STUART THEOBALD: ANC collapse is perhaps what SA needs

I suppose it could always have been worse. Imagine that Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma had won at Nasrec. Her former husband would be in comfortable retirement and the state capture machine (and other opportunists riding on the coat tails) would be feeding voraciously from every nook and cranny of the public sector. The government balance sheet would be shot, with ratings far into junk territory. The global financial system would have largely cut us off, alarmed at the criminal frenzy going on with impunity.

The country would be well on the way to total collapse. Lenders would have abandoned us, frightened off by ballooning debt levels. Economic growth would be in free fall as companies refused to invest, collapsing employment and tax revenue. The brain drain would be a flood as skilled locals left for more stable pastures. Eventually, government cash would run out and police, teachers and nurses would be paid late, and then not at all. Public services would collapse, with public servants not turning up to work. As a last step, we would have prostrated ourselves at the doors of the IMF, who would have imposed a regime of harsh austerity as a price for their rescue.

We avoided this fate thanks to the efforts of a technocratic elite at Nasrec who wanted to save us from disaster. They did that by persuading a razor-thin majority to back the Cyril Ramaphosa ticket. But it could never be a clean win. While we avoided the nightmare scenario, there were too many compromises for a total escape.

Five years later, as we head towards the next ANC elective conference at the end of 2022, are we truly better off for the achievements of the technocratic elite at Nasrec? What if instead we had collapsed into that existential crisis that was looming?

Societies learn from major crises. Globally, World War 2 was probably the last major global crisis in which elites failed to avert complete disaster. That led to fundamental reforms, including the creation of welfare states in Europe. Since then, we have drifted from one near disaster (such as the financial crisis) to another (Covid-19), in each case rescued by elites from complete collapse. As Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh noted last week: “Unable to see that less responsible leadership would have led to mass suffering, we feel at liberty to take risks in the polling booth. And so the absence of disaster becomes its own kind of disaster.”

Purgative crisis

Had Nasrec gone the other way, there would, I wager, be no liberties taken at the polling booths in SA. The ANC would have lost far more local councils in 2021. We would be heading for a wipeout of the party in 2024.

However, even though existential disaster was avoided, I sense increasing recognition by the elites that there is no way the party can restore itself and that perhaps we would be better off if true disaster struck. A purgative crisis is just what the body politic may need.

Everyone is sure the ANC will lose its majority in 2024, with the only serious question being whether it will be by so much that it cannot lead a coalition government and ends up being forced out. This will be put strongly to the test in December — if the technocratic elites have abandoned hope that the ANC can be rescued, we may well see Ramaphosa fall. This is far from certain — even those opposed to him recognise that 2024 will be a disaster without him, and that is why I think on balance he will remain. But the elites may come to the view that an existential crisis is precisely what is needed to ensure no-one takes risks in the polling booth come 2024 and what comes after has the potential to remake the SA state in a fundamental way.

For investors, the real risk is what comes in the run-up to 2024. If Ramaphosa is forced out in December, what would the interim arrangement be? If it causes a disruption to positive economic reforms, what will the price be in terms of civil unrest and instability? If it threatens key economic institutions such as the National Treasury and Reserve Bank, what will happen to debt levels?

Let me be clear — a crisis should not be desirable. It will extract a high short-term social and economic cost. But markets price for the future. A crisis can be painful in the short run but, as in the postwar period and the immediate postapartheid period in SA, it can also set the scene for deep, meaningful changes that set the country on a new more positive direction. Perhaps the lost opportunity in Nasrec will still be grasped.

• Theobald is chair of research-led consulting house Intellidex. This article first appeared in Business Day.