X Close

How the ANC lost South Africa The toxic ruling party is in free fall

Can the ANC hold on to power? Brenton Geach/Gallo Images/Getty

Can the ANC hold on to power? Brenton Geach/Gallo Images/Getty


December 15, 2021   6 mins

Eighty-six years separate South Africa’s Act of Union of 1910 and its fourth Constitution, adopted 25 years ago. In that time everything changed
 and nothing.

The former event brought the country’s warring white tribes together in a wary equilibrium of mutual benefit which lasted through more than seven decades of economic growth and modernisation. The latter cobbled together all the nation’s tribes — black, white, Asian and mixed-race — into a fragile comity that, despite a weakening State, has yet somehow survived its first quarter century; frayed, hissy and bowed, to be sure, but somehow miraculously still alive.

The Act of Union was forged less than a decade after a bitter war, described either as a noble, imperial mission, or one of Africa’s great freedom struggles, depending on which side of the kopje one sat. The critical fault-lines at the National Convention called to give form to a united South Africa were between a Cape liberal vision of South Africanism, which included a very limited form of “Native” representation in Parliament, and a bleaker, exclusionary view by the Boer Transvaal and Orange Free State delegates. English-speaking Natal, from which many of the imperial combatants had come, was also exclusionary: it wanted to exclude itself from Union altogether.

The Boer approach won and thus was early laid the contours of the apartheid state which, in various guises, survived two World Wars, The Great Depression, two fringe Afrikaner rebellions and a bruising white national strike in 1922 which was eventually suppressed, literally, by artillery fire. It also survived decolonisation, international sanctions, two decades of simmering internal rebellions, two States of Emergency and a 15-year-long defensive wars along the borders of Angola and Mozambique which consumed huge amounts of national resource and the time, although not many of the lives, of my generation of young white males.

How on earth did it hold together?

A healthy devolution of power to provincial level helped mollify Cape Liberals and “Natal Stand” reactionaries, as did a mutual respect for language, culture and religion. International sanctions also solidified a sense of unity: it is amazing what indiscriminate vilification can do to engender a sense of common purpose amongst otherwise diverse people.

But the real glue, despite all challenges, was the trajectory of the country towards modernisation, economic growth, rising employment in all sectors, burgeoning physical infrastructure and growing national prosperity, although grievously unequally distributed. Money, the balm to nearly all wounds, softened the edge of communal antagonism between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites; there was a quantum improvement in living standards across the board, initially for whites and then increasingly for other marginalised groups.

International sanctions in the Eighties spurred a surge in internal industrial manufacturing and high tech development from which Afrikaners were disproportionately the winners. Sanctions thus won not by making white South Africans poorer, as liberals predicted, but by making Afrikaners richer and more amenable to the tides of history.  This was not the generation of 1948 that brought the Afrikaner’s National Party and Grand Apartheid to power. This was an educated, richer, more cosmopolitan generation which accepted the absurdity of a small racial minority trying to dominate a much larger, restless and offended majority. The Afrikaners started dealing for an inclusive future South Africanism, a broadened and modernised Cape vision if you will, that would bring stability and profit.

In the early Nineties arose the perfect confluence of event, circumstance and personality.  The border wars ended with the advent of Glastnost and the end of superpower meddling in the region: everybody went home. The internal rebellions were snuffed out by two brutal States of Emergency during which the State had assumed virtually limitless powers of arrest, detention and censorship. Stellar political leadership arose in the opposing camps. The two most important western leaders, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, threw their weight behind the project.

It succeeded in a way it could never have done now. Catapult this moment forward to today and the African National Congress would be incited to up the ante by Western governments and a feral social media: armed resistance groups would be equipped and trained to “equalise” forces, human rights groups would have piled into the fray, white politicians would have been threatened with the Court of International Justice and progressives would have sought to virtue-signal the people of southern Africa into oblivion. Whites, like the Israelis, would have gone back to the trenches.

It never happened. Three years of intense negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa brought a genuinely and proudly homegrown solution: no local leaders being forced with gritted teeth to shake hands before some benign United States President here.

But this new Constitution, celebrating its 25th anniversary last Friday, differed from its original version in significant ways. And therein lay its strengths and its weaknesses. Its legacy, a sorely tried one, now lies intimately connected to the central question of whether South Africa will reemerge as a modern state.

The first change was a major concentration of power at the central level: the powers of the nine newly created provincial units — ironically created more on a geo-tribal basis than the old four provinces had ever been — are vestigial. When centralised systems do not work, through State weakness or lack of central political coherence and mission, as in contemporary South Africa, it creates damaging centrifugal forces throughout the polity.

A recent survey of Western Cape residents showed half wished to cede from South Africa. In the Zulu homeland of KwaZulu Natal, a low-level insurgency has been underway for two years, culminating in the bloody July Troubles for which the instigators have not yet been caught. The only thing stopping a renewed 1910-type Natal Stand is the fact that the rebels are a discredited faction of the ruling party with whom nobody wants to associate.

So bad is the collapse of the centre, that more than 60% of South African voters in a recent poll said they want a committee to run the country, if only they would deliver jobs, security and services.

The new constitution also eschewed the attempts by the then ruling whites-only National Party to entrench “group rights”, by which they meant race vetoes. Faith was instead placed in a durable constitution embedding individual rights and an impeccable Constitutional Court to defend those rights.

The Constitution and the Court has worked just fine for 25 years: the ruling party, on the other hand, has not. Massive public sector incompetence and corruption has crippled state and para-state entities; eroded confidence across the board in institutions (particularly criminal justice ones); forced a skills exodus and a foreign capital investment hiatus and driven unemployment: another benchmark in joblessness was reached last week when it officially topped 34.4 % and a heart-stopping 66.5% for those between 15 and 24 years old.

