The liberal project and SA politics at glance

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By: Hadebe Hadebe

There are events happening in our national politics that are quite difficult to explain but they point to a specific direction nonetheless. These do not involve a single individual and or one political party but a number of actors appear to be in cahoots towards a very a particular goal.

The national discourse is smoothening divisions between political parties and favours a specific discourse. Liberal ideology has always been associated with whites in South Africa, and blacks with mainly left-leaning ideas for historical reasons. However, there is now a very rehearsed script to create a liberal party in South Africa transcending the racial divide and maybe to also recreate the face of South African politics.

At the end of 2018, a member of parliament for the Democratic Alliance (DA) Toby Chance introduced this idea by painting a likely or desired future scenario of South African politics through an article in the Daily Maverick (Wednesday 28 November 2018). According to him, a coalition between moderates within the African National Congress (ANC) and the DA will stave off tyranny was preferred “if the country is to avoid a descent into despotism.” He further added that in to avoid this unpleasant scenario, the ANC would need to split.

Of course this was a year after the ANC failed to split in 2017 when Cyril Ramaphosa defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to become its president by a thinnest of all margins. Close call indeed. Since then some graphic data surfaced that had Ramaphosa failed to win a new political party was going to be formed. In July 2019, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Julius Malema told crowds that were packed outside the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria that his party worked with Solly Mapaila of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Derek Hanekom (ANC) to oust former president Jacob Zuma.

This revelation did not come as a surprise at all since many people long suspected that a powerful clique within the ANC was well behind the formation of the EFF to destabilize the Zuma presidency. Malema explained that Hanekom had told the EFF that had the Dlamini-Zuma camp won the ANC leadership battle a new political party was going to be formed.

But evidence suggests that the plan was much broader than just an ANC split. The DA and other smaller parties in parliament, including the EFF, worked in unison in their gallant fight to remove Zuma. For a few years parliament simply stopped performing its duties while these parties were disrupting activities in the house through public stunts, interjections and litigation. However, the EFF appears to have fallen by the wayside since Zuma left, in public at least. New DA leader John Steenhuisen announced after his election that his party will work with the ANC.

The suggestion by Toby Chance was that the breakaway rational constitutionalists within the ANC would form a coalition with the DA and other like-minded smaller parties. And the ANC’s radical left presumably joining forces with the EFF, Andile Mngxithama’s Black Land First (BLF) and similar forces. Chance’s ideas correspond with those advanced in Leon Schreiber’s book titled ‘Coalition Country: South Africa after the ANC’. On his side, Schreiber argues that coalitions could become “the norm in South Africa, although they are not the only possibilities.” But Chance went one step further by openly suggesting a split of the ANC.

The DA started to clean up its ranks by quickly removing its leader Mmusi Maimane under the pretext that he was responsible for party’s poor showing in the national elections held in May 2019. He was also accused of taking the party to an undesired direction. And the party brought back Helen Zille to preside over the ‘renewal’ process, and this led to the resignation of Herman Mashaba as the mayor of Johannesburg. One cannot divorce the resignation of Stevens Mokgalapa on 02 February 2020 as mayor of Tshwane from the refocusing of the DA. Mokgalapa was said to be very close to Maimane in a party where the black voice was gaining strength under the ‘black caucus’. His seemingly manufactured scandal came at the right time.

Maimane’s strategy was obviously not what his bosses had in mind. His successor Steenhuisen told a group in Durban on 1 February 2020 that Maimane “had focused too much on criticising the ANC and not enough effort on presenting solutions.” This has infuriated Maimane who then blasted Steenhuisen as Judas (seemingly in reference to Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus in the Bible) for his comments. According to Maimane, there was nothing untoward because “all opposition parties were critical of the ANC under Zuma.” The fallout between Maimane and Steenhuisen explains what the new DA leadership is trying to do: to get closer to the present ANC leadership, which is suddenly faultless in its eyes.

When Chance wrote his article, he was dead worried about agitations for land reform in South Africa and other resolutions that were taken by the ANC’s elective conference at the end of 2017. In advancing his argument, Chance referred to the push for change in South Africa as constituting “outdated ideology,” which would lead to some form of paralysis. Outdated ideology, for Chance, refers to the ANC’s resolutions regarding the nationalization of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) as well as the land expropriation without compensation.

