Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Politics of Short-Term Gratification: All Eyes on the ANC!

More Hype, Less Media!

Media, media everywhere, and not a thought in sight!

The ANC is firmly back in the spotlight, commanding centre-stage as the most important act on the South African political stage today, whether for the right or wrong reasons. However, much like the eclectic US President Trump, it is working to the ANC’s advantage. The extent of media coverage that the ANC is currently receiving effectively blocks out other political actors and groups and reinforces the notion that the ANC alone is the sole political force through which South African politics and economics is brokered. Indeed, this is what ANC spokespersons tell us all the time. It is what they would like us to believe.

It is hence thoroughly in the ANC’s interest to continue occupying the media spotlight, and with the next national election due for April 2019, keeping the focus on the internal dynamics of the ANC – however tumultuous and dramatic – will likely serve to reinforce the idea that the ANC alone is the key political force in South Africa and that votes for opposition parties are essentially wasted on the vain hope that power will change hands one day. Opposition votes will continue to be viewed as symbolic expressions of disillusionment with the ANC rather than what they are becoming, that is; a growing force that is increasingly able to effect political change at the highest levels in the country (albeit through coalitions).

In this sense, the media itself has fallen hook, line and sinker for the ANC’s crude gambit. In their exuberant attempts to secure ratings through continuous live coverage and play the role of 'watchdog' they have effectively granted the ANC the kind of media primacy that US President Donald Trump enjoys. Secrecy, controversy and intrigue can work wonders on an unsuspecting and ill-informed public, and it is the media’s job to remain critical – not just of its targets – but also its own coverage. It is incumbent on the media to have a sense for what impact its coverage ultimately has. There is a point at which continuous, repetitive and unenlightened coverage – replete with long, hypothetical discussions based on gossip and hearsay – begins to resemble mere hype rather than cogent political opinion and analysis. 

December 2017 ANC Conference: Turning Point or More of the Same?

In December 2017 the ANC’s internal party presidential, top-six leadership and National Executive Committee elections were held at the 54th National Conference of the ANC. The dynamics that played out put the ANC squarely back in the public spotlight, as the country hankered after news that trickled out from the conference. The media were denied full access to the conference, and kept separated from delegates by a fortress of temporary fencing. This lack of access worked wonders, as intrigue, speculation, debate and titbits of gossip dominated the media panels that sought to provide all-hours coverage of the event. 

Dramatic changes unfolded with the changing of the guard, with the Deputy President of the country – Cyril Ramaphosa – emerging victorious as the new ANC President. Yet the drama was not because sweeping changes came about in the leadership composition, but rather that the two competing slates were so close, yielding an almost equal mix of each in the final results. These results mean that the ANC is likely continue limping along as a divided house, with internal conflicts and Machiavellian skulduggery dominating its politics.

Embattled, outgoing ANC president (and President of South Africa), Jacob Zuma, supported the slate headed by his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The opposition slate was headed by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Deputy President of South Africa.

The core campaign message behind Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign was that the ANC and the country were long overdue for a female president, and she enjoyed strong support from both the ANC Women’s League and the ‘Zuma faction’ as it has become known. Detractors of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma saw her bid as compromised by her ex-husband’s alleged involvement in widespread corruption and “state capture”. In short, her ascendancy to the presidency of the ANC, and soon the country, would ensure that the sitting president is protected from being held to account for his alleged misdeeds.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s main campaign message revolved around saving the ANC from corruption, healing the deep divides (nay, fractures) within it, and revitalising the economy. His detractors point to his great wealth (he is a billionaire) as a compromising factor (he is favoured by the private sector), as well as his involvement in the Marikana massacre, which led to the death of 34 miners who were fired upon by the police (78 were seriously injured). Although he has apologised for his role in the events that led to the massacre, his detractors see it as just a ‘band-aid’ attempt to regain public trust and rise to power. He is nonetheless, widely respected across society, and critically, he commands the respect and trust of the private sector.

Both candidates have paid lip service to the ANC’s new political vision of radical socio-economic transformation, although it is unclear to what extent their proposals are radical in the sense of being deeply rooted in the quest for structural and systemic change. My view is that both candidates would service the status quo while shoring up support (for the 2019 election) through heightened rhetoric rather than radical action. Neither candidate is in any sense truly radical.

