Political anoraks certainly, and probably many concerned citizens, will enjoy a new book by seasoned journalists Adriaan Basson and Qaanitah Hunter entitled Who Will Rule South Africa?
Who indeed is the topic de jour as recent opinion polls suggest that, for the first time in three decades, ANC hegemony could end or at least be severely dented in 2024. The authors conclude that “the 1994 election was critical for the birth of South Africa’s democracy; 30 years later, the 2024 election is vital for the endurance of democracy”.
While several parties jostle to be midwife to the rebirth of our homegrown democracy, the ailing ANC has struck on a novel way of retaining power. It seeks electoral reward for starting to fix — far more than a day late and a dollar short — the very spine of the nation, from electricity to ports and water, which it broke in the first place.
Chief witness for the prosecution here is the spectacularly misnamed minister of electricity. This week Kgosientsho Ramokgopa praised his department and power stations for “surpassing the 30,000MW milestone”, omitting the grim statistic that before the ANC took over in 1994, Eskom was generating 37,840MW of electricity. But if you were game planning the ANC election prospects, you would hope that voters would reward you for being able to switch on the lights without thinking how the abnormal has become normal.
But the wider world of politics and elections offers some useful pointers for the potholed road to 2024 in South Africa.
Last Sunday, Argentina — a country whose politics I observed first-hand in the mid-2010s — threw up two useful indicators for government and opposition contenders here. If South Africa faces relegation to failed nation status, Argentina, which famously was one of the top 10 economies in the world a century ago, is in a league of its own. And it’s not one to join any time soon.
Despite once having a GDP per capita higher than Germany, France or Italy — and still possessed of vast mineral and agricultural riches today — its 46-million people suffer an inflation rate of 138%, about 40% live in poverty and the country holds the world record for sovereign debt defaults — nine — since independence in 1816.
Yet in the first-round presidential election last weekend, incumbent economy minister Sergio Massa, whose Peronist movement dominates Argentine politics in a manner eerily reminiscent of the ANC, managed in a crowded field to finish first with 36.7% of the vote.
The runner-up against whom Massa will face off in the final round next month, Javier Milei, is a sort of Trumpian mould-breaker who represents what happens when a nation despairs of any establishment politician or party riding to its salvation.
Argentina has a long-time addiction to economic subsidies, government interventions and populist quick fixes. Yet wild-haired Milei — who campaigned with a chainsaw in hand to show how he would demolish the political establishment — offered tough-love libertarian alternatives, from dollarising the economy to radically reducing public spending.
The eccentric nature of the runner-up and possible next president — who claims to use his dogs (including a deceased hound) as his advisers and practises tantric sex — was well described in one tweet.
“Populism Updates”, one of the better sites on toxic X, offered this observation: “There are two candidates in Argentina’s presidential run-off. One says he takes political advice from the ghost of his dog, who he claims to have met in a past life in Rome when he was a gladiator and his dog was a lion. The other is a Peronist, which is kind of hard to explain.”
Juan and Evita Peron, who rode to power in the early 1950s, retain an enduring and even mystifying hold on Argentina.
If the ANC defies dire poll numbers, horrific economic mismanagement, widespread poverty and endemic corruption to prevail here next year, this too might be “kind of hard to explain”.
More happily explicable, and against the odds, was the routing on October 15 of the populist and xenophobic long-ruling government in Poland. The right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) was beaten by a combined centrist opposition coalition. It had warned Poles that PiS would use another spell in government to “seize control of the courts, fill the state with apparatchiks and wreck Poland’s standing with the European Union”.
Poland, like South Africa, had its democratic awakening in the heady 1990s and was seen as Eastern Europe’s best and brightest hope for economic and democratic revival after decades of authoritarian rule. Much as we were seen in Southern Africa.
And like South Africa under Nelson Mandela, Poland under Lech Walesa — also a Nobel laureate and liberator — delivered on the combination of sound economics and decent democratic practice.
This was unstitched under the hard-right populism of its now-ousted government. The voters rebelled. Even though the electoral landscape was heavily tilted in favour of the incumbents: PiS “deployed the state media and state-owned companies to blitz the country with propaganda”, according to The Economist. Apparently, the voters were PiSed off enough to make their own decisions.
Let’s see what happens here in a few months’ time.