The African National Congress: Going South?

The African National Congress is synonymous with the anti-apartheid struggle. Since the end of apartheid, its appeal to both the rural and urban poor in South Africa has made it a force which is almost uniquely dominant in a democratic society.

Yet, the current day ANC finds itself in a precarious position. 2016 heralded a year of disastrous local election results for the ANC which lost its hold over five of South Africa’s biggest cities. Voters took the opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction and anger over the years of systemic corruption and the economic failings and struck a painful blow against the ANC.

Now in the twilight of the Zuma presidency, the ANC will elect a new leader in December.  This is a critical time for the ANC and comes with its own set of challenges. So much animosity has built up between the multiple factions within the ANC and its tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), that whatever the result there is a serious risk of a splintering of the party. The ANC must find a way to prevent this split, which many political commentators see as inevitable if it is to remain the dominant political force in South Africa. Furthermore, the ANC leadership must look at the election as a chance for real reform. But with Zuma well placed to influence the vote, this will likely prove difficult.

The African National Congress’ Current Position

As things stand, the ANC is facing troubling times. It is losing support across South Africa. The local elections of 2016 were their worst ever election result, polls saw their support drop from 62% to 54%. Its failure to facilitate economic growth and its corporate pandering, as well as its ethical missteps, has created room for doubt in the minds of South African voters.

South Africa’s Urban Voters – Revenge of the “Clever Blacks”

Throughout his presidency, Zuma has presented himself as a candidate for the rural population. However, he has underestimated the strength of South Africa’s fast growing urban base. In his usual provocative style, Zuma in 2012 derogatively termed city dwelling South Africans as “clever blacks”. He claimed, “they become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything”. Four years later those ‘clever blacks’ had their revenge.

South Africa’s cities were the stage for the most dramatic results from the local elections. The ANC lost their majority in five of the country’s six biggest cities. Only in the Zuma stronghold of Durban, which is the capital of Zuma’s native region KwaZulu-Natal, were they able to keep a majority. The results were the first time since 1994 that the ANC failed to hold a majority in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city. Instead, the position of mayor is now held by the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Pretoria and Cape Town were also significant casualties for the ANC. The failure of the ANC to command overall majorities in South Africa’s major cities signifies a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape.

Rural South Africa – Beginning to Falter?

South Africa’s rural areas have traditionally been the heartland of the ANC. They desperately need to retain this support base as their grip on urban voters begins to slacken. In the 2016 local elections, the ANC still appeared in command of the rural vote, of which it won 64%. However, beneath the surface of these results there are warning signs for the ANC that their heartland isn’t as secure as they might like to think.

Whilst the ANC remained by far the most popular party in rural South Africa, its support actually declined by 5.5% whilst the opposition grew to 36%. So even in its rural strong holds there is some decline in support for the ANC. Though they are faint, the cracks can be seen in the ANC’s rural foundation.

Failures of the ANC

The reasons for these worrying results can be found in two areas; corruption and economic failure.

Corruption within the ANC has grown sharply under President Zuma. A recent Ipsos Mori poll revealed that 57% of South Africans believed that the ANC has “lost its moral compass”. Under President Zuma, this simmering issue came to a head when the Gupta family were accused of state capture thanks to their close ties with Zuma. President Zuma personally faces 780 charges of corruption and has become the symbol of the ANC’s tolerance of corruption. The dissatisfaction stemming from this rampant corruption is now beginning to affect the electoral performance of the ANC.

African National Congress

In addition, the ANC’s economic record has been poor under Zuma. This year, unemployment rose to a 14 year high at 27.7% and the country is facing economic stagnation. Many of South Africa’s poorest feel that the ANC has failed them in tackling issues such as education reforms, inequality, and inadequate housing. It has been unable to produce the opportunities it had promised them. This, coupled with its corruption and close ties to big business, has eroded ANC support.

The Succession

Despite surviving five votes of no confidence, Zuma’s second and final presidential term is coming to an end. In December the ANC will gather to elect a new leader ahead of the 2019 general election. As things stand, the contest is a two horse race between Zuma’s ex-wife and former Chair of the African Union Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

Dlamini-Zuma shares a name, four children, and 16 years of marriage with President Zuma and is an experienced politician. The former Chair of the African Union, Dlamini-Zuma has served as a minister under every post-apartheid president. Dlamini-Zuma does not share Zuma’s reputation for rampant corruption but has placed her platform firmly alongside her ex-husband. Zuma’s support likely stems from his belief that his ex-wife will protect him from the corruption charges he faces. The President and his supporters have already begun to manoeuvre the ANC landscape to boost Dlamini-Zuma’s chances of winning the leadership. She was recently sworn in as an MP and it is likely that Zuma will instigate a cabinet reshuffle so he can install her in the cabinet.

