ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

Promises of introspection are, to the ANC, like a secular sort of Lent: a sporadic opportunity to show a semblance of contrition for past failings, to sit tight for 40 days of ersatz penance, and then to get right back on the rollicking ride that is the fleecing of the fiscus.

So we can only surmise, given the official silence around recent events, that the party is cloistered away for 40 days of self-reflection. There’s a lot to contemplate, after all.

What would it mean, for example, to congratulate Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni on winning a sixth presidential term in an election that stretched the bounds of democratic credulity? What to make of former president Jacob Zuma refusing to present himself to the Zondo commission of inquiry? And what of party secretary-general Ace Magashule’s evident support for Zuma’s flagrantly unconstitutional defiance?

The deathly silence so far – and the fact that a national executive committee (NEC) meeting is on the cards for next weekend – means we can probably expect an announcement about “introspection” shortly.

It is, after all, a long and venerable tradition in the ANC. In April 2016, for example, the party called for introspection after the Constitutional Court found Jacob Zuma failed to “defend, uphold or respect the constitution” when he thumbed his nose at Thuli Madonsela’s report on the pimping-out of Nkandla. (He got off with a desultory apology and paying back some of the money.)

The party did so again just four months later, after a local election rout saw it lose control of the metros of Joburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.

And again in mid-2017, when it devoted a whole two days of its policy conference to “introspection and self-correction” so it could reflect on the ills of “money influence” and actions “contrary to ANC values”, said secretary-general Jessie Duarte. (No prizes for guessing how that turned out.) 

Last August, the party promised introspection again, this time to placate an irate public after it installed corruption-tainted Zandile Gumede – accused of rigging at R430m solid-waste tender while mayor of eThekwini – as an MPL in KwaZulu-Natal. (She’s still there.)

And then again, a month later, after an ill-advised hangout with Zanu-PF in Harare, we heard the same spiel.

Going nowhere slowly

In the doublespeak that is ANC parlance, introspection is a convenient proxy for inaction. It’s this that created the serial offender Zuma in the first place – and which seems to be remaking Magashule in Zumas image.

It will also be the party’s undoing.

As each horror of ineptitude, venality and outright illegality is revealed, we’re breathlessly told that this will be Cyril Ramaphosa’s chance – this is the moment to act; to restore public faith in the president and in the party. And at each turn, we’re disappointed.

Where party members do actually come out and demand accountability, they’re stymied by the structures of power. Jan Gerber, writing for News24, paints a depressing picture of the abysmal oversight exercised by the ANC in parliament.

Former ANC MP Zukiswa Rantho’s testimony to the Zondo commission has largely been lost in the noise around Zuma. But she told the commission on Tuesday that the party has “no real oomph to do oversight”, citing instances which showed how the ANC caucus refused to formally discuss allegations of corruption and undue influence. 

Rantho spoke of how ministers and directors-general would attend “study sessions” with MPs before they were to appear in front of those selfsame MPs in portfolio committee meetings.

Memorably, she chaired the portfolio committee inquiry into Eskom in 2017. But even then, she said, that inquiry was only given the go-ahead once the power utility’s problems had simply become too big to ignore. And, she’d been “put under pressure by her comrades, who feared that the inquiry would ‘hurt the reputation of the party’”, Gerber writes. 

(It may not surprise you to hear that the ANC left Rantho off its party lists ahead of the 2019 national election.)

Similarly, secretary-general Ace Magashule looked to shut down democratic debate in the party this week, when he described the ANC’s Eastern Cape provincial executive as “ill-disciplined” and “populist”, after it dared to suggest the party should suspend Zuma, or at the least discipline him, for his defiance of the Constitutional Court. For the full details, read this report by the M&G’s Lizeka Tandwa.

In Magashule’s world, the party should deal with the Zuma matter – if subverting the rule of law is indeed matter – behind closed doors. Given how the ANC has serially kicked its SG’s own can down the road, this would seem to mean never at all.

It is, of course, possible that the ANC will finally formulate a position on Zuma’s wrongdoing when the NEC meets next week. But it’s also set to decide whether Magashule should step aside while he faces multiple fraud, corruption and money-laundering charges.

So don’t be entirely surprised if the most we get out of that meeting is the promise of more “introspection”.

A cautionary tale

There is another former liberation movement greasing its way through the halls of government that has its own story to tell about empty promises.

In 2014, Namibian ruling party Swapo cleaned up in the national and presidential elections: it won a massive 80% of the vote, and its presidential candidate, Hage Geingob, walked into office with 87% popular backing. A year later, Swapo pulled a spectacular 87% in regional polls and 73% in local elections.

Then came the November 2019 revelations around “Fishrot” – an estimated R10bn bribes-for-fishing quotas scam that implicated the high-level government and party officials. In national elections a couple of weeks later, Swapo secured 65% of the vote; Geingob won just 56% in the presidential poll.

In an effort at damage control, the president turned to that most magic of salves, declaring 2020 – wait for it – “the year of introspection”.

That apparently didn’t work out too well. In elections late last year, Swapo won just 57% of the votes at regional level (down an astounding 30 percentage points) and less than 40% (33 percentage points down) at local level.

In an article on The Conversation Africa, Namibian academic Henning Melber attributes the plummet to “growing corruption, governance failures and abuse of office”. Oh, and poor service delivery, a fiscal crisis and recession.

He could just as easily be writing about SA.

When public dissatisfaction grew, after Swapo’s famed “introspection” failed to translate into any meaningful change, Swapo resorted to scapegoating and threats. Geingob railed against the minority white population (responsible for all government failings), “misguided intellectuals” and “unpatriotic” citizens.

Then a month before the election, he complained of the growing number of white Namibians registering to vote – as if a group that constitutes just 5% of the national population could sway the result. And the party’s spokesperson blamed “outside forces” for trying to effect regime change. (White monopoly capital, anyone?)

There’s a lesson in this for the ANC. While Swapo’s electoral losses haven’t been enough to unseat it from government, they have left it sufficiently weakened that it’s in real danger of losing its hold on power in its next national election if nothing changes.

If the ANC doesn’t want to be pummelled in the local government elections later this year, it could take decisive action now to restore some kind of public trust in the party.

A good start would be calling Zuma and Magashule’s bluff.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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