Or why an ANC breakaway should be welcomed even if driven by all the wrong reasons.
In December 1986 - at the height of the insurrection against white rule - the American writer and humorist P.J. O'Rourke visited apartheid South Africa. In an essay on that visit, published in the book Holidays in Hell, he relates a Van der Merwe joke told to him during his stay.
An American, an Englishman and Van der Merwe, are each granted a wish: "All they have to do is run off the cliff and shout their heart's desire. The American runs off the cliff and shouts, ‘Gold!' A pile of gold bars appears at the bottom of the cliff. The American falls on top of it and he's killed. The Englishman runs off the cliff and shouts, ‘Silver!' A pile of silver coins appears at the bottom of the cliff. The Englishman falls on top of it and he's killed. Then Van Der Merwe runs off the cliff, but as soon as he gets over the edge he looks down and yells, ‘Oh, shit!' A huge pile of shit appears. Van Der Merwe lands in that and walks away unscathed."
It is a joke that seems worth retelling in the context of South Africa's escape from the worst direct effects of the subprime debacle, in contrast to Britain and America (see here). On the political side of things it captures something of this country's peculiar tendency to walk over the edge without thinking, and yet still manage to scramble at the last moment to avoid the worst of the consequences.
The first messy political escape was from the morass apartheid had created. But no sooner had South Africa managed a peaceful transition to something approaching liberal democracy than the ANC closed its eyes and headed off in the direction of the nearest abyss. From 1997 to 2000 it handed over massive power over party and state to its new president, Thabo Mbeki.
Mbeki proceeded, as was his wont, to set about undermining the capacity and independence of South Africa's state institutions. By 2005 he was very close to finishing off any residual opposition within the ANC itself and was planning to finally bring the judiciary under party control. In the ANC's January 8th statement he had declared his intention to "transform the collective mindset of the judiciary" to bring it into "consonance" with the will of the people.
The usual checks and balances had become so eroded, that there appeared to be little standing in the way of Mbeki realising his Mugabe-ite ambitions. The ANC had its two-thirds majority in parliament. All institutions of state, other than a weakened judiciary, were under party control. And, the opposition was not in a position to mount an effective challenge at the ballot box.
The unlikely saviour of South Africa's democracy proved to be Jacob Zuma, of all people. Flawed as he was, and questionable though his motives and past conduct may have been, he was the one senior ANC leader willing and able to take the stand necessary to stop Mbeki's ambitions to govern in perpetuity.
Yet, having saved us from the dismal fate of continuing Mbeki-ite rule the "coalition of the wounded" - which had rallied around Zuma - decided to deliriously charge towards the nearest precipice. Not only were the Scorpions immediately targeted for dissolution, but the judiciary too was soon subjected to vilification and attack.
The danger was that because of the inertia built into our democratic system by racial voting patterns, the ANC would be nonetheless returned to office in 2009 with yet another overwhelming majority. Our seemingly vibrant civil society, along with any remaining constraints on the power of the ruling party, would be overcome by the force of that mandate. The press too would go quiet as they did post-1999.
The initiative by Terror Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa to form a breakaway from the ANC would, if it gets off the ground, provide yet another messy escape from a particularly abysmal outcome. It is easy enough to impugn the motives of those backing this initiative. In their complaints about the way in which the Zuma-camp are threatening the constitution, there is an element of the pot campaigning against the blackness of the kettle. It remains to be seen too whether their new project will be free of that underhanded nastiness that so characterised the ANC of Mbeki.
Still, it is the irresponsible conduct and rhetoric of the Tripartite Alliance leaders over the past several months which has allowed the breakaway faction to lay claim to the moral high ground. And, Lekota's initiative holds out the possibility of facilitating a shift to a more pluralistic and responsive democracy in South Africa - one in which the Julius Malemas are regarded as political liabilities rather than assets.
The point really is that South Africa has enjoyed some very fortunate escapes in the past. These are not always particularly clean, or dignified - but they are much better than the alternative.