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ANC passes sell-by date — what will voters do?

The flip side of the adage that new brooms sweep clean is that old ones just can’t do the job right any more. The same is true of governments; they have a shelf life. There comes a time when an administration simply runs out of ideas and no longer has the will or cohesion to put things right.

In a democratic society, when this happens, it is voted out of office. A new regime takes over and remains in power until it too atrophies and loses the plot, frequently being replaced by the very party — now revitalised and anxious once more to take up the reins after a lengthy spell in opposition — that it originally unseated.

This will not, and indeed under present circumstances cannot, happen in South Africa. After 15 years in office, the ruling party is clearly in crisis, beset by internal power struggles, corruption and declining performance levels. This is normal. Fifteen years is a long time in politics, and the present regime would seem to have burnt itself out. But there is no viable alternative government waiting in the wings.

The Democratic Alliance is fatally compromised by its being seen — unfortunately correctly, despite strenuous efforts on its part to change that reality — as the party representing the interests of the diminishing white minority. The Inkatha Freedom Party, the only other parliamentary grouping representing more than 5% of the electorate, is limited almost entirely to its KwaZulu-Natal base, and even there has lost significant ground since 1994.

What this means is that despite the troubled state of the party, the ANC will once again comfortably win the next national elections. This failure of our political culture to provide a realistic alternative to an increasingly hegemonic ANC may well pose the most serious long-term threat to both democracy and good governance in this country.

Why do employees bother to do their jobs properly? There are a number of possible reasons. One is because they might be motivated and genuinely enjoy their work. Or perhaps they are ambitious, hoping to work themselves up the corporate ladder. But the most compelling reason, if one is realistic, is simply that they are afraid of being fired if they don’t perform.

What applies to ordinary employees should surely apply to politicians as well. As long as there is a threat of losing their well-paid positions, elected officials will obviously perform their duties as well as they can. If they can expect to be reappointed regardless of how badly they do their jobs, then where is the incentive to improve?

There is also a creeping danger of a political party that has been too long in power starting to regard itself as untouchable.

It can hardly be denied that there are today many people in positions of considerable power and influence in this country who hold deeply undemocratic views. Two public statements in particular in recent weeks have thrown the spotlight on this. There was Julius Malema, ANC Youth League president, describing the Democratic Alliance, together with those opposed to Jacob Zuma becoming the country’s next president, as counter-revolutionary elements that needed to be “eliminated”. It more or less coincided with Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s now notorious assertion that he and his organisation were prepared to “lay down their lives and shoot and kill” for Zuma.

Such pronouncements have raised alarm bells countrywide, and for good reason. This is straight-down-the-line Zanu-PF stuff.

Mere media denouncements will not address the problem, and we saw how toothless the Human Rights Commission can be when a wrongdoer chooses to ignore its rulings (as Vavi did). At the end of the day, it is the ordinary voters who must ensure that they get the kind of government they want.

The ANC’s near-impregnable electoral position can largely be attributed to the liberation mystique surrounding it. That is understandable, but also dangerous. Zanu-PF, too, capitalised on liberation-era record to bring in votes, and the Zimbabwe electorate allowed sentiment to overcome its collective good judgment until it was too late.

Everyone knows how Winston Churchill became a 20th-century icon through his courageous, forceful leadership of the British people during World War II. Few remember, however, that even before the war was won, both he and his Conservative Party found themselves turfed out by the British electorate — and by a landslide at that. British voters may have revered their leader, but they also knew that choosing a government cannot be based on sentimentality and blind loyalty. They wanted a new kind of government to lead them in the post-war era, and they got it.

South African politics is currently in turmoil. The ANC can boast of many genuine achievements during its 15 years in office, but it would seem now to have passed its sell-by date. It remains to be seen whether the electorate will choose to do anything about it.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


  1. shootemup shootemup 5 August 2008

    The best thing that could happen is that those members of the ANC who are not too poep bang of losing their jobs will break away, form another party and become a credible opposition. I know that their is much horror in the lower levels at the idiocy of the upper echelons of the party, so there is a slim hope.

  2. simon simon 5 August 2008

    Good post. I agree with your assessment that there is simply no viable alternative to the ANC, but I had hoped that the tripartite alliance would split up, with the communist party and Cosatu forming a left-wing party and the remainder of the ANC forming a more centrist party basing its political philosophy on more modern principles like the Lsbour party in Britain.

    This would have allowed for a split in representation which would have created some space for the modern ANC to pursue policies more aligned with the realities of globalisation but with a brake of sorts applied by the left – this does not seem to happen within the alliance as the internal split between left and centre/right is more focussed on personalities rather than ideology or policy.

    The ANC seriously needs both rejuvenation and competition if SA is to progress.

