As the poor lose hope, anarchy looms larger
I have made this point before on these pages but in light of the events in Marikana recently I must return to it.
This is the point: It remains my contention that, for all its faults, its incompetence and its inability to keep its eye on the ball, we owe the ANC a debt of gratitude. We owe the ANC this for a single but powerful overarching achievement.
In the depths of the despair of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ANC was the single organisation that managed to keep us all - left and right, white and black, young and old - together. The key to that was the articulation of the party's vision that, as Thabo Mbeki put it, our tomorrow would be better than our today, that our future would hold something better for each one of us.
This vision was particularly important in making sure that the poor of South Africa bought into the 1994 democracy project.
Instead of a winner-takes-all political and economic settlement we had a pragmatic and consensual dispensation.
It was not perfect but that consensus has given us a great country for 18 years. We have not achieved to our expectations, but we have not been total failures either.
Somehow, today, the ANC still manages to convinces many of us - and particularly the desperately poor, who feel most the effects of massive food-price rises, inflation and other ills - that tomorrow will be better than today.
What happens when the ANC loses this ability to convince the poor and marginalised that there is a better tomorrow, and an even better day after that? What happens when, like the Marikana mineworkers, this constituency starts to believe that, in fact, tomorrow will not be better?
What happened on the platinum mines is that those poor, uneducated, superstitious men sought a better tomorrow elsewhere. First, they dumped the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Then they believed in the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which has on many occasions promised, but not always delivered, exorbitant salary increases.
Then those workers abandoned both unions and went up that hill of death. Though Amcu's representatives received a somewhat warmer response than the NUM president Senzeni Zokwana, who was told in no uncertain terms to pack up and leave, the truth is that those workers were unorganised and unrepresented.
Formal structures of representation had, in their view, let them down. They were open to a flirtation with Amcu, and the likes of the expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, but they were alone.
For many among them, the only weapon they had was a desperate one: that good, decent people would not kill them. That belief, too, was abandoned.
Then they opted for violence. They lost faith in the ability of our police to restrain themselves. So they anointed themselves with useless potions and girded themselves for war. They chose anarchy over dialogue.
What happens when the 7million unemployed young people in our country reach these levels of desperation and disillusionment? What happens when they stop believing that tomorrow will be better than today? It might make many of us quiver with fear, but here is the cold, hard truth: they will opt out of the current social, economic and political arrangements and they will choose anarchy.
So what now? Several scenarios offer themselves. The first is that the ANC wakes from its slumber and realises that, after 18 years of promises, it is what it does and not what it says that matters now. It cannot blame apartheid for anything now. It is in charge of the purse strings and it has received the people's votes. It has to govern, and govern decisively and well.
When people see the fruits of such governance - jobs, schools that work, less corruption - then they will re-invest in the dream they bought into 18 years ago.
The second scenario is that the ANC remains in the grip of the rapacious, me-first, it's-our-turn-to-eat brigade that is dragging it down. If the party stays on this trajectory, it opens the way for two types of new player to emerge. One would be a credible, ethical and believable opposition that can convince the electorate that the 1994 project of hope and prosperity can be continued.
The other new player would be a coalition of populists of the sort of Julius Malema. That coalition would promise largesse, milk and honey, without proffering a shred of evidence about how exactly it would be achieved.
This way lies disaster and we would be on that well-trodden path most lately walked by Zimbabwe.
The choice is ours.
Crucially, it is the ANC's too.