The ANC must either adapt or die!
Post-colonial Africa is littered with abundant literature that seeks to understand the longevity or lack thereof of National Liberation Movements (NLM). The question often arises; what really informs or shapes the rise and decline of political fortunes of national liberation movements post-independence?
In our case in South Africa, the same question arises: what are the factors that influence the rise and fall or even the weakening of the national liberation movement; the African National Congress?
As the reader can imagine, it is almost impossible to provide a complete answer to this perennial question. One hopes to tease out several factors or dynamics which may prove sufficient to provoke a discussion of this nature. In order to provide an analysis of an organism such as a political movement or party, it is often better to begin by defining the qualities of the subject.
What is the character of the ANC and what has been its currency so far?
The African National Congress (ANC) is a national liberation movement (NLM) that has led the struggle for freedom for over a century now. Over this period – a glorious period as some would argue – the ANC’s political currency has always been in plain sight. Firstly, it lies in its ability to articulate a vision and therefore lead the liberation project. Secondly, its ability to appeal to a cross-section of constituencies or social groups. Thirdly, its reliance on the quality or the value-system of excellence. Fourthly, its ability to eschew extremism and backward ‘isms’ such as tribalism, regionalism, sexism, racism, etc. And finally, its ability to weaponise memory.
Arguably, these qualities can be viewed as political currency for the ANC, as well as other national liberation movements across the world. In the same measure, it is the same qualities that can be the source of weakening or decline. Indeed, such currency is neither static nor infinite, it dwindles over time depending on a range of variables that may impact the party, or the perceptions people have about the party.
If this is the character of the ANC at best, then it is easy to see where the ANC is today in terms of its political currency and more importantly, in relation to the second major political transition since 1994: the ‘next South Africa’.
We need to give credit where it is due. There are three outstanding achievements of the ANC over the past century. Firstly, the ANC has successfully executed the liberation struggle against colonialism and Apartheid, legacies notwithstanding. Secondly, the ANC has laid a firm foundation for democracy and finally, it has made remarkable strides in terms of improving the quality of life of South Africans, although more is yet to be done.
But is the ANC ready and fit for the ‘next South Africa’?
For now, I deliberately choose not to discuss in greater detail, the content of the ‘next South Africa’ idea for two reasons: firstly, The Polisee Space is in the process of developing the project and related workstreams and secondly; the idea is obviously contested and always in a state of flux. Among other initiatives, the Indlulamithi South Africa 2030 Scenarios are a good reference. However, some of the issues that shape the ‘next South Africa’ are discussed throughout the piece.
Change and adaptation!
The interesting thing about change is that it is driven by multiple factors and actors. Even if there could be a dominant factor influencing change, it is never the only one. Other than the ANC, there are many other change drivers that shape our society and its politics. That is why it is quite unhelpful to limit political analysis to the ANC or its current and former leaders.
I want to suggest that the ANC, like all other political parties, must contend with objective changes in social mobility, advances in technology, shifting demographics and at a subjective level, new political cultures. If it fails to do so, it will miss many opportunities to adapt. Of course, some of these changes are influenced by the ANC itself or at least its government.
Remember, all political parties contest state power not for its own sake but to use that power to drive meaningful change. And as we have said in the last column, every state establishes its legitimacy based on inclusive economic development.
Understood in this way therefore, the biggest challenge facing the ANC is not who becomes the next President or which faction is the strongest every five years – indeed a debilitating short-termism for the party. Rather, the biggest challenge is an existential one. Will the ANC have the necessary capacity and will to adapt to change and live to lead in the ‘next South Africa’? Given the developments of the past 15 years or more, the answer is an emphatic no. Below I set out the reasons why I believe the ANC may struggle to adapt and lead in the next decade and going forward.
Social mobility or lack thereof
Since 1994, the ANC-led government has introduced policies and programmes which have led to uneven development and social mobility. Some South Africans have indeed realised the dream of a better life, whereas some – the vast majority – are yet to live that dream. These very changes which have come as a result of the ANC-led transformation project, have come back to frustrate the ANC itself.
