The 2016 local government results in the metropolitan municipalities of Tshwane, Johannesburg, Ekhurhuleni, and Nelson Mandela Bay have brought home the glimpse of the possibility of imagining South Africa without the ANC as a governing party. All four municipalities represent a diverse character of South Africa, they include the manufacturing hub of the country, its financial or commercial capital, its automobile industrial hub, its anti-apartheid activism nest, and its political capital. The per capita concentration of South Africa's cognitive elite in these cities should make the loss of voter support in them an issue of national strategic consideration. This rendition asks 'can the country be imagined without the ANC as a governing party, this is a question we should all be thinking about its implications if the answer is yes.
South Africa has been experiencing a voter support recession of sorts in its local government sphere for a while. The indicators of collapsed accountability as reported by successive Auditor-General reports on the state of municipalities paints to a picture of a failing local state. A closer analysis of voter apathy, dismissed as a global phenomenon, also indicates the growth in the number of people who are not voting more than those that do. Voter abstention in developing democracies, irrespective of it being a global trend, is a discount factor to the overall credibility and legitimacy of a mandate to govern. What is true of South Africa is that there are more people who chose not to vote the governing party, especially if we add all opposition votes to those who simply chose not to express their choice.
The RSA population's despair in the formal ways of expressing political discontent has for a while been matched by a growing resurgence of 'service delivery' and 'other forms' of protest the 'authority' of the state. This condition might, and arguably so, be reflective of a growing mistrust of the power of the ballot, or an indication of the creeping in of a dictatorship by a cognitive elite complex that thrives on 'illiberal populist leadership'. The decline of society's interest in politics has in many a democracies led to the erosion of normative government at the altar of party-political prerogative government. As the potency of electoral democracy decay at the hands voter apathy and a rise in disrespect to the power of the voter by political coalitions, so will the rule of law commensurately decay.
The decay of the rule of law opens opportunities for the co-existence of the conflicting imperatives of normative government and/or prerogative government. The vacuum created by the disregard for the rule of law can lead to a relapse to a rule by laws that are not in the formal statutes. Choices of those that are in command of public power are structured by the institutional environments whence they operate from. The presence of pre-existing institutions, especially those with a history of having worked or working, will restrict or enhance choices of public power wielding incumbents. Democratization of society is thus, and undeniably so, both an outcome of institutional design and the institutional comfort zones those with executive authority prefer.
The impunity at which the will of voters is procedurally discounted once it has been secured has been on the rise in local government than in any sphere. According to the 2021 Auditor General's report, there has been more municipalities being subjected to section 139 interventions than evidence of practical support. The general thrust of these interventions has in the main been about the 'politics in the system' more than 'its functionality' as a service delivery system. In fact, there is a correlation between in-party relations and relationship changes and the invoking of sections 100 and 139 of the Constitution.
Evidence to this effect is the intensity of these interventions when there is a change of leadership in the sub-national political structures determining executive authority deployments. It is also of interest that where such interventions happened, save for the court repudiated Tshwane episode, it was intervention by a sphere governed by the ANC on one governed by it that invoked intervention mechanisms. These amongst-and-in-ANC antagonisms have impacted on the practice of intergovernmental relations and dragged it away from the cooperative government principles written into the national constitution. They are in fact an indictment to the functioning of it 'in-ANC hierarchical structures and discipline of its deployees in either of the structures.
Whilst these interventions have to a degree been plausible, it is the extent to which they are supportive to the democratic will of voters, or the degree to which they are becoming a means with which 'in-party' prerogatives try to obstruct, if not limit, the very democratic will of voters. In South Africa, and largely because of the 'democratic centralist' nature of an 'arguably liberal in posture' governing party, the tactics of being prerogative in being constitutional when dealing with 'in-party' 'factional interests' have grown to become the source of instability in the nation's quest to entrench the normative intents of its constitutional democracy. Given the preponderance of the certainty predicament in many a democratization processes, the formalization and rationalization of in-party power dynamics becomes a key factor in resolving the beyond incumbency commitment challenges, as manifested by prerogative interventions using normatively construed constitutional mechanisms.
The playbook of South Africa's democracy is and should always be its Constitution. It should not be acceptable that the tenets of democratic living should be vulnerable to prerogatives either than those defensible by what as a society we have embraced as a normative path undergirding the very democracy. To this effect, voters cannot vote government into a context where it is 'under administration' simply because it is the same political party that has the voter mandate. This has happened in the North West Province where voters returned the ANC to a governing party status. Irrespective of a renewed mandate, the sixth administration was in effect put under continued section one hundred for the 'sins' of the fifth administration, unless of course it was the provincial chapter of the governing party that was craftily put under administration. This example and several others in the local sphere have usurped the essence of voter will, and by extension the very foundations of electoral democracy.
