Personal attacks within the ANC come either by smear or funeral oration; the organisation’s strong traditions of omerta allow few other avenues. So when the former South African president Thabo Mbeki recently warned incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa that his inaction was courting a new “Arab Spring”, there was a sharp intake of national breath. It was akin to Pope Benedict openly accusing Pope Francis of not saying his prayers.

Mbeki, it must be said immediately, has his own form. During his 1999-2008 form, he disbanded the country’s highly effective anti-corruption special task team, The Scorpions, when it was getting close to the criminal activities of some senior ANC members (including the National Police Commissioner). He introduced a state-sanctioned system of race-based extortion of wealth and opportunity under the guise of black empowerment, ushered in a new era of political cronyism, and gave rise to a new and truly avaricious economic elite, a multi-tentacled screen of parasites through which little national wealth percolates to the masses.

In The Mbeki Legacy, I labelled Mbeki a de-moderniser, for the simple reason that through ideological misdirection, he severely weakened the country’s institutional capacity, something the entirely malignant former president Jacob Zuma later took full advantage of to create his gangster state. Yet it would be unwise to ignore this attack from a cantankerous 80-year-old ex-president on the basis that a pot should not call a kettle black. It comes at a time of acute fragility in the life of the presidency, ruling party and nation — and has found wide resonance across racial lines. It is the stuff on which history sometimes hinges.

President Ramaphosa, once hailed as the modernising saviour of the country after the depredations of his predecessor, has not turned the country away from its trajectory towards a failed state. Institutional collapse is obvious in many state and para-state institutions and physical infrastructure is dire. Those citizens who can afford to have turned to private suppliers of health care, security and education. Going off-grid is now a staple of dinner conversation. Recognising the danger of a collapse of the national energy grid, Ramaphosa has belatedly sought support from private energy producers, primarily renewables.

In short, for many years now the country has already been undergoing an Arab Spring of its own as people take charge of their own communities: sometimes orderly, often chaotically and occasionally violently. The feuding ANC and its bankrupt state apparatus have lost real influence in the lives of ordinary citizens: so much so that an organisation called Afriforum, initially an Afrikaner civil rights group but now enjoying wide support across all race groups because of its feisty legal defence of wronged citizens, has stated its intention to make communities “state-proof”, ending their reliance on state-provided services.

All of this is a direct consequence of Ramaphosa’s refusal to reverse the core drivers of collapse and the enablers of corruption: race-based economic empowerment policies, inappropriate state appointments, expensive social welfare programmes, land seizures and a culture of impunity at all levels of state and elected office.

Perhaps more terminally, Ramaphosa’s integrity itself is now at stake. A bizarre incident, mischievously exposed by Zuma’s former head of State Security, himself accused of corruption, has emerged about hundreds of thousands of dollar bills (perhaps millions) being stolen from the President’s bush lodge two years ago. The theft, confirmed by Ramaphosa, was apparently not recorded by the police and the villains were pursued secretly by state intelligence agencies and bounty hunters in a bid to recover the loot.

Ramaphosa has thus far refused to give his version of this Netflix-type drama: typically, he hides behind a ponderous police inquiry to avoid having to personally deal with the criminals in his party. For years there has been little doubt about the President’s inability to control his cabinet, parliamentary caucus, party and country. But now not even his holiday home?

Last weekend, he finally lost control of the ANC KwaZulu Region, the largest bloc in his party and the strongest supporter of the ousted KwaZulu-based Jacob Zuma. The new grouping is largely pro-Zuma and headed by Siboniso Duma, a young and energetic man, who voted for Ramaphosa in the 2017 party elections but now, perhaps exasperated, has turned to the rebel and indeed insurrectionist faction grouped around Zuma.

None of this was entirely surprising. The Zulu traditionalists who make up a large part of the provincial ANC constituency have taken badly the usurpation of their man, Zuma, three years ago. The majority believe Ramaphosa is manipulating the legal system to persecute his opponents within the party. The province itself has been buffeted by a violent but failed insurrection in July last year, devastating 60-year floods, rampant politico-criminal gangs a la Sicily or Colombia, best-of-breed state corruption and high unemployment following the pandemic.

In the face of this growing crisis, President Ramaphosa, now widely and cruelly dubbed Cyril The Silent, has done virtually nothing more than offer trite homilies, anodyne solutions and occasional bunches of money. The people gathered at the ANC Conference, then, represented both the architects and the victims of their own misfortune. Either way, they have had enough of Ramaphosa.

Wenzeni uZuma (What has Zuma done?), the delegates to the regional conference in Durban sang when Ramaphosa arrived, a rather surprising question given the complex and wide range of criminal proceedings now underway against the 80-year-old Zuma. The conference also moved that the party’s “Step Aside” rule, requiring elected officials charged in criminal court to step down, should itself step aside. That something so glaringly right and necessary should be contested is a measure of how far the provincial party has drifted from modern tradition and how much they distrust Ramaphosa.

But the loss of KwaZulu Natal support will not necessarily end Ramaphosa’s bid for a second term as ANC Leader at the elective conference in December this year. He seems to have the other regions pretty much on side despite, perhaps because of, KwaZulu Natal’s bolshy stand. But the tumult, this further example of Cyril The Silent’s inability to control his party, certainly affects the ANC’s chance of retaining power in the 2024 general elections.

The consensus view is that the ANC will not win a majority, opening the way for a novel coalition-based form of government. The optimists foresee the prospect of a resurgent modernising coalition, perhaps including reformist elements of the ANC, the sort that Big Business had hoped Ramaphosa would deliver when they massively invested in his campaign for ANC leader in 2017 but did not get. The numbers from the municipal elections this year in which the ANC lost heavily, support this possibility.

The pessimists foresee things being pretty much the same after 2024: the ANC in alliance with like-minded groups, just more and different fingers in the till, a continuation of South Africa’s shambling march to irrelevance. The incorrigible simply do not believe the ANC would vacate office if voted out.

With all this looming, Mbeki’s reference to the Arab Spring is intriguing. Then, Arab despots were thrown out by a popular democratic uprising. Despite the limitless optimism of Western liberalism, most of the countries subsequently relapsed into either civil war or a re-engineered authoritarianism. All South Africans can do is pray that in 2024 they get the first part without the latter.

Ultimately, it may not matter much who governs South Africa. The existential threat faced by the country is the terrifying loss of skills, much of it driven out by the ANC’s affirmative action policies. Collapsed state training and educational institutions cannot introduce black candidates at sufficient a rate. There is the rub.

Yet South Africans are by and large a patient people. Even their rage tends to be expressed through activist forums, marches and legal channels. The prospects of a general insurrection, an Arab Spring, are thus limited. After all, the nation had that chance in July last year when KwaZulu Natal and parts of Gauteng burnt. It remained quiescent.

But without a competent state the nation will devolve into communal zones. The rich will live well. The poor will endure. The gaps will grow. This cantonising of the country is already happening and it is still largely around apartheid-era geographical divisions. The threat is therefore not popular uprising but decay: social, economic, political and cultural, just like the old days.

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