The role of money in the ANC is the best way to illustrate this frustration. The dominant narrative in the media and elsewhere is that money is not good for party politics. But it can be argued that in fact, it is the lack of money that is not good for party politics and politics in general. Of course, in a young democracy and developing economy, the situation can get muddied more than in developed economies. It is the lack of money in the form of honest incomes, jobs and a growing inclusive economy that makes money controversial in our politics and as I have stated, uneven development has a lot do with this dreaded problem.
In countries such as the United States (US), the debate has matured and shifted, in line with the maturity of democracy and the level of economic development. In that country, the controversy is no more about the role of money per se, but the extent of the money in politics.
We now know that our political culture and processes are largely influenced by individual actors who lack money at two levels: a membership base which has no jobs and a political elite that buys the membership base to ascend to economic elite status. The combination of these two realities produces a very controversial and even toxic politics. Put simply, a slow economic transformation process does not help the ANC.
Although our political parties are not so imaginative on fundraising, the structural constraints imposed by a membership or constituency which is jobless, is a decisive factor in this variable. Indeed, our political parties struggle to draw donations like a Bernie Saunders would for example, from ordinary supporters or party members.
Advances in technology
This is another important driver of change. Technology affects every sphere of life, including religion, business, and politics. The ANC, like all political parties, is impacted by changes in technology. For example, in the battle of ideas arena (winning the hearts and minds of the people), the ANC faces the challenge of using some of the backward capabilities which curtail its ability to reach out to new constituencies while retaining the traditional base.
Undoubtedly, changes in technology have increased competition and expanded the opportunities for sources of information to ordinary people. Whereas some of the traditional means of mobilisation and dialogue remain relevant, a lot more has changed in terms of where new audiences are and how those audiences consume information. In order to get their messages across, political parties have to do more than relying on archaic traditional methods of the past century.
Similarly, an archaic membership system has delayed a lot of internal party reforms and operational efficiencies in respect to communication, fundraising, the integrity of conferences, etc. Hopefully, the new membership system, which is probably 20 years late, will lead to more internal reforms.
At macro-social trends level, there may be three demographic issues that are beginning to impact the fortunes of the ANC in terms of general mass appeal as well as electoral support, namely: migration, age and identity.
In terms of migration, the ANC needs to contend with the reality of a growing migrant community which is beginning to reshape citizenship, nation formation, social cohesion, and voter behaviour. This includes in-migration too. And as we know from local and global experiences, migration can induce hope and despair at the same time.
When it comes to generational shifts, any serious liberation movement needs to be mindful of the age gap. Because the ability to weaponise memory is not frozen in time, the ANC will have to contend with the fact that memory and political loyalties are periodically shaped by shifts in age demography.
For example, in the build-up to the 2019 general elections, it was the age analysis that gave the ANC many valuable lessons on how to respond to the changing age profile of the voter population. As a matter of adaptation, it was forced to adjust its rhetoric to cater for a first-time voter who was born in 2000. Going forward, political contestation for the youth vote will not depend on memory and historical loyalties alone; but will increasingly depend on how effective political parties are in terms of appealing to issues such as values, vision, excellence, identity, meaningful representation and ensuring material progress.
Similarly, the growth of a proud queer community in South Africa is steadily shaping identity politics and policies within political parties and in the public space. Parties like the ANC will do better to appreciate the existence, needs and aspirations of this community, among others. So far, indications are that the ANC is adapting well to this important change, thanks to a robust Constitution and strong human rights culture.
There are several internal dynamics that frustrate the ANC’s adaptation or reform efforts. In the main, factionalism, moral decay, a narrowing base, and the failure of succession are some of the dynamics to observe.
Factionalism in the ANC is not based on principle or ideology. It is purely about individual positioning and self-preservation at the expense of the party and the people. So bad is the factionalism that the factions do not realise that intra-party factionalism is eating away the base and therefore the source of patronage: the control of state power.
For example, it seems that during factional fights, some within the leadership find it easy to betray the foundational principles that have always guided the ANC and their personal consciences. Lately, some have forgotten that constitutionalism and the rule of law are the products of the ANC-led struggle for freedom. That a rules-based society is an anti-thesis of the Apartheid’s rule by law. Because of this deliberate forgetfulness, the ANC becomes paralysed when the long arm of the law faces some of its leaders. Suddenly, the party is no longer a champion of the rule of law but a doubter-in-chief!
