RW Johnson: The People shall govern. Or perhaps not.

By RW Johnson*

The almost farcical ANC conference of December 2022 has posed the question of whether the ANC still has the will to govern. 

The conference was a mess. The party’s Western Cape section had been unable to hold its own provincial conference and the always rather pathetic Women’s League had similarly failed to fulfil even this minimal requirement. The Youth League hardly matters any more – when Malema walked out he seemed to take with him the ANCYL’s heart and soul. Cosatu and the SACP are equally mere shadows of their former selves. 

The conference started in confusion, ran badly late, recorded a huge drop in party membership, saw the party leader booed and interrupted, failed to discuss any policy matters and broke up with a promise to meet in the New Year to talk about policy. This was effectively an admission that the conference had failed to fulfil its historic role as what Mandela termed “the parliament of the African people”.

In effect the delegates arrived with but one objective in mind: to fight out the factional battle over nominations to the Top Seven and the NEC. As usual, this was mainly an auction, with large sums of money changing hands. Attendance at the policy commissions was derisory and as soon as the NEC election results were out most of the delegates simply left, so that even Ramaphosa’s closing speech was made to a half-empty hall.

This is the logical evolution of a party which is now merely a patronage machine. In such a party all that really matters is who the patrons are and whether the factional balance in the party is such as to allow them to reward their clients. In such a party policy is an optional extra, something which the patrons will anyway sort out for themselves. What matters to delegates is that they get well rewarded for their votes and return home with their part of the patronage network secure and protected.

Patronage and principle

It is important to grasp how different this is from parties that try to base themselves on principles. Helen Zille, in discussing coalition possibilities in 2024, says the DA can only reach agreements with others if they are based on principle. But the ANC is more in the position of Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them – well, I’ve got others.”  

For the ANC the fundamental is that it should continue to control as much patronage as possible and that the governing institutions of the country should be put at the service of the ANC patronage machine. This was visible in 2022 when the Zondo Commission recommended the end of cadre deployment. Cyril Ramaphosa put his foot down with wholly unaccustomed speed and firmness to rule that out immediately. And, of course, there is the expectation that clients will take advantage of whatever economic opportunities come their way. To that extent corruption is both structural and an inevitable part of any ANC administration, even one like Ramaphosa’s which promises reform and an end to corruption. 

Other African nationalist parties have evolved in similar fashion as they declined. Decline is inevitable because a patronage machine exists purely to serve party elites, not ordinary voters. Typically, voter turnout collapses and the tendency to rig elections increases because it is unthinkable that the patronage network should be put at risk simply because voters are disaffected. Long before the end the party is a hollow husk. If a coup occurs the party can vanish like the Cheshire Cat.

Probably the nearest comparator for the ANC in the developed world was the Italian Christian Democrats (the DC).  The party was born as part of the huge struggle to prevent a takeover by the Communists (the PCI) in the post-war period. This climaxed with the “Christ against Communism” election of 1948 with the Papacy threatening excommunication for those who voted Communist. 

The DC won this battle but over the years the party’s association with the Church weakened and the party became synonymous with patronage politics and corruption. DC voters would say that they voted for their party while holding their noses – avoiding the stench of corruption while voting just to keep the PCI out. But once Communism collapsed in the USSR and Eastern Europe, the PCI collapsed too and, deprived of its raison d’etre, so did the DC.

The ANC is rather like the DC. In the past it triumphed in an epochal struggle. It survives by evoking that struggle but its echo gets weaker all the time – for nobody believes that apartheid could return and for decades the ANC has believed it will rule “until Jesus comes”. The best it can do now is to threaten people living on social grants that they’ll lose their grants if they don’t vote ANC. 

Given the euphoria amidst which ANC rule began, this resort to bullying the most vulnerable is the sign of a very steep descent. But the only imperative is that the patronage machine must go on. If you have to terrify poor people to do that, you do it. The great boss machines of Chicago and New York knew all about that. 

The ANC’s strangely flexible policies

This dominance of patronage has always meant that ANC policy is pretty malleable. Of course, the party has a cloud of populist assumptions deriving from the Freedom Charter hovering somewhere in the background, just as the DC had items derived from Catholic social thought and papal encyclicals. From time to time these may be drawn upon but even these were very vague (“The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall Be Opened !”). 

Thus in exile the ANC adopted pretty much the whole SACP programme. To all appearances it was a revolutionary socialist party bent on “the seizure of power”. But this revolutionary zeal quickly melted away as the party elite acquired rich godfathers. 

The party arrived back from exile swearing it would nationalise almost everything. Then Mandela went on an overseas trip and was told by numerous foreign money men that that would be a disaster. He returned home and said no nationalisation. This was accepted with little argument, something that would not have been possible if policy were taken seriously. 

