For 20 years the ANC has traded expertly on its liberation credentials, but it will now be judged on performance, writes Craig Dodds.
Few political parties come to power clothed in the moral authority the ANC had in 1994. There may have been misgivings, even in its own ranks, about its capacity to govern, while it was used to dealing with the machinery of the apartheid state.
But it boasted a commodity more precious than experience – the implicit faith of the vast majority.
For 20 years the ANC has traded expertly on its liberation credentials. But now its stock of moral authority is wearing thin. It will increasingly be judged – and voted into or out of power – on the strength of its performance.
Professor Susan Booysen of the Wits University School of Governance said the ANC enjoyed a connection with the masses that still gave it an “immense advantage” over other political parties.
This was despite the cry of ordinary people that the ANC and its representatives were not close enough to them, never to be seen, and that its branch meetings were elitist and exclusive.
Independent political analyst Dr Somadoda Fikeni said the party had “resisted the temptation of modernising beyond being a liberation movement”.
Fikeni said few parties could celebrate so many significant anniversaries in the history of a country and the ANC had carefully crafted these, sponsored by the government, to become the sole proprietor of the liberation narrative.
But Booysen said the texture of this connection had changed over time. There was a growing sense of a new inequality – between the people and the leaders who appeared to enjoy a life of privilege. Many would still vote for the ANC, however, even if only to be able to demand that it repay their loyalty.
Booysen and Fikeni agreed the party had adapted well to life in a constitutional democracy. Fikeni noted the party had subjected itself to numerous court rulings that had gone against it, but it was tied to “comradely solidarity” when one of its own was in trouble.
Ordinary citizens might find this loyalty hard to understand, he said.
Because of the ANC policy of cadre deployment, there was also “little distinction between where the party starts and ends and where the government begins”, leading to undue political influence in some areas – in some ways a reflection of the struggle mindset. “They weren’t taught to exist in a multiparty, liberal constitution,” he said.
Another development was a significant shift of power away from Parliament to the executive under Thabo Mbeki and, more recently, towards the party, according to Booysen. The first democratic Parliament had people with a rich struggle background who saw it as the site of decision-making power “from where things were to be changed”.
These ANC luminaries had subsequently migrated to the executive, parastatals and government departments as they realised Parliament was becoming a mere rubber stamp.
This had accelerated when Mbeki sought to use the state to govern the ANC, but it had now “swung around”.
“Now the ANC is the centre of power. As long as you’re in a senior position, you have arrived, apart from the fact that you have to be in cabinet to get the perks and the prestige,” Booysen said.
However, with power came competition for positions and access to the resources of the state, Fikeni said.
“The ANC has talked of the sins of incumbency, where people begin to see the state in a parasitic manner – they see positions or patronage and they use them for social mobility,” he said.
“This was a reflection not only on the ANC, but society at large, which lionised those able to make conspicuous displays of wealth. It defines factions in the ANC, because people begin to see proximity to power in terms of patronage networks,” Fikeni said.
Fikeni and Booysen said the party had thus far made only token efforts to correct these problems, despite becoming increasingly aware of the damage it was suffering as a result.
There was an uncomfortable co-existence of utterances and undertakings to root out corruption and “even more, de facto denials of that”, said Booysen.
“We get electoral lists that play with the actual rules, unequal action against individuals on the wrong side of the law, and greater tolerance for some than for others, depending on which side of the political fire they’re sitting on,” she said.
There was also a part of the ANC that wanted President Jacob Zuma out, “because they see him as the personification of things that have not gone well in the ANC despite its political power”.
He had become a symbol of the tolerance for the “grey areas in appropriateness in ethical governance”.
“People in high ANC positions realise that is not the way forward. There are efforts to get the personification of lapses to step down, to get that correction on track before the ANC seriously slips below the 60 percent level,” Booysen said.
Faltering voter loyalty amounted to a “prolonged existential crisis” for the ANC. To govern for another 20 years it would have to reform itself. Failure to deal decisively with corruption and further alienation from the masses would lead to it becoming “equated to an ordinary political party”, Booysen said.
“Maybe leadership self-sacrifice is too much to ask, but that would be a formula to retain power and give a new generation of leaders a chance to emerge. Don’t let an ANC faction anoint leadership 10 years in advance.”
Fikeni said the state’s capacity had emerged as critical to the future, whether the ANC or another party was in power. “If government capacity is not prioritised and public servants not professionalised” problems won’t be solved.
The ANC would have to focus on the economy, distribution of wealth, state capacity, education and “the quality of ANC cadres and leaders, by uprooting those seemingly working at cross-purposes with the party”, Fikeni said.
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report has handed the ANC an unflattering mirror to reflect on the weaknesses of its leadership in the government, but it remains to be seen whether this will spur it into action.