Chance’s view is the ANC’s current posture has ‘EFF-leanings’ (as he calls it). He then predicted that this would result in a mayhem, e.g. reduced investment, higher unemployment, more government debt, existential threats to our financial system, etc. Mashaba and many black leaders in the DA were seen as not helpful in the party’s new approach after the 2017 ANC elective conference. Maimane’s insistence to expose acts of money laundering at the conference caused irreparable damage between him and party bosses. The DA has largely remained mum on the millions of rands that were spent in the conference since their horse triumphed.

Perhaps some people would question why one has to be concerned with what the DA thinks since the ANC preaches ‘unity’ at every given opportunity, and therefore a talk of split should perhaps be not entertained. Well, the contestation of ideas in the ANC have been there for quite a long time. Mervin Gumede calls it “the battle for the soul of the ANC”. Thus, my opinion is that tug-of-war over the direction that the ANC should take going forward has not been more pronounced as it is now.

Not discounting the battles over soul that started in the 1940s – that eventually led to the formation of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – the present struggle is even more significant in that it goes beyond the ANC. It extends to include the unlikely players like the DA, churches, media, business and NGOs. This means that country has to take keen interest too, not just the ANC members. The present battle for the soul of the ANC also means that the form and shape of the organisation that was forged over five decades ago, when an alliance was formed white-dominated SACP at the time, will drastically change.

The DA appears to be standing on the pulpit delivering a sermon they think is key to dismantling ‘the broad church’. It is likely that the DA is not acting alone but its sentiments are shared by many inside the governing party. Even one were to consider the DA motion in parliament to impeach the present public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, it represents renewed confidence that the ANC in parliament will support it. But not only that, the DA understands its interests overlap with those of the liberal group within the ANC.

The ideological divide within the ANC seems to be more visible from space that the Chinese Wall. It would be quite disingenuous for anyone to deny that even Isaac Newton could battle to pinpoint the direction of forces in the ideology of the ANC. Led by the likes of Tito Mboweni, Pravin Gorhan and Enoch Godongwana, the ANC liberal lobby continuously seek sympathies from the public and openly challenges the party resolutions. The moderates see the ‘radicals’ within and without the ANC, e.g. the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black Land First (BLF) and others, as threats to South Africa.

Not that the anti-liberal lobby inside the ANC isn’t fighting back. The likes of Tony Yengeni and Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina openly air their views on their dissatisfactions with the direction the party appears to be taking. They have called for the removal of Gordhan as public enterprises minister, for example. In addition, secretary general Ace Magashule constantly criticizes policy dissidents for not towing the line. Magashule has told the ANC MPs that there is no way that they could back the DP-sponsored motion aimed at removing Mkhwebane as the public protector.

The squabbles within the ANC have a potential to shape the leadership battles going forward. The state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are now one area that show that exposes the fractiousness of the differences not just on organizational direction and succession but also on key economic policies. Recent appointments of CEOs and boards as well as certain key decisions in Eskom, Eskom, Denel, PIC and other state companies have been opposed in many quarters as undermining transformation and economic inclusion of blacks.

This is more like a repeat script in the South African politics.

Starting in the 1960s, the Nationalist Party (NP) and its support base, Afrikaner population, were divided over a number of issues pertaining to apartheid policies such as immigration, language, racially-mixed sporting teams, and engagement with black African states. Coincidentally, the NP also experienced a major apocalypse when the emergence of the ‘verkramptes’ (conservatives or radicals) and ‘verligtes’ (moderates or liberals).

It was in 1969 that the ‘verkrampte’ faction including Albert Hertzog and Jaap Marais, formed the Herstigte Nasionale Party (HNP). The new party saw itself as “the true upholder of pure Verwoerdian apartheid ideology.” Although the HNP never really fared well in any elections, it did get sufficient numbers “to erode support for the government at crucial points.” The racist verkramptes grew in strength as the NP was preoccupied with international isolation.

The NP internal politics can also be used to explain the proximity of the EFF, and even the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), to ANC radicals. The 1969 split of the NP was preceded by the expulsion of Japie Basson, a moderate, over disagreements pertaining to the racial questions. Basson went form his own National Union Party but would later rejoin the NP in the 1980s. Before this, he was also a member of the United Party and the Progressive Federal Party (under Theo Gardner). The Progressive Federal Party is a precursor of the Democratic Party (now the DA), which could be described as Gerdener’s attempt to come up with its own verligte solution to racial questions.” Gerdener served as the NP interior minister from 1970 to 1972 and prior to this he was an Administrator of the Natal Province (now KwaZulu-Natal).

