Writing on the academic website The Conversation, head of Wits School of Governance David Everatt traces the bewildering 128 days between the installation of President Cyril Ramaphosa and April 27, Freedom Day. No doubt Ramaphosa will suffer setbacks, he writes. "But after 128 days of good fortune and clear-minded action, it does seem that South Africa has emerged, blinking, into the sunlight and may again hope and dream. That’s quite a gift for Freedom Day."
As Everatt points out appropriately, Ramaphosa faced enormous scepticism. He was deputy to former president Jacob Zuma’s "nightmare" presidency, he was one of the top six ANC officials and Zuma happened under his nose. "South Africans were repeatedly warned that he’d become leader, by a slim majority, of the same ANC that made Zuma. And that he would be weak, immobilised, imprisoned by the compromise among the top six that got elected at the ANC conference to run the party."
Even before this the sceptics held the predominant and even darker view. The ANC had become irredeemably corrupt, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would win and protect Jacob Zuma and his legacy. "SA’s decade-long nightmare of Zuma’s kleptocracy would become a decade longer and gloomier; by the end South Africa would be bankrupt, broken and buggered."
The dramatic losses in the local government elections of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay were not just embarrassing, they were devastating
Yet here we stand. Changes have come. Ministers have lost their jobs, others have regained them. Boards of state-owned enterprises have changed. The Guptas are nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, a head of state comes zooming back to deal with protesters in the North West demanding the ouster of Premier Supra Mahumapelo. Previously untouchable after allegedly defrauding a programme for aspirant black farmers to deliver 28 cows and a bull to a beaming Zuma in 2016, Mahumapelo was suddenly promising he was just an obedient ANC deployee.
And, to top it all, after avoiding appearing in court for over a decade, Zuma himself actually appeared, albeit briefly, in the dock. What a moment.
As Everatt points out, South Africans have had to learn again to imagine that they might be free and to have hope in the future. "The will to believe is taking root."
These are grand, worthwhile ideas. Yet it’s worth asking two important questions: why did the change take place and why will it be different this time?
The dramatic change took place essentially because there is one thing the ANC cannot bear to contemplate: the prospect of losing power. It has that in common, of course, with almost every other political party out there, but in the ANC’s case the burden is if anything heavier. The ANC sees itself not as a mere political party but as a force for liberation.
The dramatic losses in the local government elections of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay were not just embarrassing, they were devastating. They besmirched the party’s image of itself and made a barely sufficient number of ANC members vote in favour of the politician they consider most likely to be able to roll back the political tide.
The institutions of SA played an enormous role in that process, relentlessly questioning, investigating, embarrassing and exposing the government. Not for the first time, South Africans demonstrated they will not be trifled with even in the face of great power. But it’s important to note that all these groups were enormously abetted by SA’s constitutional dispensation.
And that leads to the question: will it be different this time?
Of course, we don’t know and the first indications look more positive than we could probably hope. But it is also true that bonds have frayed, tempers are short and anger levels are high.
The ANC itself has a crucial role, finding a path between what any government can realistically provide and what South Africans desperately need and want. A corrupt government is not what South Africans want. But that’s easy. The hard part is deciding what sort of system will deliver what South Africans need.
For anyone looking at the objective evidence, the answer is obvious; South Africans need more and better business — small, medium and large. For all its faults, no system is more capable of delivering democratic outcomes and increasing the wealth for both the rich and the poor than capitalism. Yet it’s hard to find ANC functionaries who are even vaguely familiar with the evidence, never mind who are prepared to implement it.
The ANC needs to do more than reject corruption; it needs to accept a well-governed market economy. Freedom Day 2018 was a fabulous relief, but in truth it was just the first step.