Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN
Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

How times have changed. The ANC’s victory in SA’s first democratic elections 25 years ago, with 63% of the vote, was a euphoric moment at home and abroad. Last week’s 57% win by the governing party was met with a grudging sigh of relief from a gatvol nation — relief that the polls were over, and that it could have been worse. The world briefly glanced up, then moved on.

Much contemporary electoral analysis converges around the view that “the centre has held”, with 78% of voters opting for either the ANC or the largest opposition party, the DA. In this version, the electoral gains of the EFF and FF+ do not indicate serious racial polarisation. South Africans, once again, held it together and broke with the global trend that is embracing greater extremes.

Perhaps. And perhaps only for a moment. Let us look ahead. Three notable trends should be considered in SA’s political future. First, declining support for the two largest parties demonstrates growing distrust of, and waning confidence in, both the ANC and the DA.

The ANC began to lose its halo when the party abandoned its nonracial project and adopted a programme to plunder the state. Contrary to popular belief, this was not the Jacob Zuma project — it was an ANC project. It so happened this was the only area where the party’s new president demonstrated enthusiastic leadership.

To recap: in 2007, the ANC elected the later-to-be-accused-criminal from Nkandla as its president. It then provided huge political cover for a grand project of thievery while opening the taps for all manner of private sector looters and their enablers (Bosasa, McKinsey, KPMG, the Guptas and many more). Senior ANC cadres, right up to cabinet level, fed at this trough.

At the political level, SA entered the world of big man politics, with a president who believed the national finances were his personal ATM. With hammer in hand, Zuma and the ANC leadership went about assaulting democratic institutions. The political justification for this destruction was “radical economic transformation” for the benefit of Africans in particular.

The crude message told other South Africans they weren’t very welcome here. President Cyril Ramaphosa was right there in the cabinet as Zuma’s deputy president from 2014 to 2018 — and remained ever so quiet until he outmaneuvered Zuma into retiring.

The DA has other problems. Its transformation from a small liberal opposition party under apartheid to a large diverse grouping in post-apartheid SA has yet to settle. When Helen Zille took over from Tony Leon, the DA jettisoned its former leader’s confrontational “fight-back” politics and positioned itself as the alternative custodian of SA’s nonracial democratic project. Zille called it one nation, one future; Mmusi Maimane wants to “build SA for all”.

But the DA has been unable to find firm footing amid the country’s faultlines. It may be true that the party is SA’s most diverse, judged by membership, yet it is a place where the post-apartheid elite conflict is most intense. The DA struggles with the concept of two SAs, one black and poor and the other overwhelmingly white and well-off. Banal electoral rhetoric will not square this circle.

The fact is that race remains a proxy for disadvantage and privilege in SA, providing many of the markers for the world’s most unequal society. This is true despite the growth of the black middle class, and even the emergence of a handful of dark-skinned plutocrats. Moreover, today’s arguments about affirmative action, black economic empowerment and identity politics are fundamentally a quarrel among a small elite, many of whom now almost have equal access to opportunities, about whose worldview is going to prevail.

The DA can remain preoccupied with this squabble, or it can focus on long-term plans to solve the serious problems — unemployment, poverty, and failing education and health systems — that threaten the country’s social fabric. The DA provided no compelling message on economic growth and job creation during the election because it doesn’t have one.

And while the DA quarrels, SA’s social volcano heads towards eruption. If any readers doubt that, I suggest taking a drive through your city, or along its outskirts. Try mine. Head east from Muizenberg along Baden Powell Drive. In the past few months, Khayelitsha has burst at the seams. Shacks are going up on the sand dunes and in the flood plains very close to the sea. Winter rains are coming and a humanitarian disaster is looming.

The second trend is the evaporation of ANC myths. The helium has all but escaped from that sagging balloon. One of those myths was that a party that led a liberation struggle was a competent force for development. But the ANC is neither competent nor suited to manage a modern economy, and is therefore unable to solve SA’s historical problems. That Zuma managed to stay in power for close to 10 years should explain everything.

Today’s ANC is a patronage machine for political entrepreneurs who are otherwise unemployable. Factions have mastered how to capture the party by buying and mobilising members to help them access public office. Once installed in public office, it is not about public service. It is about the cars, the clothes, the houses, and the fact that when a comrade walks into a room, people stand up to acknowledge him or her.

When he beat (Nkosazana Dlamini) Zuma at the Nasrec conference in December 2017, Ramaphosa announced his intention to return the ANC to its nonracial traditions, and his election campaign reinforced this message. He has made some good noises about economic growth. His problem is the party he leads, which makes it all but impossible to solve intractable problems such as Eskom. The Free State gangster in charge of the organisation’s membership has already brought crude nationalism back into the national discourse. Watch for more of this as ANC factions battle it out for the power to dispense patronage.

Finally, what is the future of SA’s third-largest party? The EFF is an offshoot of the ANC, and its leader is more of an ANC insider than a leader of his party. The vainglorious big man-in-waiting who styles himself as commander-in-chief is all about naked ambition, but he is a shrewd political mathematician. I suspect he knows very well that the EFF may have reached its electoral ceiling.

We should expect him to turn up the volume on Ramaphosa, accusing him of being a stooge of white monopoly capital. He will become a vocal spokesperson for one ANC faction with the hope of causing enough damage to guarantee him a celebrated return to the ANC, where he can achieve his political ambitions — and prevent unwanted attention from the taxman and financial regulatory authorities.

So, here we are again. The voters have provided a corrective to some of SA’s worst excesses. But time is running out. The possibility of building a nonracial, democratic and prosperous SA based on equality for all and the rule of law has not been extinguished, but it’s come pretty damn close. Much depends on what Ramaphosa does over the next year.

We are all on the edge of the volcano, so cannot afford not to hold power to account.

• Morudu is a publisher and writer based in Cape Town.