ANC: Can the centre hold?
To lead SA out of its current quagmire, Ramaphosa cannot just rebuild the hollowed-out institutions of state; he must repair the ruling party itself
It is often said that if President Cyril Ramaphosa wants to save SA, he needs to save and rehabilitate the ANC first. For what happens within the governing party has a direct impact on the state and its ability to meet the constitutional aspirations of equality and dignity for all citizens.
Mostly, the ANC has lost its ethical moorings, making Ramaphosa’s task difficult, and at times near impossible. The party is racked with division, which has less to do with ideology and more to do with those who would loot the state pitting themselves against those with a larger, more social-democratic vision for SA.
During the Jacob Zuma years, the challenge of holding the ANC together became more obvious, as the state was captured for personal gain. The repercussions for SA have been measured not only in the untold billions lost to the fiscus, but also in the hollowing out of state institutions.
But corruption did not start with Zuma; his presidency simply represented a more dangerous and brazen form. The seeds were sown before 1994 for reasons that are many and complex, given the ANC’s liberation history roots and its "exile/incile" culture.
In 1997 then president Nelson Mandela, addressing the 50th national conference of the ANC, spoke about the emergence of careerism within the party. "Many among our members see their membership of the ANC as a means to advance their personal ambitions to attain positions of power and access to resources for their own individual gratification," he said.
In late 2005, then president Thabo Mbeki, at an ANC lekgotla, pointed out that the challenge for the party was dealing with "being in power".
"We have seen these people attracted to join the ANC as a bee is to a honey pot. They come with the view that they will use access to power for personal benefit," he said.
In 2007, then party secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe warned of "the cancer of corruption eating away at the ANC".
The complexity of the transition from liberation movement to modern political party, constrained by free and fair elections and the demands of transparency and accountability, has found the ANC sorely lacking in depth and in its ability to keep out the rent-seekers.
This challenge is not unique to the ANC. But, for its part, the party has plodded along, mostly ignoring the problem. If Ramaphosa’s ascent to power shows anything, it is that nothing much has changed in the ANC, despite hollow talk about unity.
Ramaphosa’s narrow victory at the 2017 ANC conference at Nasrec and his "deal with DD" (deputy president David Mabuza) created a difficulty of its own. Mabuza, the former Mpumalanga premier, had been tied to several corruption scandals and political assassinations. At Nasrec, he committed his Mpumalanga delegates to the Ramaphosa camp — but his "betrayal" of the Zuma camp showed the political chameleon he is.
As Mathews Phosa has said about the compromises at Nasrec: "Nothing principled guided the combination of the ... ‘unity’ slate."
Ramaphosa won the presidency, but Ace Magashule assumed the office of secretary-general, with Jessie Duarte as his deputy.
Serious questions exist over the careers of Magashule and Duarte.
Magashule, a political baron from the Free State who has been linked to the Gupta family, has been described by a trade union leader as the "Robert Mugabe of the ANC".
Duarte has been accused of links to the Guptas after her son-in-law was revealed to have been in business with them.
After Nasrec, Roelf Meyer, a former minister and Ramaphosa’s key negotiating partner during the transition to democracy, said: "If there’s one man today in SA who can help us put the pieces together‚ it’s [Ramaphosa]."
But we all knew he had many pieces to put together. He had, after all, emerged victorious by a narrow margin — 2,440 votes to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s 2,261.
Operating in a leadership structure through which such fissures run makes Ramaphosa’s job a difficult one, especially on economic policy and dealing with state capture. The question is: how does he clean up with a deputy like Mabuza, and with Magashule as secretary-general?
If Ramaphosa’s "new dawn" is to be realised, then the focus on rebuilding institutions is key. But it’s not only about rebuilding hollowed-out democratic institutions; Ramaphosa will need to rebuild the ANC first. The question is whether he can rebuild both state and party.
We don’t yet know whether the ANC can fix itself. All we know is that it is broken, and that Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, so loved by Mbeki, seems apt:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It was often asked whether Mbeki, in referencing the poem, meant the country’s centre or the ANC’s. Today, we might answer, "both".
• February is a senior research associate at the Institute for Security Studies and author of Turning and Turning: Exploring the Complexities of SA’s Democracy (Pan Macmillan)