Indeed, Thabo Mbeki thought this policy commitment was so skin-deep that by 1996 he tried to introduce a programme of sweeping privatisations. He managed to privatise Telkom but his wider aims were defeated by unions nervous that private employers might slim down the feather-bedded SOEs.

Similarly, there is a lack of seriousness about land. ANC politicians love making rhetorical laments about land but have never faced the fact that few Africans want to be farmers and that the main need is for residential land near cities. If the government was serious about this, both issues could have been dealt with some time ago. One gets the impression, however, that the ANC would like to keep land as a permanent subject for lament, without actually doing much.

Moreover, policy is now used as a weapon of factional struggle. Zuma brought in “free” university education not because he wanted to do something for “clever blacks” but so as to outflank Ramaphosa. Similarly, expropriation without compensation was pushed through in order to undermine Ramaphosa: had Zuma really wanted it, he could have legislated it when he was President. 

Policy as fantasy

On top of which, of course, the ANC likes to approach policy as a fantasy wish-list – hence the demands for completely unaffordable projects such as NHI, a state bank, a state pharmaceutical company, a state shipping company and so forth. None of these projects have even been costed and in the case of NHI the courts have already pretty much ruled the proposal out. Similarly, the proposal for the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank – ruled out by the Treasury as expensive and pointless – lives on in a sort of dreamworld.

Party activists must be well aware that passing resolutions for such policies is an empty gesture and that the government is anyway hopeless at implementing policy of any kind. So it’s really not surprising that activists seem to have lost interest in policy. More alarming is that ministers now seem to see doing their jobs as merely optional – Fikile Mbalula, for example, simply ignored his duty to protect Intercape buses or his instruction to hand the metro railway over to the city of Cape Town. 

Failing ministers, failing state

On the ground this is perceived as the central state performing fewer and fewer of its functions – state failure, as it’s known. Viewed from the other end it is a matter of more and more ministers deciding that they won’t do – or even try to do – this or that part of their job. Sometimes ministers have simply lost control of their departments: the minister of transport agreed to hand the metro trains over to Cape Town but ministry officials absolutely refused to carry this out.  

Faced with a civil service which is indolent, unfit for purpose and is all too often involved in corrupt practices of one sort or another, ministers will often back off. After all, the civil servants are organised in powerful Cosatu unions which can create political and practical difficulties for any minister. 

All of which suggests that the ANC has lost much of its interest in governing. Ministers like their jobs for their pay, perks and prestige – and the other economic opportunities they bring – but it is impossible to think of a minister who has a real vision for his department and a corresponding zeal to pursue it. 


Take NHI. Proponents of NHI are fond of noting that the British National Health Service was established in 1948 amidst post-war austerity. True: the minister, Aneurin Bevan, worked like a Trojan and completed the project in three years. In three years the NHS went from a simple idea to a fully costed, established and working service: all the pressure groups were consulted and accommodated, compromises reached, bargains struck and an immense set of organisational tasks were carried through. 

But the ANC has been talking about NHI for more than twenty years and none of that work has been done. Moreover, Bevan realised that he could not simply order the British Medical Association (ie. the doctors) about. He brokered a key compromise which brought the BMA onside by giving it a governing majority on the NHS council. 

In South Africa the Health Department is still messing about with unworkable and illegal ways to coerce the doctors into obedience like the “certificates of need” which have already been declared unconstitutional. Nobody has even attempted to cost the NHI proposal and nobody imagines that the Health Department is equal to the immense organisational tasks involved. The whole thing is about as serious as a South African manned mission to Mars.

Coalition no panacea

So we have a ruling party which is governing less and less. And this is not a problem which can be solved simply by having a coalition government. If government ceases to fulfil its functions, other interests quickly step in to occupy the space. Once the railways ceased to run, for example, the stations and lines were stripped and sometimes shacks were built across the railway tracks. A new minister of transport – from whatever party – might find him or herself powerless. It’s not just that the old ANC ministers were no good. Under them the whole machinery of government has rotted.

Secondly, new ministers from an Opposition party often find that they can do virtually nothing unless they can hire a whole new lot of civil servants. Rather like De Ruyter at Eskom, they might find themselves presiding over an overstaffed, corrupt, obstructive and highly unionised workforce. In the end they defeated De Ruyter who, in addition, is now politically blamed for Eskom’s failures. Any would-be minister in a coalition government should reflect on that case, for it might be his or her own future. 

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* RW Johnson is a journalist, political scientist, and historian who lives in South Africa and has been a citizen and passport holder of the country for almost thirty years. Born in England, he was educated at Natal University and Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar. He was a fellow in politics at Magdalen College, Oxford, for 26 years and remains an emeritus fellow.