It is thus clear that the failure of the ANC, as a governing party, to be as democratic as the nationally set benchmarks of the country's constitution expects of it, will be consequential to the type of democracy it bequeaths to the society it has thus far been able to lead into a constitutional democracy. The truism, albeit arguable, that the ANC is the nexus of political life in South Africa, comes with responsibilities of a 'beyond incumbency attitude'. As its past President THABO Mbeki argued, and I paraphrase, the ANC is too involved in this democracy that we cannot let it continue acting out of variance with the country's constitution. The diffusionary impact of the ANCs relationship with democratic practice is therefore one of the few assurances for the stability of South Africa's democracy, otherwise a new movement with that object will have to be created, and there lies the imagination of a South Africa without the ANC governing it.
In crafting South Africa's constitutional democracy, a Nelson Mandela led ANC emerged out of the CODESA negotiations with a constitution that guaranteed South African three foundational tenets, which are in fact the legs it stands upon. Larry Diamond characterizes these as the democratic triad.
• First is 'popular sovereignty'. A rule by the people aptly captured in the 1955 Freedom Charter "that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people". The constitution guarantees South Africans that they will be able to choose and replace 'leaders' in regular, free, and fair elections. This guarantee is not for derivations but has some directness built into it.
• Second is the liberal values that undergird the rights guaranteed to citizens. These are elaborated in the bill of rights, and towering thereto is the freedoms of speech, press, association, and assembly. In South Africa, these rights have been further protected for all social groups.
• Third is the rule of law which establishes an independent judiciary into whom the judicial authority of the republic vests through the courts. Regulatory bodies, in South Africa referred to as chapter 9 institutions, are established to check how public power is used to the benefit of society.
The above principles have for the past 27 years grown to become a benchmark through which the health of government is put in check. The safe assumption that any dysfunction in the state can be traced to a lapse in one or all of these is yet to be proven in developing societies that have restitutive paths to be followed before pyramidal intents on constitutional democracy could be realized. Notwithstanding, the 'beyond incumbency' attitude expected of the ANC, and democrats in general, procures for a leadership that understands the dangers of losing the strategic responsibility of anchoring what the constitution promises to society.
The changing record of the ANC as a party that moved from a state of refusing its processes to be subject to the rule of the republic's law, to one that has embraced the prowess of judicial arbitration even to its vexing political questions has elevated the 'rule of law' principle to higher legitimacy levels. It can only be hoped that this 'shift' is part of the curriculum of its political school and would thus create a culture where constitutional matters of governing could be left to competent forums to set precedence for posterity's sake. The defocus on how the internal workings of the ANC have an impact of the health of South Africa's democracy, especially because it commands the largest proven political capital, by its in-party thinkers and thinking society in general has grown to being one of the deficits all have to find a way of replenishing.
Maybe, and maybe, because of the benevolence that was a dominant firmament to the CODESA process, and the subsequent deployment of its finest in the early administrations, as well as the efficiency-lags from the apartheid state, the stability as a dividend of the CODESA process shifted scholarly attention of the governing party as an institution of leadership. The nature of the leadership peril and its institutional gravitas, as evidenced at the State Capture Commission and in other reports of state institutions, have been grossly underestimated in respect of the continued health of the fledging South African democracy. The commandist traditions that developed within the governing party, disguised as democratic centralism, grew to levels where a legitimate expectation, by those that grew from within the ranks, for the constitutional democracy to succumb to its pressure was created. State institutions created to defend democracy, including the judiciary, as well as law enforcement agencies became targets of vitriol that sought to make the state succumb to a breed of governance alien to what the constitution prescribes.
As a governing party the ANC inherited a state with capability. It found a functioning bureaucracy with a matured regulatory system anchored on a regimented public administration system. Institutionally the state had the capability contain transactional costs of doing investment in South Africa. It entered this machinery with legitimacy to govern based on the democratic will of all its citizens, and according to a constitution which is the supreme law of the country. Any veering from the constitution can only erode its moral legitimacy and by extension its right to continue being trusted by those that borrow it the public power it currently has a voter majority to work with. The thought of South Africa not being governed by the ANC as an institution of leadership brings to the fore the extent to which the institution that the ANC is or has been rescued from the 'political party' it has become at the expense of liquidating its leader of society status. These questions are directed to in-ANC thinkers to answer within a prism of 'beyond incumbency'. Party politics should arrive in South Africa on a solid constitutional democracy template they should all compete for our votes in terms of who can best give us the promises the constitution has for us as a nation.
By FM Lucky Mathebula