Newly elected (by the tiny universe of her own party members) British PM Liz Truss has surfed to power on a blue wave of Conservative support, though by a lesser margin than polls predicted, or any of her recent predecessors enjoyed.
Still, a win is a win, and though she might soon founder on the treacherous reefs of Britain’s multiple energy, inflation and public service strikes crises, she will savour her moment. On topic, commentator Robert Shrimsley, writing in the Financial Times this week, noted: “Liz Truss should enjoy the next 48 hours. They may be the happiest of her premiership. It is hard to think of many new prime ministers who have faced so many different crises from day one.”
On the other hand, expectations are exceedingly downbeat — most voters polled, and the reliable bookmakers’ odds, suggest she will “enjoy” a brief stay at Number 10 unencumbered by any success before her ejection by either her restless party or the voters in 2024, at the next British general election. The advantage of dismal expectations, the proverbial low bar of politics, is that it is easier to surprise on the upside, and even a modest success can be interpreted by settled opinion — and those who inform public expectations — as a triumph.
Australians have a marvellous put-down for those who refract their analysis through the prism of matters British as “the colonial cringe”.
I will ignore this caution to observe that both British and SA voters in just two years’ time will go to the polls with heightened expectation in both countries that their long-serving governments might be ejected from office. In Britain the lag is in their terms a long one since there was a change of ruling party: 2024 will mark the fourteenth year of uninterrupted Conservative government, though the Tories have changed leaders and prime ministers no less than four times in that period.
The year 2024 will mark the ANC’s thirtieth in power and the permanence of one-party domination here predates the arrival of full-blown democracy and with it the party’s ascendance. Though pre-1994 was hardly democratic, white politics (then the only sort which could legally change governments) was competitive but wearingly predictable: the National Party held sway for an uninterrupted forty-six years. On this measurement, one-party rule under different systems has dominated for an extraordinary seventy-six years.
In fact, it was only the change of systems and the expansion of the electorate which ejected the National Party from power. Hence the tantalising question now is whether under democratic rules of political engagement the long dominant ANC could ever be voted out of power, given the huge gap (more than forty points) which separates it from its nearest competitor (the DA).
Of course, among a huge number of differences between Britain and SA is the voting systems. Theirs is first-past-the-post winner-takes-all constituencies, while our proportional system is akin to a Montessori School: every loser gets a gold star, or a seat in parliament for just one quarter of one percent of the total vote. Hence the blizzard of obscure personality and regional cult parties in the current parliament, and the “independents” who will populate the next election ballot paper (as I referenced in my column here on 24 August).
On the expectations front, there was a world of difference between newly elected British PM Truss and the four year-plus presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa (also initially installed in office by just a fraction of the party faithful).
When he became party leader in December 2017 and country president two months later, there was only sunny uplands, or his touted “new dawn”, on the political horizon. Both ANC supporters and even staunch opponents celebrated the arrival of an apparently untainted, business-savvy, articulate helmsman who would lead the country into the safe harbour of the much-touted “better life for all”. The very party slogan which his corruption-drenched and scandal-soaked predecessor, Jacob Zuma, had so debased. Truss might have just two days to enjoy her triumph before dismal reality sets in, as per the Financial Times. Ramaphosa, by contrast has had four years and for much of it enjoyed every benefit of every doubt from party supporters, opponents and certainly the commentariat. Now that the screen has been pulled back, many now realise he was all along more of a Wizard of Oz than a Merlin.
On Monday, writing in Business Day, the clear-eyed assistant editor of the Financial Mail, Claire Bisseker, whose scepticism is entirely based on her ability to crunch the numbers and read the national balance sheet without recourse to spectacles tinted with rose, noted: “I am always puzzled by these perennial optimists who constantly expect that SA is just about to turn the corner. I wish I could share their enthusiasm when the evidence suggests that we’re in for more stagnation and decay …”
On the government’s fixes for the energy, infrastructure, fiscal and governance deficits which piled up during “the state capture years”, her doubts turn to denunciation of the top man: “Yes, the government has plans to overcome these challenges, but given the dithering and political expediency that has marked President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first term, South Africans have lost faith in the government’s ability to execute a growth plan.”
No doubt copious amounts from an exhausted fiscus “and diminishing pool of taxpayers” money will be sprayed by the Ramaphosa government in the next 48 months to disguise that the wizards at the top no longer cast a spell and no longer enthral the audience, most of whom have ceased to pitch up at the polls. PM Truss, from a far stronger economic base, is likely to do the same as Britain heads back again (after an absence of more than forty years) into “the winter of discontent”.
The most revealing difference, however, between the Tories and ANC, is a true inversion of racial expectations.
Back in the brief golden years of the Mandela era and even afterwards in the more paranoid Mbeki reign, as good Leninists the ANC fixated on what it termed “the national question”, or how minorities found their place in the ANC firmament. Hence, Indian bon vivant Kader Asmal, a cabinet minister, ruefully recounted in the parliamentary pub how Mandela had twisted his arm to stand against Mbeki as party chairperson. After Asmal’s big loss, and when asked why he had stood in such a hopeless contest, he said “Mandela wanted to see some minority figures in the top posts.”
Last month, the same party in Asmal’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, which houses one of the largest Indian populations in the world, chose to elect a provincial executive committee, its highest council of governance, absent a single member of the giant Indian community from Durban (or from anywhere else in KZN). The ANC, which routinely mouths tributes to Gandhi, has now cleansed itself of any of his kind from its upper ranks.
The extraordinary and diverse makeup of the new British cabinet appointed by Truss this week is a study in contrast — a triumph of diversity (the final list was not known at the time of writing, though the informed opinion was set.) And given that the ANC worships at the altar of enforced racial demographics and the Tory church is free of this catechism, it is worth noting that probable new chancellor Kwazi Kwarteng is the son of Ghanaian immigrants, likely foreign secretary James Cleverly has a mother from Sierra Leone, and home secretary Suella Braverman is of Mauritian-Kenyan parentage. Rock ribbed Conservatives all, but as The Times of London noted, “Liz Truss is preparing to appoint the first cabinet in history in which the none of the great offices of state will be held by a white man.”
People from ethnic minority backgrounds in Britain make up, according to 2019 figures, 14.4% of the UK. In SA the figure is about 20%. The difference in their political preferment in both places is surprising. More telling, perhaps, is how this inclusion and exclusion, respectively, might weigh on the political outcomes in both places in two years’ time.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA