South Africa faces two major problems today: a governing party that is devoid of leaders who embody the principles of a government of the people by the people and thus believe that to lead is to serve; and the rise of populism within the ANC, led by powerful individuals who hold sway over government leaders.
The true value of democracy
In his classic book Liberalism Against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice (WH Freeman, 1982), political scientist William H Riker says “the true value of democracy is to serve as a sanitary precaution protecting us against an abuse of power”.
“It enables us to get rid of a government and try to replace it by a better one.”
This may be true for many countries, but for South Africa participatory democracy equates to the ruling ANC being kept in power by voters who continue to support the party despite its lack of accountability, the self-serving behaviour of its leaders, and its failure to deliver a better life for all.
This means the value of democracy espoused by Riker will not materialise anytime soon because there is simply no willingness from South Africans to replace this government with a better one.
In ‘Twenty years of South African democracy: Citizen views of human rights, governance and the political system’, political scientist Susan Booysen shows that the despite the perceptions of communities that the political class is failing them, and disillusionment with local representatives, citizens remain loyal to the ANC because they deem it as working better at national government.
Booysen notes that this has emboldened the party to develop a post-apartheid brand that is centred on monopolising liberation such that it “delivered the country from apartheid”.
Parenthetically, I note that I have yet to meet an ANC leader in government who doesn’t think their party is entitled to govern for eternity.
However, it is not those who walk the corridors of power in Pretoria we should be worried about – we should be very concerned, rather, about the unelected in government but elected at party level individuals who are at the centre of the power that shapes who becomes the future ANC leader.
The current factional battle for control of the party, one that has seen the introduction of a step-aside resolution for those facing criminal charges, means the war extends beyond the current President Cyril Ramaphosa versus ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule row.
Moreover, it had been ongoing within the ANC even before the (former president Jacob) Zuma years, where powerful actors who exert growing authority on those with government roles do so in such a way that it filters to national and local government.
Not only has this trend led to the rise of populism within the governing party, it has also created space for said actors to undermine democracy.
Individuals who have a substantial effect on who gets into government have entrenched a culture where political actors in government are more concerned with individual benefits than the public at large.
Whenever there is an organisational turf war underway within the ANC, a sense of concern must stir within us in as to how such a fight will affect our fledgling democracy.
Opening up social and economic problems, factional battles are grounded in populism and ideologues that are incapable of addressing the two persistent and ingrained problems – that much is evident.
And evidence there is.
We have seen example after example of how each ANC congress produces resolutions and programmes that are socialist and/or egalitarian-oriented yet are drifting apart or ill-suited for tackling South Africa’s challenges.
The party itself is a casualty
It might be that the centre is not holding within the ANC, however it is also true that the party is evolving – and not for its own advancement.
Today, under pressure to maintain their positions, stay on the gravy train, and maintain the ‘It’s our time to eat’ mantra, the tentacles of populist political leaders has taken hold.
In failing to groom future leaders who are about servitude and advancing democracy, elders within the ANC have instilled a culture of individualism, position and power above the greater good.
This has led to the party being captured by people who have become exceedingly rich and powerful through shady deals and alleged corrupt practices.
It was last Monday (March 29) that we heard Ramaphosa’s announcement that party members facing criminal charges had 30 days to step aside or face suspension.
Ironically, even as the 30-day countdown for Magashule to step aside continues, supporters on either side claim to be fighting for the integrity of the party, and to save the party.
But who will save South Africa from them?
If Magashule does not step aside at the end of the month, will the party charge him?
What will become of the top six? And where does this leave those who support Magashule, which includes key individuals within the national executive committee of the ANC?
If Magashule emerges victorious, where does this leave the ANC president?
Ultimately it does not matter which group of leaders prevails – I remain unconvinced that any of them can save the ANC or change the current trajectory of their beloved movement.
Looking to them to safeguard our democracy by putting the country above personal gain is a tall ask.