 RW Johnson: ANC/DA/IFP is SA democracy’s last hope – without it, all may be lost

Despite clear poll data showing significant public disenchantment with the ANC, political analysts and ANC leaders remain in denial about the party’s declining popularity. The ANC’s failure to address key issues like inequality and illiteracy, coupled with a refusal to take responsibility, hampers efforts to form a successful coalition government. A potential ANC-DA-IFP coalition is crucial for South Africa’s democratic revival, despite the risks and internal resistance from within the ANC.

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By R.W. Johnson

On the last Sunday before the recent election I found myself debating on ENCA TV with two “political analysts”, neither of whom could believe the poll data we had put  in front of them. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___ They kept insisting that the ANC was likely to score over 50% but that even if, by some tragic accident, it fell below that mark, it couldn’t possibly go below 45%. Yet the data was clear – and it was backed up by the answers we got to  many other questions that we had asked. All the responses we gathered suggested a huge popular disenchantment with the ANC and a hunger for wholesale change. But, like the ANC, our “political analysts” were still living in a dreamworld.

Despite the election results, with the ANC losing almost a third of its vote, and the failure of 71 ANC MPs (including numerous ANC ministers) to be re-elected the nature and scale of this defeat still do not seem to have really sunk in. It was apparent during the campaign that many of the ANC’s leaders were completely out of touch with popular feeling and, indeed, with basic political realities. Occasionally they would claim they had humbled themselves and admitted that the ANC had “made mistakes”, but actually this wasn’t really true, for nobody ever explained which particular mistakes they meant. No one, for example, faced up to the fact that the ANC likes to talk of greater equality but in fact inequality has steadily grown under ANC rule.

The fact is that ANC loyalists live in a bubble. They are often personally cushioned against the effects of ANC failures, they mix almost exclusively with other ANC people and they have lived for more than a generation secure in the belief that the ANC would rule almost eternally. None of them seem ever to confront such basic facts as that real per capita incomes have been falling steadily for over a decade, that there is a shameful and growing problem of black illiteracy or that more black South Africans are now going hungry than was the case under apartheid. The sheer enormity of ANC failure seems to escape them. 

And even if these facts are painfully laid out, the response is invariably to blame capitalism, the whites, “counter-revolutionaries” or whatever: no one ever takes responsibility. Paul Mashatile – the deputy president who has just acquired the Guptas’ former  house in Constantia, adding it to his mansions in Gauteng – had the amazing cheek to say that the country needed to give the ANC another thirty years to complete its work of transformation. This was, in effect, a demand that he should not be held responsible for anything for the rest of his political career. 

It is this mindset which is the greatest obstacle to the construction of a successful coalition government. To put it bluntly, the ANC still sees itself and acts as a hegemonic party even though its hegemony is lost. This is already visible in the way the ANC rules out as impossible any compromise on a whole host of its policies. BEE is sacrosanct, and so is the minimum wage, the labour laws, affirmative action, NHI – the list goes on and on. 

It is also visible in the multiple ANC voices warning that any deal with the DA is unacceptable in principle. Yet beggars can’t be choosers. Ramaphosa quite rightly insists that he can only deal with partners who accept the Constitution. This rules out MK and, pretty clearly, the EFF. Indeed, neither of these entities are serious political parties. MK is led by an 82 year old sitting in rural Zululand. His party’s leadership group is made up of his children and other relatives, taxi bosses and members of the construction mafia. It has no structure – only Zuma can issue orders, so there is no parliamentary leader, no chief whip, no one to take any of the decisions necessary for a party to operate. 

During the party’s campaign Zuma made no policy speeches, he just sang and danced. He insisted – a wholly delusional notion – that MK was about to win a two-thirds majority. Now that it has failed to do so he is attempting to prevent the rest of the political system from working by claiming – with no evidence – that the election was rigged and must now be re-fought from scratch. The whole situation is farcical.

The EFF is little better. It too is a party wholly ruled by a single, authoritarian and irremovable leader. (In practice both Malema and Zuma are both just traditional African chiefs, not modern party leaders.) Rather like little boys playing cowboys and Indians, the EFF affects ridiculous military titles. Party members wear red boiler suits, a strange and juvenile form of fancy dress. Although it won less than ten per cent of the vote it ludicrously demanded both the Speakership and the Finance Ministry and, on failing to get them, is now in a sulk. And, like Zuma, Malema is now at a loss. It’s not clear what either of them can do next. There is no path to take Zuma back to the presidency and Malema is actually further away from power now than he was five  years ago. And he’s no longer a youth leader. At his next election, in 2029, he will be 48.

However, so great is the resistance within the ANC to a deal with the DA that there is now talk of a “rats and mice” coalition with all the small parties – Al-Jamaah, the PA, Rise Mzansi, BOSA, Good, the NFP and the IFP, with the DA in a minor role. The DA would be wise to reject this outright since the whole purpose of such a coalition would be to minimise and undermine the DA. The danger is that the DA has become so keen on a coalition deal that it might find it too hard to simply walk away. But, if necessary, that is what it must do, openly proclaiming that Ramaphosa and the ANC have thrown away the only real chance to turn the country around. 

For the DA has more leverage than is often assumed. A coalition without the DA will lack the confidence of the markets and there is little doubt that the resulting government, dominated by the ANC, would continue the downward trajectory of the ANC alone. If that happens popular discontent will rapidly mount and the various “rats and mice” parties will quickly drop out and scatter. At which point a chastened ANC might well turn again to the DA. The fact is that any real chance of turning round this dismal evolution needs the full and vigorous participation of the DA. No “confidence and supply” halfway house will do that.

The ANC is still so caught up in its ideological knots that many of its leaders do not realise that this is also the ANC’s last best hope. If the ANC continues as before, unemployment will continue to mount, popular anger will grow and the ANC will undergo further splits and further decline. Its only real hope is to go for a determined economic turnaround. The DA may get some of the credit for that but once the turnaround is evident to one and all the ANC can hope to recapture much of the ground lost to MK. It is, after all, most unlikely that Zuma will be available to lead MK in 2029.

So, an ANC-DA-IFP coalition is probably the last best hope of South African democracy. It would be risky for all concerned but not to embark on it would mean giving up hope.

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