Hard-pressed taxpayers need to brace themselves for the latest squeeze from the ANC.

This is a recent proposal to increase state (i.e. taxpayer) funding of political parties from R146m annually to a whopping R500m, a surge of more than 240%.

It’s an update of the definition of corruption in the city of Chicago – home of Al Capone –  “the real crime was what was legal”.

Before heading for the drinks cabinet or emigrating over yet another of the endless pillages on your pockets at this economically stressful time, it’s worth examining when, if ever, the patient voter and taxpayer cries “halt, enough”.

I am currently revising a new book I have written reflecting on our country’s future and current ailments. One of the key issues I consider is when “the liberation dividend” expires.

This is useful shorthand for explaining the durability of governing parties whose long years in government are not explicable by achievements in office but more due to voter gratitude for their role in the country’s liberation.

I found many examples, though none have endured forever as at some point the liberation ticket expires, usually when weary voters, the fed-up citizens enraged by either corruption, authoritarian leadership, poor economics or unmet promises, or some combination of these ailments, decide to “throw the rascals out”.

The longest recorded liberation government in recent history was the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (RPI) closely identified with the country’s independence. It held power for most of the 20th century (1929-2000). It used a combination of patronage politics, electoral fraud and ideological flexibility to maintain its grip over seven decades. But deep corruption was its undoing, and although its leader would one more time enter the presidential palace, in 2018 its presidential candidate received only 16.55% of the vote, its lowest in history.

Ireland’s Fianna Fail (“Soldiers of Destiny”), the party founded by Republican hero and President Eamon de Valera, was at the forefront of the barricades for Irish independence. It too was long in office as the natural party of government, enjoying about 61 years in power, either alone or in coalition. It too presided over epic corruption scandals and managed to lose its monopoly on power in 2011 when it suffered the worst defeat of a sitting government in the history of Ireland.

A downward arc – from total power to irrelevant marginalisation – was followed by two parties which were correctly credited with the creation of their states in modern form  and which dominated government and country, and for both these were interchangeable terms, for decades.

India’s National Congress Party – the movement of Gandhi and Nehru – held dominant sway in the world’s largest democracy from independence, the achievement of which was its most potent electoral weapon, in 1947 through to 1977, when the authoritarianism of Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, saw it swept from office in a landslide. It would, under various Gandhi children, return to power again, but in 2017, under yet another Gandhi (grandson Rahul), it obtained a paltry 52 of 542 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. It is best remembered now for its past achievements, not for its future prospects.

Israel’s Labour movement, Mapai, and later the Labour Alignment, had under its founder and long-serving prime minister, David Ben Gurion, totally dominated modern Israel from its founding in 1948. Opposition leader, later prime minister, Ariel Sharon – a famous soldier – ruefully noted that it was impossible to be promoted into the higher ranks of the fabled Israeli Defence Force absent a Labour party membership card. It too became complacent in its unchallenged power, corrupt and cavalier in its essential task of safeguarding the country, as the 1973 war proved. It lost power in 1977 and, although it would return to office on occasions thereafter, by 2019 it had been reduced to political irrelevance, returning a tiny parliamentary faction of just six seats in the 120-member Knesset. Its return from the political graveyard is improbable, even in the land of biblical miracles and resurrections.

The French Gaullists, France’s pre-eminent party of national liberation and post-war government, are today a rump of a movement. In the 2017 presidential election its candidate, Francois Fillon, at the centre of a nepotism and corruption scandal, barely scraped 20% of the vote in the first round and was eliminated. In the final round, voters chose Emanuel Macron as president, who had started a new party, En Marche, just before the election, indicating French revulsion with “politics as usual”.

Africa too, in places from Nigeria and Ghana to Senegal and Malawi, has seen the uptick of democracy oust once-dominant parties from power.

South Africans sometimes see themselves and the country as exceptional, so perhaps none of these examples are applicable here. But what is clear is that in the modern democratic world there is no such thing as an enduring natural majority party of government, absent of massive state-aided electoral fraud or some military intervention. Perhaps that is why the ANC needs to plunder the taxpayers’ purse right now.

The second reason is allied to the first: each of the longest-serving dominant parties were undone in the end by the very factor which ensured their longevity: untrammelled power leads to its abuse and over time the excesses, and the lack of empathy with ordinary voters bred by arrogant and out-of-touch political potentates, curdles such strong repulsion among voters that, in their numbers, they turn against their political overlords.

By the time the next general election is scheduled in SA, in 2024, the ANC will have been in power for an unbroken 30 years, the same time span which saw the removal of the liberation/governing parties of India and Israel respectively for the first time, hastening their future irrelevance. How likely does the same rejection slip beckon for SA’s liberators?

Long before that date, in a few weeks hence on November 11 2020, an unprecedented 96 municipal by-elections, delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown, will be held. This will provide a clue whether local voters have an appetite for change or are content with the status quo. And while you cannot translate local results onto future general election outcomes, the November electoral tea leaves will be interesting to read.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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