Even with victory assured, is the ANC’s future at risk?


No one doubts that the African National Congress (ANC) will win South Africa’s parliamentary elections on May 7, extending its political hold on the country since the end of apartheid in 1994 and the election of the ANC’s Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first non-white president.south africa flag

Twenty years later, South Africans are going to the polls for the first time following Mandela’s death late last year, and the chief opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) will be satisfied if it can make further gains, consolidating its hold on Western Cape province, where the DA’s leader Helen Zille serves as premier, appealing to voters in Northern Cape and Eastern Cape, and growing its presence in Gauteng under the leadership of rising star Mmusi Maimane, currently a member of the Johannesburg city council.

But even if the ANC wins with over 60% of the vote, the same level of support as it has generally attracted in the past three elections, South Africa’s ruling structure will enter its third consecutive decade in power exceedingly unpopular, increasingly divided and with no clear path of transition to a compelling successor to the 71-year-old Zuma (pictured above, right, with deputy ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa).

As Zuma is term-limited as South Africa’s president (the president is elected shortly after parliamentary elections, so the ANC’s dominance will all but assuredly result in Zuma’s reelection later in May or June), he’ll enter his second term as a lame duck with nagging controversies over mismanagement and corruption.

What’s more, the ANC will elect a new leader in 2017 — meaning that, unless Zuma tries to hold onto the party leadership, the ANC will determine the individual who could lead South Africa from 2019 to 2029 within the next three-year window. Though posturing for the 2017 contest is well under way, if quietly, too few ANC leaders are talking about how to revitalize the ANC for a new generation of issues and policy challenges.

Policy and governance woes

Over the past five years, South Africa’s once-booming economy has slowed. Though it quick recovered from the global financial crisis, it never returned to the same levels as in the mid-2000s. GDP growth declined from a middling 3.5% in 2011 to 2.5% in 2012 to an estimated 2% or less in 2013. Unemployment remains staggeringly high by official levels — around 24.1% or so as of the last quarter of 2013. While South Africa’s GDP per capita remains much higher than just about everywhere else on the continent, Nigeria recently overtook South Africa as the largest African economy. That’s not, in itself, cause for concern, because the standard of living is so much higher in South Africa than in Nigeria.

But it’s yet another blow for an economy that is struggling to reach a high middle-income level, where growing income inequality mixes poisonously with the politics and realities of race — white income remains six times higher, on average, than black income. Twenty years after the end of apartheid, many poor black ANC supporters must rightly wonder what freedom means, in economic terms, since the end of white minority rule.  Somewhat audaciously, Zuma is reported to be planning to put deputy ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa in charge of implementing a 20-year economic plan designed to boost infrastructure, empower black business ownership and otherwise liberalize South Africa’s economy.

Though Mandela delegated much of the hard work of the presidency between 1994 and 1999 to his deputy Thabo Mbeki, he nudged the ANC away from its communist roots toward a more market-friendly orientation under the guidance of Trevor Manuel, who served as finance minister between 1996 and 2006, and who is leaving politics this year after heading Zuma’s newly-formed National Planning Commission. That’s worried investors that Zuma — or another ANC successor — might one day descend into a more populist economic agenda.

As if that weren’t enough, Zuma’s presidency is marred by two difficult legacies — Nkandla and Marikana.

Nkandla refers to the $19 million in alleged upgrades Zuma received to his home in KwaZulu-Natal. It’s a long-simmering scandal in South Africa, because the upgrades include the installation of a helipad and a ‘fire pool,’ a creative euphemism for what everyone else knows is a swimming poll. The scandal isn’t just that Zuma spent so much money outfitting a private residence, but that the amounts for the work were vastly inflated, suggesting corruption from top to bottom. It follows charges against Zuma dating from the mid-2000s that had become so serious by 2005 that Mbeki dismissed Zuma as deputy president. Zuma’s more decentralized style, in contrast to Mbeki’s top-down micromanagement, hasn’t assured anyone that the ANC takes corruption seriously today.

For all the impunity of the Zuma administration, it may be the massacre of 44 people in August 2012 in a clash between South African police and striking miners in Marikana that has damaged the ANC even more. It’s not exceedingly great publicity when the architects of post-apartheid South Africa are responsible for the kind of political violence the country hasn’t seen since the apartheid era. That’s left the National Union of Metalwokers (NUMSA), South Africa’s largest trade union, calling for Zuma’s resignation in the current campaign, amid plans to leave the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU). COSATU, along with the South African Communist Party (SACP), joins the ANC in what’s called the ‘tripartite alliance’ in South Africa. That alliance has helped coordinate the ruling elite’s control over not only government, but among the union and activist communities as well. With NUMSA striking out on its own after Markiana, that alliance is now increasingly at risk.

A divided ANC

NUMSA’s dissension vis-à-vis COSATU and the ANC is just one example of a growing constellation of defections from the ANC in recent years.

Mosiuoa Lekota and two other ANC members left the ANC to form the Congress of the People (COPE) in 2008 after Zuma’s successful victory in the 2007 ANC presidential contest against Mbeki, who running for a third term as ANC president, despite the fact that he was obligated to step down as South Africa’s president in 2009. COPE capitalized on general disgust over Zuma’s criminal baggage, and it won an impressive 7.42% in the 2009 election. Though polls show it will win fewer votes in 2014, it was the first of several high-profile breaks from ANC hegemony in the Zuma era.

