Sunday, 31 January 2016

Why the ANC Endures at the Polls

As South Africans, we tend to think of the transformation argument as either about diversity, or about economic emancipation, and to think of both as necessary ends in themselves. Yet what we seldom consider, openly, is what the political implications of both these broad transformation goals in South African society would amount to in real terms.
The question of why black South Africans have steadily continued to vote for the ANC in every election since 1994 in such a large majority is deeply puzzling for many white and/or middle class South Africans. The chattering middle classes can often be heard professing deep confusion over why – despite the very obvious problems abounding in the ANC under the Zuma administration – black South Africans continue to vote so convincingly for the ANC.
As each election approaches, there is always some hope that the ANC will finally get its comeuppance for the wayward and unrepentant behaviour of its leadership. Yet repeatedly, instead of a large vote away from the ANC, only slight, incremental aggregate declines occur.
Many reasons are offered for the overwhelming strength of the ANC in the South African political arena. Some say that the ANC’s history and legacy as a long-term liberation organisation inspires an unconditional loyalty; it is regarded as “home” to an overwhelming majority. Others attribute it to the historic conglomeration of liberation and worker representation organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) and COSATU under the ANC umbrella early in the transition to democracy. In the crassest of race-based reasoning, the ANC is simply viewed as a black party that represents black interests in South Africa. More recently, many believe that new growth in the ANC’s support base is attributed to the greed of the “wrong types of people” who have infested the ANC for personal enrichment.
It is true that all these interpretations have merit, although to varying extents, but they miss an essential and key reason that the ANC’s popularity amongst black South Africans remains strong, and why challenges to the ANC remain modest. In my view, the reason the ANC remains so attractive whether it performs well or not in government, is because of the lack of transformation in South African society and its political economy.
As South Africans, we tend to think of the transformation argument as either about diversity (ie diversifying South African organisations and institutions, and through that society), or about economic emancipation (ie class transformation), and to think of both as necessary ends in themselves. Yet what we seldom consider openly, is what the political implications of both these broad transformation goals in South African society would amount to in real terms.
It stands to reason that the more inclusive and equitable a society South Africa becomes, the more black South Africans would stand to gain increased levels of access and membership to different power bases and clusters within broader South African society. Over and above diversification and class transformation in society, access to multiple seats of power, in meaningful numbers and proportions, would – in real terms – open up access to a broader range of sites from which influence could be exercised. The poor substantive quality of transformation in the majority of South African organisations and institutions, effectively translates into a situation where the only viable seat of significant power that black South Africans can gain access to resides within the ANC.
If black South Africans had – over the past 21 years – gained significantly increased access and membership to a broader, more diverse set of power bases within society, then the transition to greater plurality would be more of a reality within the South African political spectrum today. The key power bases that remain weakly transformed in South Africa typically lie outside of the state and military, both of which have undergone extensive transformation by the ANC over the last 21 years, and are closely coupled with the ruling party in many ways. These power bases typically reside in key extra-state sectors, institutions and organisations in South Africa. In particular; the private sector, political organisations, parastatals and academic institutions are amongst the worst performing in respect of transformation.
The defensive posture that was adopted by these actors towards transformation imperatives early on in the post-apartheid democratic dispensation, has in fact worked against the evolution of a democratic South Africa to a more pluralistic and diverse political sphere.
Twenty one years later, inequality in South African society ranks amongst the highest in the world, despite its relative abundance of raw materials, reliable institutions, financial power and a strong economic base. South Africa has become a cautionary emerging market tale, alongside Brazil, and public dissent towards lack of adequate socio-economic change has grown amongst black South Africans, despite the widespread support for the ANC.
Historical loyalties aside, the key thing to understand about what the ANC offers, however, is that it remains the only viable option – in terms of its vast and far reaching power base within government and the state – through which black South Africans can come together and jointly influence the exercise of power within South African society. For all its flaws and inadequacies the ANC remains the single most influential political platform through which black South Africans can exercise real and meaningful power; the power to change society. When black South Africans converge upon ANC meetings and congregations, there is a palpable sense that they can exercise great power through the political party they belong to or support. There is little doubt, among participants, that they can accomplish more by remaining within the ANC’s ambit than outside of it.
There is, in addition, a further irony/paradox to this situation; the ANC itself, by virtue of its unquestionable and reliable support base, has little motivation to oversee a more radical, faster transformation of South African society. It only has to show vague progress towards real socio-economic transformation in order to ensure that voters recognise its good intent and remain committed to the party. Consequently, it has no real urgency – except that which is motivated by its own sense of virtue and/or responsibility – to fight for more radical change and/or pace of change in South Africa. Slower progress towards a fully diversified society means that the ANC has ever more time to consolidate its base as a behemoth in South African political spectrum. It is only reasonable to expect that a successful democratic transition would result in a more diverse set of alternatives for black South Africans to exert political influence through.
A few key factors that hamper transformation efforts warrant brief mention here. Constitutional transformation imperatives alone – ie emphasising the ‘equal in law’ imperative, as above (or the same as) the ‘equal in society’ imperative – is unlikely to lead to a broader, more inclusive political arena in South African society. There also is a clear need to rethink the main mechanisms through which transformation has been initiated, enabled and/or catalysed. 