Ramaphosa is a former trade unionist who has extensive experience in managing divisions. He was a key in formulating the constitution, and enjoys the faith and respect of the private sector. Dlamini-Zuma was once Minister of Health, represented South Africa faithfully at the UN and more recently was the head of the African Union. Neither candidate would likely have shaken up South African politics and economics to the extent that the rhetoric of "radical socio-economic transformation" would imply.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC is no doubt a result of the ANC’s very genuine concerns that its electoral support base is set to decline significantly in the upcoming 2019 elections. They need to stay in power, and to retain a majority; Cyril Ramaphosa was the only candidate that could effectively ‘guarantee’ these outcomes.

Yet, with a middle-of-the-road presidential candidate, a split-slate top-six leadership and NEC, more of the same is likely to unfold. So why all the attention, and to what end?

The Dangers of Continuous, Unfettered Coverage

The problem is that the ANC’s internal politics are largely becoming more important than the democratic, constitutional parliamentary processes through which political change should be administered in South Africa. Instead, parliamentary actions are increasingly fought through the courts, and the ANC’s internal politics, processes and interests take precedence over that of government.

All eyes remain fixed on the ANC and opposition parties and other political actors – such as civil society organisations and foundations – appear to be a secondary feature of the political realm. They are hardly receiving any media coverage at present, and when they do it is as though they are an afterthought or sideshow to the ANC’s publicly unfolding political soap opera. Both the fiery Economic Freedom Fighters and the litigious Democratic Party appear to have receded into the background as the ANC’s internal processes have taken centre-stage in the public eye. This is damaging – in my view – for many reasons.

Firstly, instead of the embattled, split ANC being held to account for its refusal to act upon corruption and constitutional violations by the president over the past 8 years, it is now being viewed as the great hope for renewal of the South African polity. All reasonable indications are, however, that the ANC’s infighting, lack of accountability and poor transparency is set to deepen and that the internal splits within the ANC will continue to render it effectively dysfunctional as a governing party. The ANC is being rewarded, instead of penalised, for failing the South African people.

Moreover, the relevance and importance of opposition parties and opposition politics is being diminished. They are simply becoming increasingly viewed as secondary to the ANC’s internal politics and processes. This, in effect, renders parliament and constitutional processes secondary. The ANC as a political party has effectively usurped its role. And it has unfolded with precious little critique of this ‘switch’ from political analysts and commentators. With the exception of very few analysts (e.g. Angelo Fick comes to mind, as his analysis always links back to constitutionality and parliamentary process) the majority have uncritically reinforced the notion that the ANC’s internal politics are paramount.

The narrative typically unfolds in the following manner, that change can "only be administered from within the ANC" and that one has to "look to the ANC’s internal processes and political dynamics" to understand what is transpiring in South African politics (e.g. with respect to recalling Jacob Zuma and countering government corruption). Analysts relish in having inside information from within the ranks of the ANC as to what is transpiring at any given moment in time. They hang on every word that comes out of the ANC leadership, interpreting and reinterpreting their utterances ad-nauseam. It is as if only the ANC exists in the South African political spectrum. Everyone else is irrelevant.

It smacks of the same empty celebrations that accompanied Zanu-PF’s recent removal of its long-term president Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, in what was effectively a palace coup. Should the ANC finally take long overdue action to remove President Jacob Zuma it would effectively amount to the same thing; that it took a palace coup within the ANC to remove a president that was found by the constitutional court to have violated his oath of office, a president who is widely implicated in a network of unscrupulous business and political operators who have engaged in corruption on a grand scale, and a president who the courts have ordered should answer for 783 charges of corruption brought against him for his alleged wrongdoings in the now-infamous arms deal of the early 2000s.

When celebrating political action, it is important to understand what one is celebrating. In my view, the celebrations that are unfolding in South Africa early in 2018 are premature and misleading. We are not celebrating true democratic action and transparent, responsible governance. Instead, we are celebrating the desperate actions of a deeply compromised majority ruling party that – until now – was facing the prospect of severe losses in the upcoming national elections in 2019.

