What price for power? Events in Ficksburg and elsewhere show that SA cannot be considered immune to the vicious succession battles seen in North Africa, Ivory Coast

Professor Jonathan Jansen (pic courtesy Timeslive)

Written by Jonathan Jansen

What is the meaning of Ficksburg? I did not see the question coming.

In a lecture to senior students at a UK university last week, the final query was this: if and when the ANC eventually loses the national elections, would they voluntarily relinquish power?

Just days earlier Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivory Coast president who refused to accept he lost the elections, was dragged from an underground bunker, Saddam Hussein-style, and slapped before being paraded with a swollen face and without his shirt before the world media.

Long doused in some version of South African exceptionalism, my patriotic instincts were offended, and I wanted to say: "Of course they would concede power."

But I paused, and the longer I paused, the more uncertain I became about the answer, and the students noticed.

What triggered my hesitancy was the vicious fighting going on around the country about comrades who did not make election lists. It was the behaviour of powerful cadres almost the day after the last president was dethroned and another installed, as they schemed about succession in the next five years. It is the tangible sense that for most of those jostling for power, for their time to eat, as the metaphor goes, retaining power and privilege is a "do-or-die" affair.

It was the viciousness with which the two COPE leaders took each other down, the party paying for their power-hungry schemes.

It was the fresh round of rumours about "plots" to overthrow President Jacob Zuma at the next party congress, and the still-murky role of state intelligence services in these processes. It was the failure of senior ANC leaders to act against younger leaders and unionists for outrageous attacks on opponents and routine, often violent, disruptions of schools and services. It was the assassination of political opponents in some provinces.

Since the UK lecture, Ficksburg happened.

Frans Cronje of the SA Institute of Race Relations suggests that Ficksburg marks a shift in the role of police from protecting the public to defending the politicians, from defending the Constitution to repressing the constitutional right to protest, from upholding civil liberties to attacking a man frustrated with the government's failure to deliver on its promises.

When one man in North Africa set his body alight, out of similar frustration, I asked several South African thinkers: What is the meaning of Tunisia? Shortly thereafter this single act triggered a domino-like collapse (or pending collapse) of authoritarian regimes in several Arab countries.

South Africans must now ask: What is the meaning of Ficksburg?

The man killed by the police was by all accounts a decent citizen, a married man, a responsible community leader who tutored school children in critical subjects. So what happens, then, when the institutions of state - the police in this case - descend upon subjects with such violence that a man is killed in order to defend a dysfunctional government?

When I asked on Facebook if the ANC would voluntarily give up power after an electoral loss, my status page went viral. In no time 100-plus responses came from everywhere. The majority - black and white - said "no", that like all nationalist parties in Africa, the ANC would not let go without a massive fight. A few who cited precedent to defend the ANC: KwaZulu-Natal in 1994, and the Western Cape ever since.

But we forget that the concession to the IFP in 1994 was in effect part of a bitter one-off settlement to keep Buthelezi from seriously damaging the democratic transition; and that the decision seriously ticked off the ANC in that province.

And the venom unleashed by the ruling party on the DA and its coalitions for daring to win the Cape province, and the racist charges that continue to be levelled at the people of that region for not acquiescing to complete ethnic African dominance, suggests an uncomfortable answer to the question.

So my question remains: Would the ruling party really give up power to victorious opponents, having fought for it for almost a century?

Or in the party vernacular, what if the ANC loses before Jesus comes?

(This story was provided and used with permission by Timeslive.)