A few years ago, former DA leader and Western Cape premier Helen Zille – she whom many love to hate – responded to a question at the launch of her book Not without a fight. She said that in her opinion, the ANC would eventually get out of office, but not without a fight. It left me wondering whom she had in mind when she wrote her book (other than her own fascinating story, with all its soft and hard bumps).
It can safely be said that in the broader scheme of things, few were unhappy with the ANC taking the baton from the erstwhile National Party – aka the party of apartheid – to lead South Africa into a better shared future.
We know that just over a century ago in January 1912, when the then-South African Native National Congress (SANNC) was established, its aims were noble indeed. Its esteemed founders – the likes of Saul Msane, Josiah Gumede, John Dube, Pixley ka Isaka Seme and Sol Plaatje, among other eminent members of society – had all come together after years of struggle, having identified a need to bring all Africans together to defend their human rights and fight for a just society.
After many decades of struggle to defeat apartheid – decades characterised by countless imprisonments; deaths of its members by hanging, being pushed from high buildings, shot in the streets of our townships, tortured to death and braaied on farms, killed by apartheid death squads in safe houses and camps on foreign soil – what was now the ANC finally got to taste power in 1994. It is a story we all know, the culmination of a long walk to freedom most of us identified with, our collective story
But too much power corrupts. And too many easy electoral victories corrupt even more, breeding arrogance and impunity. We are now caught in such a time warp, still emotionally trapped in our yesterday – strapped to the devil we know – and too blinded to consider alternative offers. Yet we long for a future we know they will not give us.
Looking back, the past 25 years since the end of apartheid have given us a mixed bag of sweet and sour outcomes. Apartheid may be gone forever, with all its humiliations for black South Africans, and a number of corrective policies have been put in place, thanks to the ANC. Unfortunately, however, the same ANC has given with one hand and taken away with the other. And it has taken away a lot, including our ability to imagine a thriving South Africa without it. As time passes, the value of what has been given is progressively decreasing.
Yet South Africa does not only need a change in leadership – either new faces in the same governing party, or a different governing party altogether. The country faces an outflow of skills, cash and rand-based investments, as well as an ever-more concerning unemployment rate – most recently, 29%.
In order to change these trends, the country needs deliberate, systemic changes to the way political office bearers are elected; the way officials in public office are appointed; and – importantly – how all of them are held accountable for their actions, or removed if they are no longer acting in the country’s best interests.
Citizens must be given more power to act against rogue politicians and public office bearers and our key institutions of democracy must be strengthened and structurally shielded from the unpredictable influence of the men and women in politics.
In agreeing to limit presidential mandates to two consecutive terms, we were blindsided and had our collective focus taken away from the fact that we vote for political parties, in South Africa; not individuals. The incongruence has begun to hurt our country.
Our Constitution limits the presidential mandates of individuals we do not vote for to two consecutive terms, while the presidential terms of parties we vote for, and who hold the elected power, can go on forever, even after they run out of ideas to meet the challenges of contemporary South Africa head-on.
Systemically, we are in danger. We face a dangerous set of dynamics for a democracy that was never intended to be governed by one political formation forever.
The governing party should go because it needs space to find itself again and define a new vision. We just have to look around us. Things are crumbling while those who run the country fight for control of what remains of our collective assets, increasingly incapable of articulating clear political and economic policies.
Zille appears to have seen something many of us did not, while we were yearning for a future we know will remain impossible if we continue to fear change.