  3. Luzuko Luzuko 5 August 2008

    Mr. Sacks, i take no pleasure in informing you that your observations about the ANC passing its ‘sell-by date’ are inaccurate. A more accurate analysis would reveal that, yes indeed, certain ideologies within the ANC have become irrelevant and in their wake, are replace by cruder; loathsome and more powerful ones. It is my prediction however, that the latter ideologies will only prevail for two terms at the most.

    I say this because, according to the fifteenth century philosopher (though he might have claimed not to be one) Nicolo Machiavelli: “for men change their rulers willingly, hoping to better themselves, and this hope induces them to take up arms against him who rules (Julius vs Thabo): wherein they are deceived, because they afterwards find by experience they have gone from bad to worse”(I won’t say from ‘Thabo to Jacob’)

  4. Richard St Fath Richard St Fath 5 August 2008

    Spot on!

  5. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 5 August 2008

    It is a pleasure to read this accurate, straightforward piece.

    The missing bit is that the electorate cannot ‘do anything about it’ in the absence of what people perceive as a credible/desirable alternative to the ANC.

    A new party is required to challenge the ANC. The difficulties and complexities of one emerging at this stage of SA history are clear.

  6. Siphiwo Qangani with kangaroos Siphiwo Qangani with kangaroos 5 August 2008

    David Saks

    It seems as if your ears are filled with soil, clay one nogal! Where were you, when Rev Zuma said the ANC would rule until the second coming of Christ?

    The ANC will (whether one likes it or not) rule this country, until the sun rises no more, or let me give you a glimpse of hope, as long as the opposition parties (IFP, UDM,ID, FF+, ACDP) are ruled by tyrants and garrulous opportunists (DA), just forget about any party getting even closer to 25% of electorates.

  7. Madoda Madoda 5 August 2008

    In your quest to write the orbituary of the ANC that has gone past its sell-by date, you end up insulting the voters. You state as fact that voters choose the ANC because of liberation mystique. You also attack our democartic institution as toothless because they did not act according to your script with regard to the language of dying and killing for Zuma.

    To me, the sell-by date of any politcal party in a democratic country comes about when they loose elections. Thus, the ANC cannot be past its sell-by date when even your article predicts that it would never loose elections to the DA. You assert without proof or evidence that the voters vote for the ANC because of liberation mysticism. Also not because of the fault of the DA in not making its policies and it political tone appealing or relevant to the majority of voters. but, because voters are inclined to vote the ANC regardless even if the ANC degenerates into a Zanu PF.

    Just like in business, a company that focuses on customer service and treats the customer as king will be more succesful and have the greatest market share. Similarly in politics the party that is more appealing and relevant to the voters interests will govern for a long time. A true democrat would defend and respect the voters right to choose. Disrespecting this right by accusing voters of belief in mysticism instead of appreciating that voters vote the party that they hope would best represent their interest,implies that anyone who votes for the ANC is irrational. In your argument opposition parties DA, Inkatha etc are not past their sell-by dates even if their support has been diminishing and do not have responsibility to be appealing and relevant to the voters because the problem is in the voters decision making process. This is the sort of analysis that makes the ANC dominant because alternatives want the voters to buy into a product or service that does not meet even 15% of their needs (as indicated by the support in previous elections).If the ANC meets 67% of voters needs and competitors are not prepared to investigate those needs the ANC will get the majority of the votes. Criticizing the ANC because it does not meet 100% voter requirements and concluding that it has gone its past sell-by date appears pre-mature and a mystical leap in logic.

    I pray for a day when we would have proper analysis devoid of ‘voodoo’ explanations of voter behaviour.

  8. BenzoL BenzoL 5 August 2008

    ANC voted out of power? “This will not, and indeed under present circumstances cannot, happen in South Africa.” I cannot believe this pessimism. I can also not believe this defeatism. This how the NP kept its grip on the country.
    Cape Town did it!! Check how. With National elections around the corner:
    1. start a massive rally to call all voters to vote. NO votes go to the majority party.
    2. Establish a coalition between all opposition parties prior to elections with a clear coalition programme (nuances for parties allowed with limits.
    3. the electioneering slogan? “A better life for all” ……”from now on”!
    Zille, Holomisa, Buthelezi and Mulder on one stage for an “open, transparent and just society where a hint of corruption can cost you your seat”.
    Remember:”each nation gets the government it deserves”



    I concur.
    When corrupt and inefficient govts get re-elected it really is the beginning of the end. And Zuma is emblematic of South Africa’s “democratic” trajectory.

    How do you see this country progressing over the next 10 years? Do you think that a Zanu-PF style descent is likely?

    Paul Whelan,
    It is not just about creating another party that might win an election. It is also about creating a democratic, rather than a revolutionary rhetoric, political culture. The chances of that happening are anorexic.

