Few people, today, would not lament the wasted years of apartheid.
Yet, in spite of being participants in a disaster that slowly unspooled over 46 years, National Party voters, by and large, kept the faith. The stemvee, the voting cattle, as the Nats disparagingly referred to their blindly loyal supporters, would probably have continued to vote for the party that had put the country in the dwang, were it not for a confluence of external factors.
What reminded me of those frustrating years was a recent dinner party at which I was a guest. The people were all highly intelligent, successful professionals.
These were pragmatists, seemingly unmoved by populism or ideology, and from their privileged vantage points within the machinery of government, they were all painfully aware of the failures of the public service.
This, theoretically, was the ultimate group of rational political actors. Yet in one of those rare moments of candour that can happen when the conversation sparkles and the wine flows, most of those who had voted in May admitted, somewhat embarrassingly, that they had voted for the ANC.
It was deja vu. Here were the new Nationalists, now dressed in black, green and gold rather than the oranje, blanje, blou of the PW era.
One can proffer many reasons for this kind of stubborn, political perversity, this inability to translate rational thoughts into rational actions. The cliches say it all: hope springs eternal; people would rather deal with the devil they know, than the devil they don’t.
It’s also the psychological difficulty of abandoning an ideal that you have spent a lifetime fighting for. Whether this is the advancement of the Afrikaner or the enfranchisement of the black majority, the struggle ensnares its disciples.
In this case, unanimously, their continued support for the ANC, despite its poor performance for at least the past decade, was based on an almost messianic belief in Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa might or might not be able to save the country, but certainly there was no one else around who could.
This is the power of Ramaphosa. People have remarkable confidence in him.
So, what’s holding it all back? Are there good reasons for Ramaphosa’s timidity? Not on the statistical evidence.
This week, a poll by Citizen Surveys found that Ramaphosa’s approval rating is 62% (down from 64%), against 28% (down from 29%) for Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane, and 25% (down from 31%) for the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema.
These are extraordinary levels of support for Ramaphosa, given that the economy is slowing, unemployment is growing, a final junk-bond rating looms and the revelations of hundreds of millions spent on his leadership campaign.
Yet, critically, for a man heading a divided party, his internal rivals have inconsequential support. Deputy President David Mabuza scored only 21%, while ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule drew a miserable 11% approval rating. Similarly encouraging is the fact that Malema, whose firebrand populism has terrified the ANC into moving left, is now less popular than Zuma was at his lowest level.
Given how the numbers appear to stack up, South Africans should now be able to count on Ramaphosa to stop dicking about and, at last, to act. Time is short and all around the country, middle-class dinner guests are holding their breaths, hoping their faith will be vindicated.