Black Economic Empowerment, for example, requires considerable reflection and reformulation. Instead of broad-scale transformation, it has resulted in the creation of a powerful black elite, but not a truly inclusive, broad-based middle class, or working class. The transformation of financial capital, and not productive capital in the South African economy, is in part responsible for this. While some “black diamonds” have become greatly enriched through partnering with white businesses or joining them (i.e. owning shares), the economy is still lacking in broad-scale participation by black entrepreneurs and industrialists in the productive economy.
Whilst on the surface, the ANC gives the appearance that is it always busy rethinking and reformulating the economic and developmental strategies and plans of the state, in reality there has been a rather consistent formulation and implementation of middle-of-the-road, sometimes piecemeal designs. Very little significant changes in economic policy, for example, have occurred between different ANC leadership cabinets. The development plans that the ANC puts out publicly, are designed to give the impression that it is inclusive and innovative. However, in reality, they do not have to make substantive contributions to the South African political economy in terms of innovation and diversification; they only have to ensure that it remains stable.
Consequently, stable, incremental progress towards transformation, is what the ANC’s contribution has amounted to in reality.  Black South Africans have scarce alternatives through which to pursue this transformation and so remain locked in within the realm of the ANC's offerings. However, while the lack of political alternatives has been a key feature, recently, alternatives such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and ex-COSATU worker parties have emerged. Their more radical rhetoric may prove appealing to some black voters, but as long as the ANC can play a good game of political spin (i.e. capture the language black political opposition is using, such as the language of “redistribution” and “economic freedom”) it will no doubt remain more attractive due to its vast power base, and remain its most readily preferred option.
It is not due to purely to loyalty, sentiment or race identity that the ANC remains so powerful in the political spectrum, but rather, its popularity is ensured by its centrality as the major political voice for the black citizenry, and the fact that it is so strongly identified with government, the state and the military. Until there is substantive change in the broader South African socio-economy, it is unrealistic to expect that black South Africans would diversify their political support and seek out alternatives through which to influence the direction of the country. It’s that simple.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect that the main reason people keep voting for the ANC is the lack of a credible alternative.

    Yes, the ANC has failed at transformation. The Marikana massacre, for example, shows how little transformation there has been in the police.

    Instead of engaging in a massive teacher training programme to transform education and retrain the teachers indoctrinated by Bantu/Christian National Education, the ANC closed the teacher training colleges. So there has been no transformation in education, and education fundis, like John Samuel, were sidelined.

    Perhaps if there was a revival of the civics of the 1980s, there might be a credible alternative to the ANC in the local government elections, but there have been no signs of it so far.