Such an inconsistent and dishonest behaviour in relation to the foundational principles of our democratic society, hallows out the moral capital of the party. Those inside the ANC who still believe in these foundational principles must continue to fight for them.
Succession or lack thereof is another dynamic which frustrates the ANC’s reform efforts and leads to poor adaptation behaviours. It is no secret that there are many opposition parties here and in the rest of the African region that are beginning to embrace the idea of a younger, excellent and visionary leadership. Succession should always be a dynamic process of democratic contestation and deliberate grooming of the next layer of leadership.
Unfortunately, the succession idea is often reduced to the ‘presidential or party leader race’ in South Africa. How can it be succession when the same generation hands over the baton to the same generation and the focus is on individuals?
Historically, the ANC had always performed well on succession, until the trappings of power came along. The party has a long history of giving opportunities to the best of its young cadres to lead at crucial moments. Today, the younger people are timid and immobilised whereas the older people are energised and mobilised for titanic battles of relevance and survival.
The real succession challenge in the ANC is not about the generation which has given all for our freedom, but a transition to a younger capable cohort which can reposition the party and take it to the ‘next South Africa’. Once more, the 2022 national conference of the ANC may miss the opportunity to usher in a brand-new leadership and thereby fail to recapture the imagination of people!
The narrowing of the base of the ANC is a development caused largely by internal dynamics in the party, namely, incoherent policy articulation. It is also possible that the base is narrowing even inside the party itself. This is arguably the most dangerous change taking place in the ANC. I suspect that it is caused by an unconscious drift in policy positions and character. The behaviour and rhetoric lately, is quite alienating to some sections of its traditional and potential base. It is as if the party suffers from schizophrenia. The 2016 local government elections were both an outcome and a reaction to this development of a narrowing base of the party.
And so, the party needs to critically reflect on this phenomenon of an unconscious drift in policy positions and character that keeps on narrowing the ANC base internally and externally. It is obviously dangerous for any political party to change policy and character unconsciously.
What is to be done?
At a political level, the important work of thinking about and building towards the ‘next South Africa’ begins with the deliberate effort to cast our minds and eyes wider about the things that matter most for South Africa. It is fair to assume that most of the issues discussed above are facing our parties across the political spectrum. If such an assumption is correct, then all political parties must be encouraged to conduct their politics with the idea of the ‘next South Africa’ in mind.
For its part, the ANC will do well to realise that these issues have a huge impact on its survival, as a result of which it ought to change course in terms of how it leads and governs. Despite its schizophrenic behaviour lately, nobody should doubt the fact that the ANC is fully aware of where it is today and what it must do next.
The starting point, however, would be to return to the basic question that led to the formation of its soul and raison d’etre back in 1912. As the founders did then, the current ANC must pose the question: what is the South African problem today? And how should it be resolved?
The most distinguishing feature between the ANC in the trenches and the ANC in government, is the privilege to wield state power. And so, the question arises: what has the ANC done with state power since 1994? Remember, political parties do not contest state power for its own sake. They vie for state power so that they can wield it to improve the living conditions of the people who voted for them.
The ‘political currency’ that has always put the ANC ahead is waning due to the various changes taking place inside and outside the ANC. For the ANC to resolve its adaptation failures effectively, it probably needs to focus on two urgent primary tasks, namely, improving the quality of life of the people and the quality of its leadership and ideas. Both these tasks are particularly important for the legitimacy, survival, and reform of the party.
In order to improve the quality of life of the people, the ANC needs to rethink the role of the state in the economy going forward. And to improve its quality of leadership, it must take a great leap forward and disrupt the current pattern of non-succession! The litmus test for the latter is the 2022 national conference.
While the ‘next South Africa’ is struggling to be born, the ANC which has always promised a ‘new South Africa’, is struggling to adapt to the myriad changes taking inside the party and in the public domain. The ball is in the ANC’s court to swim or sink, adapt or die.
Otherwise, the ANC is dead, long live the ANC!
David Maimela is Executive Director of The Polisee Space, a pan-African public policy think-tank.