Opposition can be valuable
Around about this time in 2016, the ANC was wiping blood off its nose and trying to regain consciousness after receiving some bruising blows in the local government elections.
The party had been given an unusual hiding, losing three powerful metros that it had governed since the beginning of democracy and losing significant ground even in those municipalities where it retained majorities. An electorate whose loyalty and tolerance levels the ANC had taken for granted had rebelled by either switching to other parties or just staying away from the polls.
As the new coalitions took office, political players and watchers wanted to see how the ANC would react to losing power in the economic heartlands. Liberation movements on our continent tend to feel entitled to power and crook election processes to hang on to office, or – in cases where they have conceded defeat – become a disruptive force in society. So this loss was the ANC’s big test.
The ANC’s initial response to the setback in the metros and the general decline in support was one of shock and, to its credit, maturity.
While blabbering about “a reversal of our democratic gains and reassertion of power by our erstwhile colonisers”, and charging that many of the coalitions were “not based on principle” but on the need to remove it from power, the ANC called on its members and councillors to accept defeat and adjust to life in opposition.
In a message to the membership, then ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said: “In municipalities we do not govern, members of the ANC are called upon to constitute an effective and activist opposition. Ours is not to block or delay service delivery, but rather to protect the gains of our revolution and rally against any actions to reverse these.”
It was a refreshingly constructive and mature approach.
When the national executive committee met a few weeks later to comprehensively review the party’s election performance, it acknowledged that “disunity, factionalism and corruption have ... created a trust deficit between the people and the ANC”, which led to “a loss of confidence” in the party.
In response to this, the ANC would introspect, renew itself, “be continuously vigilant and reaffirm the values of the ANC – honesty, selflessness, sacrifice and humility”.
But, as we would find out in the subsequent 24 months, those were just words.
Right from the beginning of the current administrations’ terms – which run until 2021 – the ANC has been working to undermine and ultimately remove the coalition-run mayoral committees in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. In all three municipalities, ANC councillors have turned meetings into rowdy rallies and impeded the work of councils. Spurious motions of no confidence have been proposed or tabled. In Johannesburg, Mayor Herman Mashaba has survived two attempts to remove him; in Tshwane, Mayor Solly Msimanga had a narrow escape last week; while Nelson Mandela Bay’s Athol Trollip is now out of office.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with an opposition party giving a sitting administration a fright by threatening to oust it from power before
its term is up. But there has to be a really good reason for it – not just because someone’s favourite horse lost at the races. In the case of the three metros, the ANC has cheapened the value of opposition politics and the instruments used to
keep a government in check.
One can understand the almost hooliganistic approach of the ANC in Nelson Mandela Bay. The current ANC in that region, once a bastion of activism and intellectualism, is now run by an unkempt bunch whose thinking is as confused as the bees that permanently swarm inside Black First Land First leader Andile Mgxitama’s skull. What makes things even more complicated is that the party leaders see the city’s coffers as juicy deciduous fruit just waiting to be sucked dry.
The ANC caucuses in Johannesburg and Tshwane may not contain as much intellectual dynamite as they did in the past, but there is still some firepower in those benches that could be deployed to mount credible oppositional work. Instead, those who should be crafting and leading a credible opposition strategy for the ANC are subsumed by the noise of their comrades and are reduced to rabble-rousers.
This is a great pity. There is a lot that the ANC can do to hold the DA-led coalition governments to account – whether it is in the areas of delivery, economic development or probity. But each time ANC councillors have even attempted to do so,
they have come up with lame and half-baked efforts that were as unremarkable as Kaizer Chiefs’ performances.
The party that runs South Africa simply has not mastered the art of opposition politics. Or, rather, it is refusing to. It believes it should automatically be governing everywhere and finds this concept of being in opposition bizarre. The energy that is spent on destabilising the coalition governments instead of forcing them to work for the people is a result of this refusal to adjust to opposition life.
Instead of working against these governments – and against the interests of the people – just for the sake of it, the ANC should appreciate the value of being in opposition. It should learn how to bat for its constituents and add value to their lives.
That work – and not the time it spends on sabotage – is what voters will remember at the next election. And it may just help train the ANC for an inevitable future.