The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
By RW Johnson
At present there is much gleeful anticipation of the ANC losing its majority in 2024. And indeed, this does seem likely to happen – even Gwede Mantashe seems to have decided that this is so and wishes to warn the country in advance that they’ll miss the ANC once it’s gone.
As yet we have only fragmentary opinion poll evidence about the situation on the ground but the key fact, unmistakable to everybody, is just that the whole African nationalist project has failed. The economy can’t grow, unemployment keeps going up, there’s not enough electricity or water, and the infrastructure is falling to bits.
It is more or less the Thabo Mbeki nightmare. Mbeki was always haunted by the mantra he’d heard too often from whites: “Africans can’t govern”. And the way that Mbeki kept returning to this saying made it seem that he had seen enough of independent Africa to have his own doubts about the matter too. In effect the ANC has, over the course of a whole generation, given its own demonstration of this saying. The fact that the only part of the country which still works tolerably well is the DA-ruled Western Cape makes it quite clear that the crisis of governability is an ANC crisis.
It should be taken for granted that the ANC, quite probably assisted by the Russians, will fight an all-out and ruthless campaign and electoral fraud is perfectly possible, even likely. There will be a particularly fierce campaign against the DA. I doubt that anything we have witnessed since 1994 adequately prepares us for the campaign we are about to experience. Even so, and particularly if the election is fair, the ANC may well lose
So, let us assume that the ANC wins considerably less than 50% of the vote in 2024. What happens then ? In the first instance this would be a question for Ramaphosa, who would still be President and would be responsible for appointing a government.
The ANC-EFF scenario
At present the answer would seem to be that the ANC and EFF are making local alliances which could then eventuate in an ANC-EFF coalition government. But there cannot be a stable ANC-EFF government. If the failure of the African nationalist project has brought us to this catastrophic point, how can the answer to that be to double down on African nationalism’s most unworkable ideas and assumptions ?
Just think. The EFF wants to nationalise almost everything, yet this is a country where only the private sector works. And where more SOEs mean more unworkability and more looting. Similarly, the EFF wants to take over all white-owned farms right away. But the whole country depends on a small number of huge white-owned farms to provide almost all its food. The immediate result of the EFF “solution” would be mass starvation. Or again, how would one one expect Solidarity/Afriforum, the most powerful section of South Africa’s civil society, to accept a party which wants to “kill the Boer” ? One could go on, but there’s no need.
The announcement – or even likelihood – of an ANC-EFF government would create a huge market panic, the crash of the Rand, capital flight, the emigration of most of the country’s professional and business classes and the almost complete collapse of the economy. The Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the whole financial establishment would be bound to warn Ramaphosa that an ANC-EFF coalition is an option he simply cannot afford to consider.
So does that mean an ANC-DA coalition ? That too would meet a wall of opposition. Cosatu, the SACP and Saftu would all warn the ANC that a deal with the DA would be an unacceptable deal with “capital”, the forces of apartheid and the enemies of the working class. The Russians and perhaps the Chinese would take a similarly forceful position. And, of course, the EFF would go into overdrive, threatening not just a national shutdown but much greater violence at this possibility of the “betrayal ofd the revolution”.In effect Ramaphosa would be threatened both with a great deal of public violence but also with the break-up of the Tripartite Alliance if he ventured down this road. Ramaphosa would also be warned that if he appointed an ANC-DA government he personally would be responsible for “the defeat of the revolution”. This is a stigma no ANC politician wants to bear.
Will the ANC elite really go ?
There is also the question of how the ANC’s governing elite would behave. Realistically this includes not only the 64 ministers and deputy ministers but 60+ directors-general and deputy directors-general and perhaps another two hundred leading deployees in government departments, agencies, SOEs etc. Not all of these would be immediately out of a job but they would all have reason to believe that the handsome salaries, perks, expense accounts and other privileges which have sustained this group for a generation might soon cease. In addition, of course, many of them have their own extensive patronage networks and an array of corrupt or anyway non-legal relationships, all of which would be under some measure of threat.
And, of course, anywhere between 40 and 70 ANC MPs would have lost their seats, as would a considerably larger number of MPCs. Would all of these people meekly hand over the keys to their offices, houses and cars, dispense with all their drivers, assistants and bodyguards and willingly accept a far less sheltered and more modest retirement ? And if any of them attempt to cling to office would Ramaphosa make them go?
Ramaphosa: dithering as an art form
Ramaphosa would simultaneously be facing other agonising decisions. He has throughout his term given priority to trying to maintain ANC unity, even if that means making alliances with clearly criminal elements. The advent of a coalition government would mean that he would need to get rid of a number of ANC ministers in order to make way for the DA or EFF newcomers. On the one hand Ramaphosa would want to maximise the ANC’s control within such a government which would place a premium on keeping the most efficient and capable ministers but at the same time he would be trying to maintain a factional balance which might dictate keeping some very incompetent ministers.
The best hope of avoiding chaos would be if strict constitutional rules were followed from the word “go”, for then everybody would feel they were being shunted around by impersonal iron laws which nobody could argue against. But that would require that Ramaphosa take a whole variety of major decisions promptly and crisply. Nothing in his previous behaviour suggests that Ramaphosa would be capable of behaving like that.
Indeed, the prospect is more likely to be the opposite. Ramaphosa is the weakest and most indecisive president that South Africa has ever had and he would be faced with taking not one but many difficult and vital decisions without, in most cases, even a precedent to guide him. The result could well be a systemic break-down.
Almost certainly Ramaphosa would embark on a lengthy process of consultation as the country sits frozen in alarm, pondering its various possible futures. This indecision would be dangerous because the markets would react right away, spooked by even the remotest chance of an EFF-ANC coalition.
The EFF, for their part, would doubtless attempt to exert pressure in the only way they know how, with violent street protests and other forms of “revolutionary” activity. Quite possibly the EFF would announce another national shut-down, saying they would only lift it when Malema was made Deputy-President. The SACP and Cosatu, alarmed by the possibility of a deal with the DA, might well decide to exert their own forms of street pressure – they wouldn’t want to allow the EFF a free run as the only force on the Left. There could well be clashes as a result, further increasing the tension.
If Ramaphosa were to dither for even a few days capital flight could reach such extreme proportions that he would find himself forced into an emergency deal with the IMF – another huge and difficult decision on top of all the others. At the same time, of course, he would come under immense pressure from the Reserve Bank, the Treasury and the business establishment, all demanding a quite opposite decision to what was being pushed for by the demonstrators in the street.
Ramaphosa: a man out of his time
One cannot avoid reflecting on the poetic injustice of Ramaphosa’s position. He initially wanted to succeed Mandela as president, an ambition of staggering naivete given that Thabo Mbeki had been an understudy to the ANC President for many years and had the exile bloc behind him. At that stage Ramaphosa envisaged the presidency in Mandela-like terms, offering hope and inspiration but not necessarily playing much of an executive role. Taking office in 2018 he has continued to try to play such a role but of course such a conception is now hopelessly outdated and inappropriate. The 2024 election threatens to put him on the spot in ways for which he is particularly ill-suited.
In any rational democracy not only Ramaphosa but all the key interest groups would see what is coming and try to plan ahead to avoid the systemic break-down that threatens. But that sort of far-sightedness is not common in Africa and we can have little confidence that much of this forward thinking is actually going on.
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.