  10. Jon Jon 6 August 2008

    The accusation that the DA cares about the interests of white voters suggests that it it infra dig to bother about what white voters care about. In fact, to be “credible” you have to deliberately act AGAINST white interests.

    This is, of course, even more racist than apartheid ever was.

    Quite simply, the DA is in situ, up and running already. If you’re disillusioned with the inept ANC, the only sensible way to go is to vote DA. To refrain from doing so on the specious grounds of it attending to white interests (as well as black interests) is to expose your racist heart.

  11. Nqina Dlamini Nqina Dlamini 6 August 2008

    I hear you, but those people you named are also not interested in being lead by someone else.
    The first problem would be who would lead the new coalition, then for a fun factor throw in floor crossing.
    I also privately wished that COSATU&SACP would break off and form their own party, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they will loose a lot of membership and probably the SACP will cease to exist.

  12. MySon MySon 6 August 2008

    @ BenzoL

    A coalition with Mulder I will not vote for.

    Zille, Holomisa, De Lille yes.

  13. Kit Kit 6 August 2008

    Establish a coalition between all opposition parties prior to elections with a clear coalition programme

    Like MySon, that will knock me out too. Sorry for that. It’s pretty much a foolproof way to hand the province to the ANC. FIRST you let the elections go, THEN you see what everybody gets and discuss coalitions. Anything other is the opposition lining up against the wall and letting Lynne Brown and her cohorts take potshots till they all be gone.

  14. Luzuko G. Luzuko G. 6 August 2008

    BenzoL, tell me, sir, do you think the ‘opposition’ bond between those leaders, against the ANC, is strong enough to transcend the opposition within them? Call me a pessimist because i do not and i think MySon ‘knows where im comming from’. The only inevitable alternative to the ANC will come mainly from the ANC. The fact that the Youth League president says one thing, only to be contradicted by the more sane members attest to my theory. As for now, we will remain with the ‘wait and see’ diplomacy as the leading party strangles itself (like [email protected]@@s with a long rope)

  15. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 August 2008

    My Son

    Why not? What POLICY of his party do you object to?

  16. owen owen 6 August 2008

    What we need in southern africa is Federal party that looks to change the region into a federation of provinces / states that are based on ethnic / cultural backgounds. Lets move away from the inhibiting colonial borders are create something bigger and stronger.

  17. Cameronspeak Cameronspeak 6 August 2008

    Fantastic article, written with great clarity.

    BenzoL, I like your optimism, and I hope the cluster of opposition parties get their act together and launch a concerted political attack on the strife-ridden, ill-disciplined ANC. It would be a great tragedy if the ANC increase their majority in parliament after the next general election after having shamelessly foisted their disgusting underbelly, which is the likes of Malema, Vavi and Nzimande, on the South African electorate. One can only marvel at the ANC’s complacency in underestimating the effect these characters have on their political reputation.

    There is no doubt that there are some brilliant minds within the ANC, and men of great integrity (Zuma – moral and intellectual midget – notwithstanding). But these leaders deserve a much reduced majority for not having curtailed those who are hell bent on systematically undermining the moral high ground the ANC once held.

  18. Alan in Botswana Alan in Botswana 6 August 2008

    Nicely, precisely, written blog. Unfortunately a split in the ANC would entail disgruntled members leaving to form a new party. One would have to ask why they are disgruntled and the answer would be, because ‘I didn’t get the cushy post I campaigned for.’ Ideology would be an unlikely reason, as would a burning desire to better the lives of those less fortunate. Herein lies the problem.

  19. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 6 August 2008

    BL –

    Totally agree.

    The point is that the rhetoric of monocracy -permanent ‘revolution’, ‘elimination’ of opposition and the rest of it, the kind of stuff that makes it ‘unpatriotic’ even to talk of an alternative – is a constituent part of monocracy and a key part of the way it sustains itself in power.

    When the MDC began to emerge in Zim, it did not speak of ‘the revolution’, but rather began to cast doubt on Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s record. It rejected the old ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions and began to speak of ‘all Zimbabweans’.

    When change comes, it comes together – though not of course strictly in step – and the old power will fight like hell, as we have all seen.

    I am not as pessimistic as you. I think cracks are appearing in the solid front of tha ANC. But as we have discussed, a happy ending is not guaranteed.

  20. Tau Tau 6 August 2008

    Luzoko, stay with the programme, nowhere do i see Saks refering to ANC’s ideology. I think you understood exactly what he is trying to adress and you just chose to run amok. Of course the ANC has lost motivation, they beleive that they will rule until the end of time or rather till the return of Jesus. The fact is, these guys are willing to shoot and kill one another because being in government has become an envious space to be in given the underfloor benefits that come with it and the power to decide who gets to be policed. which means that the electorate and their whining about useless stuff like service delivery and like occupy a very very unimportant space in the hierachy of the ANC office bearers.