The minorities, meanwhile, are being systematically discriminated against by statute in terms of job opportunities, study grants, internships and other opportunities, a process in which craven corporates seek to outbid each other. Many of the victims were born long after apartheid. Many of the beneficiaries, meanwhile, are children of wealthy black parents; they also never knew apartheid nor indeed poverty.

Under those circumstances, it is not surprising that individuals are falling back on the oldest safe zone redoubts: family, community, tribe. Last month’s local government elections saw a significant drop in the support of the ruling ANC and surges of support for the extremist black socialist and conservative Afrikaans-speaking white and coloured parties. Independent candidates representing ethnic neighbourhoods did well.

So where should hope be sought, on this 25th anniversary of the new democracy’s founding document?

Two anecdotes and a comment.

One: in the run-up to the first democratic election, the African National Congress and members of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party engaged in a midday shoot-out in the centre of Johannesburg.

I found shelter behind an armoured personnel carrier with a young rifleman from a Cape regiment.

“So what do you think?,” I asked the soldier.

“Sucks”, he said, “and I haven‘t even had my fucking breakfast.”

So, it is a tough and resilient nation, bomb-proof, that has survived a thousand predictions of Armageddon.

Two: a few months ago I was invited to a Founder’s Day celebration at my once all-white, all-boy state school. The Head Prefect was white, her deputy Indian and the rugby captain black. And we won the memorial match. If it took 80 years for the white tribes to come up with the current constitution, perhaps we need to be patient a bit longer for the younger generations to have a shot.

And lastly. The toxic ruling party that has done such damage for so long is in free fall, its internal organisation is in a shambles; so toxic is it that not one of the major parties would enter coalitions to save its control of the country’s major metro’s.

Only in Ethekwini, largest metro in KwaZulu Natal, with its former Mayor and 16 councillors on bail for alleged fraud, did the ruling party hold on by its fingertips by allying with a tiny party sympathetic to the faction in the ANC’s own ranks that instigated the July Troubles. But that is the Natal Stand.

Last week, 26 ANC Parliamentarians broke ranks and voted against a constitutional amendment that would have allowed seizure of land without compensation. Small green shoots, perhaps, but potentially heralding the beginning of a seismic re-alignment in South African politics that could see a split in the ruling party and the emergence of a coalition of modernist parties committed to turning back, after so many wasted years, the country’s race to irrelevance.


Brian Pottinger is an author and former Editor and Publisher of the South African Sunday Times. He lives on the KwaZulu North Coast.


Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

15 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

I want to thank the author who is teaching me so much on SA. Keep the articles coming.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Like the the author says, a fantastically resilient people.

As they say there “n Boer maak n plan.” I really hope they do.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

Good to see some optimism about such a beautiful and extraordinary country and its people.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

the border wars ended with the advent of Glastnost and the end of superpower meddling in the region

Well, not really. South Africa was tacitly supported by the west not because of sympathy with its racial policies, but as a bulwark, the only one available, against Communist encroachment in Africa. Had it collapsed it would have become a Warsaw Pact puppet.
Once the USSR collapsed so that no such bulwark was required, the west chucked its rather disagreeable and now superfluous South African chums under the bus. The west’s attitude was similar to that of Finland towards Germany in WW2: we need these guys but we don’t have to like them.
ï»żIf the Cold War hadn’t ended, Mandela would have died in jail.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 years ago

It was unfortunately predictable that the ANC movement would dominate and gradually implode as corruption took over. It should be by now clear that good government has to be colour blind. Viable parties must be built on that principle.

Frederick B
Frederick B
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

Why? What does colour blindness have to do with competence and incorruptability?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

Cuts out toxic woke identity politics.

David Bullard
David Bullard
2 years ago

Excellent article Brian. Thank heavens cannabis has been legalised. I think it’s the only way some of us are going to get through the next few years in SA.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

It has been wonderful to read all these essays about SA from Brian. Since race has been a defining issue in this country forever, I decided to look up the racial demographics and was surprised to learn that the country is 90% black and only 8% white.

Frederick B
Frederick B
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

A century ago SA was 25% white.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Omicron resembles the population growth graph of South Africa.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago

ANC has taken S Africa the way of Zimbabwe and all the others. Jobs to friends, irrespective of competence, massive corruption, Swiss bank accounts to the fore, and the slide into chaos has started. We know the story, and this article spends a lot of words saying something simple. Was it predictable ? Sadly, yes. Just look at Africa today. Hopeless. I think South Africa has gone. I hope that I’m wrong.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

The ANC is literally as well as morally bankrupt. Its staff has not been paid for months, and income tax and pension contributions have been deducted by the employer but not paid on to the taxman, a serious criminal offence for which no charges have yet been laid. Thus millions of rand are owed by the ruling party to the nation’s own tax revenue collecting agency. Meanwhile the also bankrupt state power generator ESKOM, which has been offering a service interrupted by rolling power cuts for several years, was yesterday denied any further opt out from environmental laws against pollution for several of its power stations. Were it to comply and shut them down as the law requires, pending the installation of R30bn of carbon capture infrastructure, phase 10 load-shedding would apply indefinitely, meaning 14 hours a day every day without electricity for all South African consumers, assuming that all other plants were to remain functional, a highly unlikely event. This won’t happen of course, dealing another blow against the rule of law and the health of all the people living in the coal belt who are already suffering the consequences of these outdated dirty utilities.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Smith
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

I heard on the news today that Eskom has declared a profit – for which period I did not catch as I was trying to regain control of my car.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

As if the roads are not unsafe enough already, especially around Christmas time… Eskom, eishhhhh!

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Smith