We are also celebrating the irrelevance of opposition party and civil society politics and ignoring the massive efforts they have made to shift the ANC onto a more responsible political trajectory. The ANC are not our saviours. They have not self-corrected, despite having had many opportunities to do so. They have merely changed tact in order to ensure their own survival. We would be fools to believe otherwise; the proverbial proof of change must surely lie in real, meaningful actions to effect change and not in symbolic transfers of power.

The upshot of all of this is that the ANC is back in the spotlight and is being presented by the media (albeit unwittingly or uncritically) as the key mover and shaker of South African politics (or as the ANC labels themselves; the "centre of power" in South Africa). It’s every move and utterance is being slavishly amplified through the media, without thought for the displacement of other political actors and groups that have fought tooth and nail to counter-act the effects of the decline of the ANC. The ANC is no doubt celebrating because in the run-up to the 2019 elections they loom so large in the public imagination that it is likely to translate into continued support from the electorate.

Simply put, if the over-riding narrative (or implication) is that the country’s woes can only be fixed from “within the ANC” then voters get the impression that there are no alternatives that they can look to through which they can effect meaningful change. Reinforcing this notion by treating the ANC’s internal politics as all-important and all-powerful in South African politics is short sighted and – in my view – inaccurate.

The ANC is beset by deep internal turmoil and in-fighting. It is no longer the ANC that possessed a coherence that justified its large electoral majority. In a short-term perspective it is true that what transpires within the ANC is bound to have a great impact upon the country, but treating the ANC as though it is the be-all and end-all of South African politics is mistaken. The ANC’s politics and coherence has declined while the opposition has gained ground and is on the ascent. This is not just an empirical fact; it is the objective reality.

The ANC long ago became an unsustainable and untenable alliance of ill-fitting partners; it simply cannot survive in its current form and remain useful to the South African people. Continued unchallenged political power will likely remain useful only to the ANC itself, and the private sector cronies that line up to oil the hinges of the revolving door between politics and business that has become central to the ANC’s administration of its political power.

The Politics of the Short-Term: An Uninformed Public and Political Realm

Today, the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) is convening, yet again, without direct press access. It is a matter of great interest, as President Jacob Zuma’s future will likely be discussed. Rumours that he will step down are already doing the rounds, as they always do in the run-up to these large ANC NEC gatherings. The press has taken the bait. To be fair, coverage of discussions around impeachment that are unfolding in parliament is also being given airtime, but the end result is that it simply juxtaposes ANC internal processes against parliamentary processes. If the ANC NEC decides – in a large majority – to retain Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa it is unlikely that any parliamentary motion for impeachment will be successfully passed.

Yet again the nation is being held hostage to internal ANC processes and dynamics. We are all watching and waiting to see how divided the NEC is over Jacob Zuma’s leadership, and if it could feasibly translate into enough ANC members siding with the opposition to remove Jacob Zuma in an impeachment attempt. If this feels like déjà-vu, it is. We’ve been here before. The question, “where to from here?” has receded into the background of affairs as we all watch and wait to see what the next big announcement will be; glued to screens in anticipation.

This ‘politics in real time’ is, in many ways, killing off the politics of the long-term. That is; the politics that is essential to providing vision, promoting national unity and stimulating public dialogue and debate on matters that are critical to socio-economic well-being and sustainability are taking a back seat to soap opera styled politics a la Trump. Will he be there today, tomorrow, or the next day? Ooh, the anticipation! Cue the next rapid-fire panel discussing speculative hype, replete with constant downward eye glances at their mobile phones so that they can catch the next tasty morsel as it hits the twitter-sphere and WhatsApp groups.

To be sure, there are those who will justify all this by emphasizing that a ‘new way’ is emerging amidst the broader changes that the media are subject to and that they need to remain current. I for one don’t buy it and will continue to cast a wary (at times weary) eye over it all as it unfolds, ad nauseam, into infinity, with no clear end in sight. In this day and age it is becoming increasingly important to separate the signal from the noise, and it appears that all the benefits of technological and online development are merely translating into more noise than signal. And even the media ‘watchdogs’ appear not to be keeping watch on this!

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