  21. Joe Joe 6 August 2008

    If the ANC is not still in power 20 years from now I will be very suprised. That’s how long it is going to take for the masses of this country to realise that what they inherited 14 years ago has gone.
    Since the ANC came to power we now live in one of the most dangerous and crime ridden countries on the planet and JHB is probably the murder and rape capital of the world. We are probably the world leader when it comes to child rape also.
    You cannot set foot in JHB CBD after dark or Hillbrow at any time without the risk of been subjected to violent crime. Our schooling has deteriorated drastically, our hospitals are a disgrace and our towns and cities are turning into slums. But come the next elections the ANC along with their incompetent and corrupt contingent will wipe the floor with the opposition.
    It’s not all doom and gloom someone will get organised and knock this lot off their perch eventually, but the damage done to this country’s infrastructure and reputation will take many years to rectify.

  22. moafrika moafrika 6 August 2008

    i like what I am reading. now spread the message, we can not vote for anarhy.the ANC of 1912 is long dead, it died a long slow death and was officialy burried in plokwane

  23. Rory Short Rory Short 6 August 2008

    I agree with you, based on its current performance the ANC has definitely passed its sell by date. Whether enough of the electorate will recognise and act upon this fact by voting for another party at the next general election is a moot point however. I hope that they do.

  24. Jean Jean 6 August 2008

    ‘The flip side of the adage that new brooms sweep clean is that old ones just can’t do the job right any more. The same is true of governments; they have a shelf life. There comes a time when an administration simply runs out of ideas and no longer has the will or cohesion to put things right.’

    The same is true for specific worldviews, their rituals and their doctrine; such as is the case with religion.

  25. graham graham 6 August 2008

    South Africans get the government they vote for. The ANC in its current form should be fired by the electorate in the next election as it no longer sees power as a means to an end – ie. improving South Africa. Power, for the ANC, is now an end in itself.

    They no longer have the moral high ground they once had, and have headed the way of the National Party. Any person educated enough can see this; which is perhaps why the ANC refuses to provide the majority of its supporters with decent levels of education! Were they to do so, they would lose their power.

  26. BenzoL BenzoL 6 August 2008

    @Luzuko – the idea is not to make the opposition love each other but to cut the ANC to size. The coalition in Cape Town is proof that it can be done. If you accept defeat before going to the polls and without doing anything to get rid of the ANC in power positions, you and the whole of SA get indeed what it deserves. come with another workable proposal or stop moaning. Maybe in due time you can crawl under the fences into Zimbabwe for food. Wishing you luck.

  27. Michael Francis Michael Francis 7 August 2008

    Definitely past the sell by date, but with no viable alternative party seems likely at this stage. Here’s hoping the internal splits help the electorate lose the mystique of the liberation movement.

    Siphiwo Qangani and your kangaroos – If you are going to constantly cut and paste your inane comments from other posts can you please run them past a friend who has a working knowledge of English grammar. This “…clay one nogal” thing you spout is truly bizarre. Have you not seen that people here are logically debating real issues and ideas about this country? You spout such silly stuff with such intensity; are you Malema? Or Vavi?

    And as BL said “It is not just about creating another party that might win an election. It is also about creating a democratic, rather than a revolutionary rhetoric, political culture”.

  28. Siphiwo Qangani with kangaroos Siphiwo Qangani with kangaroos 7 August 2008

    Michael Francis

    “…constantly cut and paste your inane comments from other posts”

    Ag! Shame poor Michael! The lad is on the lookout for attention. Don’t be anxious young man; I’ll operate as your stepladder to climb on.

    I’ve assisted a lot of juveniles in this platform to gain some popularity; you need not to panic, as long as you keep on offending this author, you’ll manage to draw some (few) individuals.

    By the way, are you the son of Zille or Mulder?

  29. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 8 August 2008

    The solution is simple – let the ANC keep fighting itself, and let the Opposition parties get out of the Western mode of competition, and go into coalition. One party will not do it alone – we are too diverse a people (rainbow nation).

  30. The Bobster The Bobster 8 August 2008

    It is my wish that poor Mr Mandela who suffered all those years as a result of the injustices of the apartheid system, in his future years, does not have to suffer the global indignity and embarrassment, of having to observe his beloved ANC degenerate to a level, that would actually make its predecessors vision of separate development, look justified by comparison.
    My question is: “Are there no people within the ANC structures who can counter the abyss into which the current leadership is leading them with the enthusiastic support of their sidekicks, or are they powerless as is the growing perception of the public in general?” S
    Surely it is time that they should be voicing their position on the protection the principles that they fought so hard to see coalesce and ensconced in the new SA.

  31. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 9 August 2008

    The Bobster

    By all accounts the ANC in exile had just as much incompetance and in fighting as the ANC in government. Mandela was in prison and not involved.

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