RW Johnson: Home truths about the DA and coalition governments

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Helen Zille’s very good article on PoliticsWeb, “Why it is so hard to fix what the ANC has broken” (7 January 2023) points out that almost every public institution which the ANC has governed for any length of time is liable to be riddled with criminal syndicates of one kind or another.

Moreover, as Helen points out, any new set of governors will find it extremely difficult to root out such practices because the laws have been written to make it very difficult to dislodge employees no matter how poorly they behave. 

As a result they are well able to resist efforts at reform, sometimes aided and abetted by corrupt trade unions. As Helen says, what happened at Eskom under Andre de Ruyter’s three years in charge – continuous sabotage, culminating in an attempt to assassinate De Ruyter – is a good example of what a DA minister might face in a coalition government.  

The difficulties of coalition    

The big question lurking behind this discussion is whether the DA should enter a coalition with the Ramaphosa administration if the ANC loses power in 2024 – if indeed such a coalition is offered. The difficulties are daunting. No one in the DA has any experience of national government. Many of its MPs have been town councillors, but that’s all. The party is short of the sort of highly capable managerial talent necessary to run a ministry well. 

Imagine, for example, a DA minister in charge of Home Affairs. 

A friend in Gauteng tells me of sorties to Home Affairs only to find offices there staffed with people who all have the same surname because their family has established a grip on that part of the administration. Meanwhile, visitors are made to queue in the street in the full sun. As they wait a tough guy goes along the line offering to jump them to the top of the queue with a chair to sit on for R50 or R100. Effectively the staff have turned the queue into a revenue-producing scam. But of course there are many larger scams in the procurement area, the “phantom worker” phenomenon and so on.

In Cape Town there is open corruption in the Home Affairs office when it comes to dealing with desperate Zimbabweans keen to renew their residence permits. Zimbabwean refugees who are frequent visitors to these offices tell stories of officials who quite openly demand money before they will look at any file or deal with any particular case – and, allegedly, often they take the money and still do nothing.  

No doubt Home Affairs offices all round the country have similar tales to tell. 

So what would a DA minister do ? If he or she tries to crack down on corruption – ie. reduce the revenue-earning power of civil servants – the minister will face strong resistance and possibly have to worry about cyanide in their coffee. Almost certainly the minister’s whole term of office will be consumed with struggles within their own department. 

One should remember Maria Ramos’s turn in charge of Transnet. She did her best, tried to insist on higher standards and had to get rid of more people than she could count. And she was much assisted by her high status in the ANC. Nonetheless Transnet continued its downward slide.

We have, of course, got used to ministers saying they can’t do things because their department “lacks capacity” but this should not be lamely accepted. No one doubts that the civil service which the ANC inherited in 1994 was experienced and capable. When the shortage of skilled African applicants was pointed out, Thabo Mbeki said that the notion of such a shortage was merely “an urban legend”. In effect this blindness meant deliberately choosing incapacity.

Thus a decision by the DA to join a coalition government is certainly not simple or automatic. At the moment the DA has already – naively – talked about a possible coalition with the ANC. This is a mistake. Coalition government is about hard bargaining and by appearing eager to offer a coalition partnership, the party undermines its own future bargaining position. 

Julius Malema, always a shrewd player, has already ruled out a coalition  – strengthening his ultimate bargaining position if the ANC comes calling.

Nearing the end of an era

Certain home truths need to be bluntly put. We are now nearing the end of an era. The entire African nationalist project has failed and has, indeed, been a catastrophe for South Africa. Black intellectuals are in a nervy state for they can see this inescapable truth and are worried that it will be interpreted in racial terms to suggest that Africans are congenitally incapable. There are some white racists who do believe this but it is, of course, wrong. There are numerous capable Africans in South Africa – almost all of them in the private sector. There are virtually no such people in government. 

But the discussion about African abilities is the wrong debate. The real point is that the ANC government is wholly incapable of running a modern industrial society. Under their administration the country appears to be in irreversible decline. It seems clear that the downward slide will continue under Ramaphosa and that the entry of the DA into a coalition government would not reverse it, though it might conceivably prop up the ANC a little longer.

The ANC’s failure is part of a sociological and historical process which is already well under way. The various demands for renewal or for new national compacts are simply part of that process: they mean nothing. The country’s continuing downward slide means that urban black voters will desert the ANC. 

When the ANC lost power in Cape Town it still had 38% of the vote. Deprived of patronage its vote has fallen at every election since, despite a huge increase in the African population of Cape Town. At the last election it fell to 18%. 

It will be the same story nationally. The ANC has already lost power in several metros and unless they are able to dislodge the Opposition coalitions now ruling these metros, they too will suffer attrition as their loss of patronage begins to tell against them. 

At the ANC’s hybrid conference Ramaphosa  expressed his distress at the state of the host city, Bloemfontein. For it has been exclusively run by the ANC for over 25 years and is thus a ruined city. As the lesson sinks in that ANC rule is incompatible with a modern urban society, the ANC era will end. It cannot survive so huge a failure.

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