Last February, Mamphela Ramphele, a respected anti-apartheid leader — and the widow of Steve Biko, an activist who was killed in 1977 — formed AgangSA, a new party designed as an alternative to the ANC. Though Ramphele appeared to reach a deal with the DA leadership to lead the party’s 2014 campaign back in January, the alliance unraveled within days, damaging Ramphele’s credibility with both potential voters from the ANC and the DA. The short-lived alliance, however, showed how powerful the DA could become with the right kind of partnership among disaffected ANC officials and voters.

Meanwhile, on the far left, after the ANC kicked firebrand Julius Malema out of the party in 2011 following a hate speech conviction for singing ‘Dubula iBunu,’ (Shoot the Boer). His newly constituted Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) takes a much more populist approach to policy, with a leftist approach to renationalizing land to give to South Africa’s poorest. 

As if that weren’t enough, several top ANC figures have encouraged voters to cast spoiled votes — a high-profile ‘no vote’ campaign led by former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, former Communist leader Vishwas Stagar and former defense minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who joined to launch the Vukani Sidikiwe (‘wake up, we are fed up’) movement.

Taken individually, none of these groups and efforts — COPE, AgangSA, EFF or the no-vote campaign — seem to be damaging the ANC too much. But the notion that South Africa’s growing opposition might one day unite is something that should terrify the ANC. When Ramphele joined forces with the DA, however briefly, in January, COPE’s leaders talked approvingly about their eventual cooperation as well. It’s not hard to see how that coalition comes together — if not in 2014, certainly in 2019 or 2024, especially if the ANC doesn’t reform from within.

And yet Zuma may be the best option the ANC has. His traditional support among Zulu voters has all but decimated the Inkatha Freedom Party, an alternative anti-apartheid group with traditional support in Zululand, causing a rivalry with the ANC in the 1990s that led to sometimes gruesome violence between the two. Zuma, despite his many legal problems, managed to unite the ANC through what could have been a tricky 2012 conference in Mangaung that may have fatally wounded other less charismatic and less wily politicians.

The future is now

South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, who briefly served as president between Mbeki’s resignation in September 2008 and Zuma’s inauguration in May 2009. It was at Manguang in 2012 that he launched what turned out to be a largely quixotic bid for the ANC presidency. Zuma easily defeated him by a three-to-one margin, but Motlanthe drew several top South African intellectuals to his cause.

Though he remains South Africa’s deputy president, his decision to contest the ANC presidency left him without an office among the ‘top six’ positions, and it’s likely that his successor as deputy ANC leader, Ramaphosa, will become South Africa’s next deputy president.

But that doesn’t mean that the top echelon of the ANC is now unified —  Ramaphosa has the kind of pedigree that might allow him to eclipse Zuma as deputy president, and the ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe is already clashing publicly with Zuma.

That could all seem minor if the fight for the ANC presidency in 2017 becomes the center of South Africa’s political life.

Ramaphosa, age 61, belongs to the same generation as Mbeki and Zuma, and he served as the longtime leader of NUMSA and as secretary-general of the ANC between 1991 and 1997. He ultimately lost a power struggle to succeed Mandela to Mbeki and left politics in 1997 for the business world, and he was successful — he’s today one of the country’s richest persons. Though he may be a steady pair of hands in 2017, and though he could quickly replace Manuel as the most trusted voice on economic policy within the ANC leadership, it’s hard to believe that someone who was part of the ANC’s ‘top six’ in 1994 has the fresh perspective to lead South Africa through the 2020s.

His chief opponent, right now, is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was married to the current president from 1982 to 1998, served as health minister from 1994 to 1999, as minister of foreign affairs from 1999 to 2009, then home minister from 2009 to 2012, when she left national politics to become the chairperson of the African Union Commission, formerly the Organisation of African Unity. But at age 65, she is also part of the aging generation that’s been running South Africa since 1994.

No one fully knows whether Zuma’s circle supports Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma, if they’ve even fully come to a decision about the matter, or if Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma have determined to make a run for the presidency at all. But one of the key considerations in exchange for Zuma’s support will be a deal to protect the incumbent from further legal hassles after his retirement.

Another possibility is South Africa’s 42-year-old public enterprises minister, Malusi Gigaba, who’s broadly popular, the ANC’s campaign chief in 2014, and third on the ANC’s parliamentary election list behind Zuma and Ramaphosa. While he’s not considered as serious an option as Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma in 2017, there’s a chance he could leapfrog both of them to the top spot — or at least secure a spot as ANC deputy leader or secretary-general. That would put Gigaba on the fast-track to succeed either Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma — again, to the extent that the ANC can effectively hold onto power for the next three election cycles.

With Zuma increasingly unpopular and powerless, the infighting among the ‘top six’ and the shadow campaign for 2017 might quickly overshadow Zuma’s policy initiatives in his second term:

ANC president Jacob Zuma will find his second term at the Union Buildings far more difficult than the first. He is expected to face rebellious factions soon after appointing his Cabinet and deputy ministers. Some of the rebellious factions, excluded from the Cabinet, are likely to coalesce around senior ANC officials.

This means Zuma’s attempt to fix the country and leave a legacy will be derailed by party infighting and factional battles. Zuma, like the middle of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki’s second term, will find it difficult to govern and his presidency will be closely scrutinised and questioned by his own party. A veteran ANC MP aptly summed up the internal dynamics within the ruling party after the elections: “Stop living in the past and the present, starting thinking of the future.”

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