Citizens hungry for change but no appetite for loss

Voters and citizen movements pressing for justice in South Africa are in a better position than they have been for a quarter century, so why are they not acting on this strength?

News of corruption in the fight against Covid-19 highlights a huge opportunity for citizen action against inequality: it confirms that a hole is widening at the centre of party politics. The allegations have triggered new anger at the ANC. In one sense, this is easy to understand – learning that political insiders enrich themselves at the expense of the sick and hungry is particularly horrifying. In another, the degree of anger is strange, for there is nothing new in this corruption, which signals the continued decline of the ANC.

We don’t yet know how voters will respond to this news, or the fact that the government response to Covid-19 has left us with roughly as many cases as the rest of Africa combined, and huge economic pain. Research shows that, unlike the middle class that dominates the national debate, grassroots voters make pragmatic decisions about how to vote. Most know they are victims of corruption and mismanagement. 

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But they believe social grants offer them benefits they may lose if the ANC no longer governs. They may feel that what they had to endure this year wipes out the benefits of ANC rule – or that there is still more to gain in supporting the ANC. Since there have been no by-elections since the pandemic broke out, and opinion surveys are even more unreliable than usual because pollsters cannot talk to grassroots voters, it is not clear which way they are going. But even if they stay with the ANC, its influence is ebbing.

One sign is election results. The ANC enjoyed a boost in 2019, compared with the 2016 local elections, because many of its voters were pleased that the Zuma faction no longer controlled the presidency. This may get it through local elections, if they are held next year, and the next national poll. But the trend is downward – even the relative revival in 2019 was its worst national result. 

More important may be the ANC’s loss of credibility among black intellectuals, the middle class and the young. Even if it hangs on to its share of the vote for a while, it is hard to see it growing if thinkers won’t offer it new ideas, the middle class withholds its resources and young people interested in politics look elsewhere.

Moral decline

Most important, the ANC has lost moral authority. The people in poverty who now see it as a provider of grants once valued it as a source of hope and freedom. Among those who are able to speak in the national debate, the hope that a selfless movement had fallen for a while into the hands of the self-seeking and would soon be rescued has faded. Few now expect “stalwarts” and the anti-Zuma faction to restore an ethical core to the governing party. Some of the reaction is exaggerated – an overblown belief in ANC goodness has produced excessive belief in its badness. But the moral authority it once claimed is threadbare.

The ANC knows this. Not long ago, the corruption reports would have been greeted with reminders that people are innocent until proven guilty. Now, though, they have been met with suspensions, belated action against people involved in the VBS Mutual Bank scandal and talk of anti-corruption agencies with enhanced powers. 

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Even leaders who in the past dismissed corruption allegations as propaganda beg for collective forgiveness. While an inevitable factional battle has broken out about how far to go in cracking down on corruption, there is clearly widespread fear among ANC leaders that the party is losing credibility. But even if the ANC decides to get tough, this is unlikely to solve the problem – corruption is too deeply rooted. 

One reason for the ANC’s crisis is simply that it has been in office for over a quarter century: most parties that dominate elections after freeing a country from minority rule start losing their grip around now. Too long a time in office always means complacency and a sense among politicians that they can do what they like. 

Another is that the ANC has become a victim of minority control of the economy and society, which it has failed to change. The minority is no longer solely white, but the economy still excludes most people from its benefits because they are not connected to networks. People who want to get ahead realise they won’t do this by relying on the market, so they use politics and public money. ANC battles are often about who gets the levers that can unlock the resources that a closed-off marketplace won’t give them.  

This explains why the ANC is so good at identifying the toxic effects of money politics but so bad at fighting it – it is a deep-rooted reflection of economic reality. Former President Kgalema Motlanthe was surely right when he suggested the ANC might only be able to renew if it lost a national election. This, he hoped, would deter those who joined to gain the spoils of office. 

Firmly in power

But Motlanthe’s theory is unlikely to be tested any time soon. Despite the decline described here and the panic among ANC leaders, a change in power is unlikely. The ANC’s worst national electoral performance still won it almost 37 percentage points more than its closest rival. In Gauteng, where it scraped 50.2%, it is 22 percentage points ahead of the DA. So, even if many voters are angry with it, under current conditions no other party or parties can form an alternative government. 

This is particularly so because the second and third biggest parties, the DA and the EFF, are not natural allies, which is why their expedient attempt to work together to replace the ANC in some major cities fell apart, plunging the cities the ANC lost into instability. If it drops below 50%, any attempt to form an alternative is likely to produce a few years of chaos before collapsing.

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A reality in which many voters have lost confidence in the biggest party but have little enthusiasm for its rivals is a huge problem for multiparty politics. But it is ideal for citizen activism. Research across countries show that multiparty politics offers a powerful lever to citizens seeking change. This is not because the naïve view – that democracy enables people to choose a party that will do what they want it to do – is right. In reality, this happens very rarely. 

But citizens who want change are most likely to get it when they can play parties off against each other. They can do this only when parties need voters. The less any party dominates, the more likely that is. In cities where minority governments governed over the past few years, activists could have shaped policy because the party in government did not have the majority of votes, allowing them to go to other parties if it ignored their demands.

None of the opportunities opened by the ANC’s decline and the lack of an alternative have been taken. This means that a unique opportunity to win change has been spurned, which makes discussion of why this is so an urgent priority.

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