🔒 RW Johnson: Pali Lehohla’s election postponing pipe dream – rebooting would not ‘fix’ the ANC

RW Johnson doesn’t hold back on his criticism of the former Statistician-General Pali Lehohla’s proposal to postpone the 2024 elections for national discussions on the future of South Africa. Lehohla, a senior member of the ANC, divides the party’s 30-year rule into two periods, praising the initial 15 years for progress and blaming the latter half, particularly the Zuma and Ramaphosa eras, for regression and corruption. Johnson argues that Lehohla’s call for a new Codesa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) is naive, citing the current power dynamics, corruption, and criminal elements within the ANC. He reflects a growing loss of faith in the ANC, predicting a decline in support in the upcoming election due to dissatisfaction with governance and service delivery issues.

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By RW Johnson

Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician-General, has proposed that the 2024 elections be postponed so that “frank talks” can be held about what sort of country we all want to build and live in. In Lehohla’s view, if we go ahead with elections, our politicians will just continue to lie and steal, corruption will continue and this will bring “calamity for all South Africans”. The alternative, in his opinion, would be to hold a new Codesa involving “communities, civic groups, politicians, business and religious organisations”.

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Given that Lehohla is a senior ANC man it is interesting that he divides the thirty years of ANC rule into two. In the first fifteen years, he says, there was definite progress on many fronts but thereafter we have seen regression from all these gains. The Zuma period opened the floodgates to disaster and the Ramaphosa period has merely continued this downward slide. “Corruption at all levels is growing, we have relentless load-shedding, criminals and crime syndicates are on the loose, and politicians and civil servants at all levels are using their positions to amass wealth for themselves and their families”. The result is that the government has let down the black poor to whom so much was promised. It has, he says, also let down Africa and Africans in general because South Africa’s position in the 1990s was so strong and it has all been squandered.

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 For Lehohla Mandela’s house in Houghton symbolises it all. It has fallen into disrepair and ruin – “the house is full of filth”. That what should have been an inspiring national monument has been allowed thus to deteriorate suggests that “we as a people are now fit only for a pigsty”. 

ANC cadres are seldom willing to speak frankly about what they think of the state of South Africa but in the shape first of Mavuso Msimang and then of Pali Lehohla they are now speaking out – and what they show is that even senior ANC cadres think much the same as the rest of us. It is perfectly clear that they have no confidence at all in either the ANC government or its President. Moreover, the whole black middle class – the politicians and civil servants – are depicted by Lehohla as selfish and corrupt. 

That said, Lehohla’s conception is extremely naive. He praises the Mandela period for its stability and Mbeki’s presidency for its fast rate of economic growth. Mbeki, he says, was our best President to date. But the fact is, of course, that much of the worst damage was done in those two periods. It was then that the neglect of infrastructural maintenance was begun – we just didn’t notice it at first because the new regime had inherited a well maintained infrastructure and it took a decade for the ruin to begin to show. But already cadre deployment and affirmative action had ruined the civil service and with that went all hope of decent governance. Moreover, BEE was introduced, greatly increasing corruption and hugely increasing the cost to the taxpayer of all public contracts. The recent Harvard investigation into the causes of South Africa’s failure pointed the finger at cadre deployment and the application of BEE to procurement as the two top causes. Both these measures were introduced in the Mandela-Mbeki period.

Similarly, the key decisions which produced load-shedding were all taken in the Mbeki period, as were the disastrous decisions which produced Kusile and Medupi. The fast rate of economic growth in 2004-2007, for which Lehohla praises Mbeki, was due to the “commodity super-cycle” – record prices for many of the commodities that  South Africa mined, caused essentially by huge demand in China. Mbeki had little to do with it. It would be more correct to say that Trevor Manuel was the best minister of finance that we have had.

The sad example of Mandela’s house is telling. But what went wrong there ? Mandela said his family could live in the house in perpetuity but it was during their tenure that the property was allowed to deteriorate. Ultimately the Mandela Foundation stepped in to prevent any more damage. The Foundation was paying the bills and by that stage the house’s inhabitants were spending R50,000 a month on energy bills alone. (Quite how that was even possible is a good question.) So the sad truth is that the Mandela family and the Mandela Foundation were responsible for the state of affairs which Lehohla deplores. In other words, a perfect parable of the way ANC governance works. Resources are distributed according to nepotism – and are then squandered. Anyone who has followed the exploits of other members of the Mandela family will not be too surprised by that outcome. Winnie Mandela was perhaps the worst when it came to mis-using houses, failing to pay rent, and failing to pay debts run up at shops and so forth. This is all matter of public record and yet the ANC has just renamed a major highway after her. That sort of thing is only possible because the ANC is still unwilling to face up to uncomfortable truths if they conflict with liberation mythology. Similarly, the Mandela Foundation has just sacked its CEO for unbecoming conduct, though it won’t say exactly what he did.

