Another Annus Horribilis for the ANC?

By Richard Pithouse · 8 Jan 2014

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Picture: President of the country and of the ANC, Jacob Zuma with ANC Deputy Chairperson, Cyril Ramaphosa courtesy GovernmentZA/Flickr.
Picture: President of the country and of the ANC, Jacob Zuma with ANC Deputy Chairperson, Cyril Ramaphosa courtesy GovernmentZA/Flickr.

For a long time the ANC was able to sacralise its authority by invoking the key events, ideas and personalities of the struggle like Catholics recite the Stations of the Cross. However we have now reached the point where the power of that political liturgy to inspire and to discipline is in precipitous decline. Patronage and repression have contained some of the fallout. But despite the mobilisation of money and guns to shore up the party’s authority, new heresies, some with their own organisational form, are popping up all over the place.

The party’s chief heresy hunters, people like Blade Nzimande and S’dumo Dlamini, are often reduced to ridiculous bluster in the face of the widening distance between the idea of the ANC and the reality of the ANC. But they can’t be laughed out of serious consideration. They do, after all, speak from within the state and from behind its many redoubts, including its various kinds of men with guns. This is as much a moment of danger as it is of opportunity.

Towards the end of last year some insiders suggested that the ANC had a plan to moderate the electoral damage that Jacob Zuma’s Presidency was doing to the party’s support. The ANC was, we were told, planning to ride the wave of public grief at the passing of Nelson Mandela to an election that was likely to be held on the twentieth anniversary of our first democratic election. The combination of the mourning for Mandela and the celebration of twenty years of democracy would, it was thought, give the ANC a real chance to either win back some of the support it had lost in recent years or, at least, slow its decline at the polls.

But Mandela’s death brought us back to a shared awareness of our highest collective aspirations. In the light of that awareness the corruption, political thuggery and utter lack of any credible national vision on the part of the ANC left it, and in particular its leader, looking more like a betrayal than a continuation of Mandela’s legacy.

If the ANC had assumed that Mandela’s radiance would cast them in a new light, the way in which Zuma was booed in Johannesburg and humiliated on a global stage must have come as a rude shock. But this was not the first time that the ANC’s history and symbols have been used against it. Fidelity to Mandela was invoked when Abahlali baseMjondolo began to organise outside of the ANC in 2005. For some years now Julius Malema has asserted his fidelity to the Freedom Charter to legitimate his dissent. And it was the campaign in support of Zuma within the ANC that introduced the public booing of leaders as a tactic to pursue struggles within the party.

The booing in Johannesburg seems not to have been, as the spin-doctors would have it, an entirely regional anomaly. The day before the memorial for Mandela Abahlali baseMjondolo marched on the ANC, from the Marikana Land Occupation in Cato Manor in Durban in the name of Mandela. On the day of Mandela’s funeral the audience at the Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown, a jazz club that had been the cultural heart of the struggle against apartheid in Durban in the late 80s and early 90s, expressed vocal support for the observation, made from the stage, that Zuma was ‘a small man in a big house’. At the big New Year’s Eve bash in the city images of Zuma on a big screen were booed. On New Year’s Day an enthusiastic boo went up on at least one Durban beach as a helicopter trailing a giant flag with Zuma’s face made its way up the coast.

It’s been a long time since attempts to organise outside of the ANC’s history and symbols have gained real popular traction. But now that the ANC’s history and symbols are being appropriated - from left, right and centre - the very basis for that component of the party’s support that doesn’t depend on patronage and coercion has also become its Achilles ’ heel. Attempts to renew the party’s association with the ideals of the past via ideas like ‘Zuma’s Lula Moment’ or ‘the second transition’ haven’t worked and aren’t going to work for the simple reason that they are just not credible given the current realities of the party. And, from outside, it seems that it is simply not possible for the ANC to recall Zuma, remove his acolytes and commit the party to a credible set of goals and practices.

All of this means that the ANC is heading towards an election in which, while its victory is assured, so too is its decline both at the polls and in terms of it moral authority. After Marikana, the political assassinations in Durban, the Secrecy Bill, the overt subordination of the SABC to the ruling party and the attempts to intimidate Thuli Madonsela it would be naïve to assume that the ANC will accept this decline with good grace. The powerful currents in the party that conflate it with the nation and all opposition, on the streets or in parliament, with white or imperial reaction are an equally ominous indicator of the possibility of a rough road ahead. There is also the possibility that the party could, if it feels seriously under threat, turn towards authoritarian rather than democratising forms of populism.

There are no guarantees that electoral alternatives to the ANC will attain the vision or capacity to resolve our problems. At the same time civil society remains a largely elite project and one in which the paternalism that is often present in this space is frequently racialised. Moreover, the ANC is trying to contain the courts and is also prepared to simply ignore them. And while there is some extraordinarily tenacious popular mobilisation even the strongest forms of popular organisation outside of the ANC have anything like a national reach.

South Africans continue to demonstrate a refusal to accept the authority of an increasingly corrupt and brutal government. This refusal has manifested in everything from Zuma’s international humiliation at Mandela’s memorial to the fracturing of Cosatu’s authority, strikes, road blockades and land occupations. But although we can take heart from this refusal there are no guarantees as to what may or may not cohere amidst the growing popular dissatisfaction in and out of the ANC. Nonetheless it’s clear that if we are to build a new and inclusive vision for a just and decent society, and to develop the organisations and institutions to realise it, this process will have to either come from, or, at the very least, articulate itself to this ferment. And after Mandela’s death its equally clear that the fidelity that so many people have to the highest ideals to have emerged from the struggle for a decent society continues to provide us with a potent resource, albeit more moral than organisational, to navigate the journey ahead.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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MartinC Verified user
8 Jan

Well Said

The article sums up what I though is just my experience only, thanks for making me see that I'm not alone. I'm particularly concerned about the fact that the current government is losing authority. Here the E-Toll system is probably the best example. South Africans purely do not trust the government to make responsible decisions that will take the country into a better future. Still we can see the ANC not lose all their support I still wonder why people vote for them, is it the lack of a good alternatives?

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Cedia Cedia
8 Jan

Good Article

A better article than the previous rant against the EFF and Julius Malema.

John Clarke
21 Feb


I was surprised when OUTA found that only 15% of users of the new 'payways' had bought etags by 12 Dec 2013. After the booing I began to see why. Latest count shows that still 71% remain untagged. What is interesting is that etolls have united people that one wouldn't have dreamed would find common cause. I have even had a Chinese woman offer to tranlate the OUTA webpage into Chinese to reach Chinese community. Another woman said "EFF and DA should unite to march together from Johannesburg to Pretoria to protest against e-tolls". Still democracy should really be about the casting rather than the counting of votes. Not every five years, but whenever a major decision needs to be made.

26 Feb

ANC Such a Saviour for South Africa

What a fantastic show of democracy the ANC advocates. Below I have pasted information about a person who is look for a secretary on Facebook, but apparently this is only a position that can be filled by someone with white skin. Despite about 68% of the population being black and living in absolute poverty with no other means to survive, apart from turning to crime and thus most likely increasing, further, the countries most appalling crime statistics. There aren't any colours in your rainbow nation, only greed, racism, power and ignorance radiate from your rainbow.

Rant done.

You'll have a great day now.
FACEBOOK PERSON: I'm looking for white female Call Centre Agents...must have medical aid, banking or insurance experience please.
P.S. Please DONT ask me why they must be white - just refer or like Johnny, keep walking!!

Why white????

Ask the ANC.

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