“How did the ANC manage to dupe the people of South Africa?” ask Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo, the authors of a new book, The Fall of the ANC: What next? The 20th anniversary of electoral democracy and the impending elections, all within weeks, force us to take seriously the place of time in the efforts to understand and diagnose the behaviour of the ruling party and thereby ease or feed our anxieties about the future. When placed across time, current events are exposed as unremarkable, unspectacular and temporary because time allows us to appreciate continuities and ruptures with the past. At the heart of Mashele and Qobo’s thesis is the view that, looking back, the ANC was not ready to govern and that “a great deal of what the party thought it would achieve was informed by an inflated sense of self and by sheer naivety”.
For the authors, the end of apartheid caught the ANC by surprise. They posit that until the party started secret talks with the apartheid state in the late 1980s, the Freedom Charter of 1955 had remained the main point of reference of how the party envisioned itself in government until its adoption of the “Ready to Govern” policy document in 1992. It follows then that South Africans should not have been surprised at the drastic move by the governing party from the modest social democratic aspects of the redistributive Reconstruction and Development Programme to the far more distributively conservative Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy. The ANC is accused of having been too preoccupied with painting itself as a “club of monks” whose outdated views of Marxism would carry the country into the ideal National Democratic Revolution. Time has thus exposed the party as both “naïve” about the requirements of governance and the bankrupt moral calibre of the party leadership, which has reduced it to the “Alleged National Criminal” (ANC) organisation.
Furthermore, the authors argue that the ANC’s behaviour is no different to those of other national liberation movements in the continent because “the first two decades of democracy has unfolded very much in sync with the wave character of post-colonial Africa”. In this regard the party is placed within the same basket as Kenya under Daniel Arap Moi, Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, and Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe.
South Africans are accused of allowing the ANC to highjack the ownership of liberation history and to use it to hold them hostage against voting the “rotting” party out of power. Thus by revealing the party as having been unprepared to occupy the seat of power, South Africans ought to feel no guilt with removing it as their government.
Besides cataloguing, in a highly colourful fashion, the failures of the ANC, this book does not offer the reader a substantive way forward. Part of the challenge of the book is that the South Africans who are the audience are spoken to, instead of being spoken with — the tone of the writing is similar to Mamphela Ramphele’s book, Conversations with My Sons and Daughters. The book, which is based entirely on secondary data in its reading of the ANC in governance, places the focus almost exclusively on the manoeuvres of the leadership of the party. Ordinary members of the party are thus presumed to be mere spectators in the theatre of “Big Men” and not co-producers of such a political culture within the party. The ordinary people who are being encouraged to take charge of their hard-worn constitutional rights are not placed at the centre of the analysis in a manner that would have given Mashele and Qobo fresh insights into how the ANC can be buried, as in indeed they suggest.
According to the authors, our best bet is the formation of a new party as the current opposition parties are rendered illegitimate. This insight is of course not new. Neither is the insight that the liberation generation is dying out and that future political leadership belongs to those with no liberation credentials.
The distinguished Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji has warned the current generation of African intellectuals to be vigilant about how we study our societies in the midst of the supposed changing position of Africa in the global order — where Africa is said to be “rising” while the lives of most Africans are declining. Shivji insists that in order to understand forces of change in the lives of African people emphasis must be placed on examining the sources of agency within African communities. So ordinary South Africans may not be faulted in declaring impatiently to Mashele and Qobo — undixelela zonke izigigaba zika rhulumente ngoba ucinga ukuba bendilele yonke leminyaka? (You are telling me about all the failures of the government because you assume that I have been asleep all these years?). Even further I would venture to say, why don’t you ask me what I think should be done.
In a recent article in the African Affairs journal on “Neo-patrimonial Politics in the ANC” (2014), Tom Lodge argues that “the degenerative changes that are observed within the ANC … appear to reflect a global trend in which mass parties are being replaced by electoral machines that depend less and less upon militant activism” and more on transactional exchanges between the electorate and the political elite. Amid these electoral limitations, what becomes the source of agency for ordinary people to instruct change in governance?
There is utility in showing the ruling party that the people are watching and taking account of the multiple ways in which the ANC is betraying its promises and thereby facilitating its own demise. But that project cannot be done sufficiently if the voices and actions of the people are not placed at the centre of the analysis that shows the party the ways in which the people are thinking about their futures beyond the ANC. The authors themselves state that intellectuals failed to predict the uprisings in North Africa and elsewhere precisely because little attention was given to the organising and thinking of ordinary people while scholars were fixated on the escapades of the leaders Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. Using the lives and thinking of ordinary people as a lens through which we arrive at answering “what next” after the ANC, none of us including the ANC, will be caught by surprise when they are eventually willed out of power by the people. After all, it is just a matter of time.