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But the most naive part of Lehohla’s proposal is his suggestion of a new Codesa. The reason Codesa No.1 was possible was that from the moment De Klerk made his famous speech of 2 February 1990 it was clear that the National Party was willing to give up power. That was by its nature almost a political miracle and that alone made possible the talks that followed and guaranteed a democratic outcome. But ANC politicians today would certainly not agree to sit down with Opposition parties and a whole raft of other constituencies in order to hammer out a new dispensation in an open-minded way. They have got power and they have no wish to share it, let alone lose it. Given the straits into which they have driven the country perhaps they ought, like De Klerk, voluntarily quit power – but sadly there are no De Klerks in the ANC.. 

Secondly, Codesa No.1 consisted mainly of politicians who hoped soon to have power but who were mainly just a bunch of hungry exiles. They negotiated with other Opposition politicians (the DP) and with National Party politicians who knew they were about to lose power forever. Any attempt at a Codesa No.2 in 2024 would have to start with the fact that there are now lots of powerful vested interests, many of them corrupt or criminal. How, for example, would a new Codesa deal with all the “community forums” demanding a 30% cut from all public construction projects ? Or with the multiple BEE rackets which honeycomb the civil service, the SOEs and all levels of government ? Moreover, we know from the Zondo Commission and the work of investigative journalists that many members of the cabinet and members of the ANC and EFF parliamentary parties (and certain other parties as well) have records of corruption. Would Lehohla really want our future to be negotiated by a band of criminals ? Surely not.

But simply excluding such interests from the negotiations wouldn’t work either. Everything we know suggests that these interests would then resort to bribery, intimidation and gangsterism to get their way. If frustrated they would certainly not shirk from using violence. The only way for negotiations to proceed in good faith would be if all these corrupt and criminal elements were locked up at the outset – a huge and difficult job. It is doubtful if the police are equal to this task or, indeed, if they have any appetite for it. The Mandela generation went to jail for essentially political reasons but many of the successor generation ought to be in jail for more mundane, criminal reasons.

The fact is that Lehohla simply wants to re-wind the clock back to 1990 so that we can start all over again. Yet he hasn’t faced up to the fact that he and his party were responsible for all the key moves which led to disaster: cadre deployment, illiberal labour laws, affirmative action, BEE and literally scores of racially based laws. Would Lehohla and his party now admit that all these were mistakes which need to be reversed ?

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Let us be frank. The great appeal of “re-winding the clock back to 1990” is that we thus go back to an era of plentiful, cheap and reliable electricity, a well run and effective water supply, much less crime, far better policing, far, far less corruption, good public hospitals and so on. Without ever actually saying so, such a formulation allows one to preserve all the achievements of the apartheid period while simultaneously abolishing apartheid. One suspects that not just Lehohla but a large majority of the electorate would settle for that. But nations don’t get to replay their histories in that way.  Which is to say that “re-winding the clock to 1990”  is just a mental trick, a form of day-dreaming – but not an option truly available in the real world. 

That said, Lehohla’s day-dream reveals a good deal not just about him but about the mood of the country in its present plight. The loss of faith in the ANC is patent. No doubt, as was the case with Mavuso Msimang, the response of the ANC will be to rush forward and put pressure on any dissident to recant and re-swear loyalty to the movement. This works in the same way that a sticking plaster does: it may deal with the immediate problem but it’s no sort of solution. The ANC has long benefited from a quasi-religious loyalty among many of its supporters but that is fraying. Increasingly the party is viewed in a more secular light. And how can it be otherwise when a previous party leader and an ANC Secretary-General both (Zuma and Magashule) both start their own parties and campaign against the ANC ? Or when the new ANC Secretary-General gaily recalls how the whole movement carefully lied to Parliament to protect Zuma from having to pay for his crookery ? You just have to recall how unthinkable such things would once have been to realise how far things have slipped and evolved.

And that is the big thing about the coming election. Whatever happens the ANC is going to lose a lot of support. Most ANC people once thought – like Jacob Zuma – that the ANC majority was safe “until Jesus comes”, that is that racial and ethnic unity alone would guarantee them permanent power. But that is now clearly not so. Large numbers of black voters, sickened by corruption and angry at having no electricity or water have clearly decided, in entirely secular and pragmatic fashion, that enough is enough. This process of secularisation still has some way to run but it will change everything.  As voters get tired of everything being blamed on apartheid or being asked to be grateful to the ANC for their liberation, they start to judge the movement on its results just like voters judge Labour or the Tories in Britain. That opens the door to a whole new era, one which is unlikely to be helpful to the ANC. 

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