Cyril Ramaphosa

African National Congress

Cyril Ramaphosa was once Mandela’s crown prince. Yet he was side-lined in favour of Thabo Mbeki in 1999. After quitting politics for a time, he amassed an immense fortune in business. A victory for Ramaphosa would certainly lead to a shakeup of the Zuma status quo and in recent months he has upped his criticism of the President. Ramaphosa is likely to have the confidence of investors given his background in commerce. However, he faces one considerable stumbling block on his road to the ANC leadership in the form of the Marikana Mine massacre. In 2012, 34 miners were shot whilst striking in protest to their working conditions. As a board member of the mine’s owner Lomin, Ramaphosa has been implicated in both failing to facilitate negotiations and encouraging the police to move in on the protest. Dlamini-Zuma’s camp are sure to try and highlight this involvement.

Looking Forward: A Critical Moment for the Party

The ANC’s leadership election will be of cardinal importance to its performance in the 2019 general election. Most commentators suggest one of two scenarios for the ANC. Either Dlamini-Zuma wins the leadership and the ANC risks losing the general election, or Ramaphosa wins the leadership and boosts the ANC’s chances of holding onto power for another four years. Yet the situation is more complex than this assessment. Whoever wins the leadership, will need to undertake deeper reform of the ANC if it is to hold onto power and will need to heal the divisions within the movement if a breakup of the party is to be avoided.

A Split in the Movement?

ANC rule has always been based on a tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Never before has that alliance been so divided. Those that support President Zuma and those who oppose him have become two very distinct and polarised factions within the party. It is possible that the result of the leadership election could cause the alliance to fracture.

Many commentators view the ANC split as inevitable. There are simply too many ideologies found within the ANC, which was originally only a movement to end apartheid, to sustain it going forward. The controversy the Zuma presidency has garnered over the years has served to deepen these divisions. The relationship between the ANC and the SACP is at an all-time low. It has been suggested that, should Dlamini-Zuma be chosen as ANC leader over Ramaphosa, the SACP would split from the ANC. Supposedly, the SACP will wait until after the leadership election to announce whether it will contest the 2019 election independently.

Ramaphosa also enjoys the support of COSATU given his prior tenure as a trade union leader. COSATU has had a turbulent relationship with the ANC for years, and implied in 2015 that a split would be imminent. Should Dlamini-Zuma win the leadership, it is a possibility that COSATU will take it as an opportunity to abandon the ANC.

African National Congress

Splits in the ANC are not unheard of, albeit on a smaller scale. When Zuma was elected leader, a faction split from the ANC to form the Congress of People (COPE). Similarly, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was formed by former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema who viewed the ANC as being too moderate. Since then, the EFF has risen to become the third biggest party in the South African Parliament. However, were the SACP and COSATU to abandon the ANC we would see the end of the alliance that has ensured ANC dominance for the last twenty years.

Yet, it is not so simple to say that if Ramaphosa won the election the divisions would heal themselves. His victory would upset many of the pro-Zuma ANC provincial leaders who, though they would not physically split from the party, would be likely to put up opposition to Ramaphosa’s every move. The party would remain cripplingly divided.

Ultimately, the ANC is in a difficult position. Whichever way it decides there will be factions unsatisfied. If it fails to heal the divisions which have opened over the last decade, it cannot hope to win elections indefinitely and once the victories start drying up the divisions will only worsen. Equally if the ANC does not address the country’s economic decline and the growth of corruption, it will lose further support amongst its voter base and, again, electoral victories will be harder to come by.

Time Then For Reform

The 2016 local elections demonstrated that there is a serious need for change within the ANC. It is a freedom movement that has lost its purpose and its way. The results of the local elections should have been a clear warning sign to the leaders of the ANC that voters aren’t happy with the path the ANC have been taking under Zuma. For the first time, the ANC must face up to the fact that there is a real possibility of their losing this election.

The leadership election is an opportunity to show the electorate that the ANC leadership have heard and understood the disappointment of the people. Its victor must be a symbol of the beginning of change, which it seems Dlamini-Zuma does not represent. Treating it as a beginning is of the upmost importance. The ANC’s troubles are not so superficial that simply a change of leadership can heal them. As former Secretary General of the ANC Kgalema Motlanthe claims, the ANC’s problems are not Zuma problems, but institutional movement problems. Ultimately, the ANC must see the leadership as the heralding of the total reform of the party structures if it is to maintain its hold on power. Without a commitment to that reform, electing Ramaphosa will simply delay the decline rather than halt it.

Unfortunately as Motlanthe claims, perhaps it is only a loss of an election that will spur change in the ANC.  Historically, the ANC leadership has tended to gloss over the results of elections. Instead sticking to a narrative that compliments their own beliefs, that ‘our people did not turn out’. Zuma and his supporters are well placed to influence the election of the new leader which will likely signal a continuation of the current style of governance.



Olivia Gass is an MSc in International Relations and Global Issues student at the University of Nottingham and a contributing writer for PGW.


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