The desired split of the ANC could resemble the shift of tectonic plates in the South African politics in that the ‘radicals’ could join hands with the EFF, BLF, NUMSA, etc. The ANC-light could partner with liberal DA and similar parties to trounce the radical formation in the same way the verligte-NP managed to throttle, and even ostracise, both the HNP and the Conservative Party (KP) in the running of South Africa. This idea isn’t far-fetched after all. The NP was absorbed by the ANC at the end of apartheid.

This coalition of liberals has been in the making for while since apartheid ended.

Firstly, the formation of Agang which later tried to forge a new partnership with the DA (remember the kiss of death between Mamphele Ramphela?) and the rapid rise of Mmusi Maimane in the DA are perhaps the two best examples of intensified effort to build a liberal party in South Africa. Secondly, another attempt saw the formation of the African Democratic Change (ADeC) which was still born, after it was alleged that George Soros’ Open Society Foundation decided against funding the new party after Nasrec. Hungary banned Soros and his organisation from supporting similar initiatives in that country. ADeC’s founder Dr Makhosi Khoza, an ex- ANC member of parliament, was shipped to the oppositinist Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). She twitted sometime this year that she had left the organization.

The strength of the ANC was a serious stumbling block towards realizing the goal of creating a liberal party.

So, the post-Nasrec era is seen as an opportune moment to give the liberal project another try. The engineers of the project want the ANC to split in order to get the required numbers from the ANC carcass. The strategy is simple. It basically entails getting the liberals to control the soul of the ANC, and/or formation of an alliance with the DA. The emergence of what analyst Clyde Ramalaine calls ‘Gordhanism’ in the South African national body politic provides a preview of what this new liberal will look like. Unfortunately, Mashaba and Maimane appear not to be aligned with this project, and that could have disastrous consequences for their planned political party.

The tectonic plates don’t appear to follow the old ideological lines. For example the SACP is much more to the right than its name suggests and will all in likelihood team up with the ANC moderates. The conflict in the City of Tshwane, which pits the ANC-EFF instant-coffee like friendship against the DA was staged to help the blue party to remove its mayor. The continued shenanigans will soon be exposed as nothing but the heightened political power play by the liberal project to entrench itself. The outcome will be a disaster or a dull affair like in Johannesburg.

But the lingering question is, who are the ANC moderates and what percentage do they command to gain significant numbers in polls? That is not a concern at all as the injection of cash in the last elective conference proved that it is easy to manipulate political outcomes. The ANC moderates have strengthened the DA and its ilk in the national discourse. Formations like Afriforum, and other liberal NGOs such Open Society Foundation, Free Market Foundation (FMF), OUTA, etc., now suddenly think they have an upperhand over all arms of the state. In 2018 Afriforum, for example, applied to court to stop parliament from debating section 25 amendments.

Nonetheless, my view is that the liberal project is not very far from being realised. The media leads from the front in promoting it and also advances liberal agenda with one goal in mind, ostracising radical forces. The strategy is devised in such a manner that radical elements inside and outside of the ANC are cornered via negative reports and singing praises for anyone who could be key in the implementation of the liberal project. Different media outlets openly defend the likes of Gordhan, and endlessly attacks those Chance calls ‘the EFF-leaning faction’ from Ace Magashule to NUMSA.

What is clear is that the DA would not be pronouncing on this preferred approach without having gauged the prospects of attaining some milestone through a coalition with ANC ‘moderates’. The strategy in place to establishing a liberal party entails brutal force, bullying and other strong-arm tactics to dealing with opponents. DA MP Dean Macpherson warned Maimane that “I think it won’t end well for you. Don’t take silence for not willing to expose secrets.” This was in response to the tweet where he expressed his misgivings above ‘Judas’ Steenhuisen.

At the centre of it all is the control of the country’s resources and the economy. This is all taking place right before the voter who remains illiterate when it comes to national issues: NHI, education, public procurement, education, energy, economic policy and legislative development.

Siya yi banga le economy!