A famous historian archly observed that “the wheel of history is often turned by the god of irony”. We have no shortage of examples of this fundamental truth.

Joel Netshitenzhe, regarded as the reigning intellect of the governing party here, popularised the adage, “the sins of incumbency”.

In June 2012, when Jacob Zuma was in the first of his ruinous two terms as president and when the rand traded at a respectable R8 to the US dollar (versus about R15 today), Ntzethitenzhe wrote a paper for his party which proposed a gloss on the ANC’s document, “Organisational Renewal”.

Among proposals was this zinger: “The operationalisation of the Integrity Commission … that will have legitimacy and authority to call members who stray to order.”

Irony number one, eight-plus years and billions of corrupt rand later, is that the same party is still arguing about the remit of the same commission as the “hyenas feed” (to borrow President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2020 label of the corrupt cadres who populate his organisation).

The second irony in the paper was the author’s note that “there develops among rebel-rousers (sic), a nationalism of convenient victimhood, where radical slogans are used to hide incompetence and greed. The logic in this instance is: because you were oppressed, you can mess up, steal and plunder: and shout racism when challenged.”

That paragraph deserves to be engraved on every door at every government and ANC office. It is ironic in that it predated, by some years, the full-blown anti-white monopoly/radical economic transformation (RET) campaigns, both birthed by the same ANC NEC on which Netshitenzhe sits and, indeed, occupied office for the length of the Zuma presidency.

But the crowning irony in the paper is in its final paragraph, where it looks ahead to the conclusion of the first decade of the ANC centenary (2012-2021), ie now, and advised the party to “declare the first ten years of its second century … the Decade of the Cadre, so that we can clean up and improve quality”.

Of course, there is a grim consistency in the Netshitenzhe world view on the supremacy of the cadres and it goes back to the benign years of former president Nelson Mandela in 1997. That year saw a seminal paper written by Ntzethitenzhe, with the rather anodyne title, “The State, Property Relations and Social Transformation”.

But under its heading, there was a deadly paragraph which announced that SA under ANC tutelage was to be no run of the mill constitutional democracy. It also provided the opening for the corruption sluice gates, which would, in short order, flood the country under a sea of sleaze.

The paragraph reads: “Transformation of the state entails, first and foremost, extending the power of the [national liberation movement] over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals [SOEs], and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on.”

That fateful idea provided intellectual cover for the looting and feeding frenzy which has followed in the decades since. And that a merit-driven civil service was junked, that ideological and party commitment trumped all else beyond racial percentages were the signposts on the road to ruin.

However, “the sins of incumbency” idea has some universal application and we are seeing it in evidence far beyond the ferocious cockpit of the ANC and its wearying and interminable internecine faction fighting.

The US, as the last presidential election proved, is a competitive two-party democracy. The incumbent party often loses the White House (indeed the last three-term party hold on the presidency was in 1988). But in some of its most important states, this is not the case.

But for the sins of incumbency, look no further than the besieged Cuomo. Though theoretically fortified by a bulletproof majority of more than two thirds in the state assembly, Democrats have now turned on him and are demanding his resignation. This relates to multiple allegations of sexual harassment. And while more cautious voices await an independent probe, the firing squad from his party is mustering for a political kill.

Beyond the allegations is the complacency of incumbency. If the Democrats held office by only a razor-thin margin, it is unlikely the party apparat would have turned so quickly and fiercely against their top local standard bearer. And then there is the governor’s governing style: bullying and hectoring, he took no prisoners in his party to bend it to his will. And so, as he plummets downward, few among his party colleagues stand ready to break his fall.

Almost the same phenomenon is now on display in Scotland.

In one sense, the country bears some resemblance to SA, beyond that most people in employment there also work for the state.

It too has been forever and a day in thrall to one-party domination. Until 2007, Scotland was a one-party state for Labour. As recently as 2010 it swept up 41 of the country’s 59 seats in the national election for Westminster. But in the election for the devolved Scottish parliament three years before that, it lost power in Edinburgh to the Scottish National Party (SNP), then led by Alex Salmond. Within a decade of that, the SNP had established an iron grip over all of Scots politics, winning, in the last national election, 48 seats, with Labour reduced to one. In the elections for the devolved parliament, the SNP was unchallengeable with 63 of 129 seats under its control, more than twice its nearest rival (the Conservatives, with 31).

But this past year has seen Scotland riven by a ferocious internal fight between its first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the ousted Salmond. This too relates to issues of harassment levelled against Salmond, for which he was acquitted in court. Now it is all about Sturgeon and her knowledge of the issue, and whether she misled her parliament and whether Scottish institutions were misused in the process.

But the cracks and splits in the nationalist camp have been a long time coming. And it appears that when a party is unchallenged at the ballot box, it relaxes its grip and indulges in the internecine factionalism which eventually spills outward and erodes its hold on the loyalty of its voters.

Master politician and former UK prime minister Tony Blair, the only Labour leader to win three consecutive general elections, and the last one to deliver Scotland for Labour, offered this wisdom: “When parties look outward they win, when they look inward they lose.”

Sins of incumbency can be hazardous everywhere it seems.

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

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