ANC concern follows Zambian poll victory

Posted on December 2, 2011


The victory of the Patriotic Front in Zambia’s recent election has sent more than a frisson of concern through South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC). And, according to businessman and political commentator, Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, it has heightened an awareness among ANC politicians that they may not be in power forever.

Back in September, Mbeki, a political economist by training, told a meeting in Cape Town that this realisation among politicians of the governing party had resulted in them “lining their pockets”. He added that the party had been in power too long and was making a series of policy mistakes that were resulting in a groundswell of civil protest.

He is not alone in making this assessment of an ANC that is increasing beset by factionalism, in-fighting and allegations of corruption. A number of other commentators have made the same point as a still fairly robust media highlights cases of mismanagement, and apparent abuses of power in high places.

For its part, the embattled government is having to prepare for a major celebration and conference next year. In 2012, the ANC, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, will mark its centenary. But it is also scheduled to stage a critical electoral conference where, as seems likely, President Jacob Zuma will be fighting for his political life.

The knives are certainly out and, amid the bickering, the government is clearly not coping with the economic and social demands it faces. In the South African context, this has resulted in thousands of what the police euphemistically call “unrest incidents”. This label covers everything from an illegal march and the blocking of a major highway, to a fullscale, localised riot.

Mbeki points out that similar situations occurred in both Zimbabwe and Zambia where what he calls a “20-year itch” of disillusionment erupted and eventually resulted in opposition parties winning out against sitting governments. However, in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe refused to step down and the governing Zanu-PF prevented the opposition from taking over even after having won an election.

Most other commentators tend to agree that the ANC is now facing a crisis of confidence among large sections of the population and that this is similar to developments in countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe. However, they also maintain that, unlike these neighbouring Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, there is no truly mass-based opposition party in South Africa.

Mbeki disagrees. He maintains that there are “good people in the eight opposition parties” in South Africa who could emulate other opposition parties in Africa and bring about change. However, there are 13 parties in the 400-seat South African parliament, where the ANC, with 264 seats, enjoys a majority just three seats short of two-thirds.

Mbeki has not specified which eight opposition parties he sees as providing a potential alternative government. Some of the 13 parliamentary parties, such as the Freedom Front Plus, clearly do not qualify since the tend to be seen merely as remnants of the old apartheid order. However, the leader of the FF+, Pieter Mulder, also serves as a deputy minister in the ANC government.

The largest opposition party in parliament is the Democratic Alliance (DA) with 67 seats. Its roots are in the former all-white, anti-apartheid, Democratic Party that is now linked with the Independent Democrats, a party led by Patricia de Lille, a former member of the Pan Africanist Congress that has split into numerous fragments. DA leader, Helen Zille, is prime minister of the Western Cape Province and De Lille is mayor of Cape Town.

While the DA has certainly built up electoral support outside of its former constituency among mainly affluent whites, it has not yet managed to shake off the image as being a party of big business and white paternalism. Even with the 31-year-old MP and national spokesperson, Lindiwe Mzibuko having taken over over the parliamentary leadership from the incumbent, Athol Trollip, this is unlikely to change.

The move by Mazibuko, with the apparent blessing of Zille, is still widely seen as a cynical attempt to win black votes since Mazibuko only entered politics three years ago. Although Trollip, a farmer from a long-established white political family, also only took up a national parliamentary seat in 2009, he served for years in local and provincial politics in the Eastern Cape. He fits the generally liberal and ethnically based image of the DA.

Mazibuko on the other hand, is widely seen as one of the “black diamonds”. These are mainly young, relatively wealthy, fashion conscious and often well-educated black women who have come to prominence in the post-apartheid era. Privately educated and having spent two “gap years” in Europe, she has an honours degree from the University of Cape Town, having studied classics, French and media. In an obvious attempt to stress both gender equality and inclusivity, Mazibuko’s face, along with those of De Lille and Zille, adorned DA election posters in 2009.

In recent months the DA has regularly attacked the ANC for mismanagement, over spending and abuse of power. The party has been consistent in raising every possible example of the electorate being short-changed by the government.

The economic orientation of the DA, in parliament and party, is also consistent: it is a broadly business-friendly, free market orientated organisation. There is no such consistency in the ANC that retains the “broad church” character it adopted as a liberation movement. So the ANC-led tripartite alliance in government comprises the SA Communist Party (SACP) and the country’s major — and heavily SACP-influenced — trade union federation, the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (Cosatu).

The result is a plethora of policy suggestions, although the ANC in government adheres broadly to the same orientation as the DA. However, the differences, at rank and file level and among alliance members, especially regarding macro-economic policy, remain large.

Over the 17 years of ANC government, what has also become obvious is the fall-off in support for the governing party. But this has not gone to other parties: it has been manifest in conscious abstention and apathy, a result of disillusionment that sometimes erupts into anger.

With an official unemployment rate of more than 25% — in reality perhaps close to twice that — and little in the way of subsistence agriculture to sustain families, there exists a mass of often hungry and desperate people. Yet they, like the rest of the country, are constantly being urged to help “build the nation” by exercising patriotic choices, from buying only South African made goods to supporting national sporting teams.

One apparent effect has been to exacerbate xenophobic feelings that tend to be directed toward poorer African migrants who are seen as challenging for jobs. A number of these migrants, mainly from Zimbabwe, but also Zambia, Malawi and other parts of Africa, often have the advantage of much better schooling than most locals and are, therefore, better equipped to survive — even thrive — in the local environment.

The result is often envy and anger among the mass of unemployed South African youth — those aged between 15 to 30 — whose poor schooling puts them at a further disadvantage. More than 60% of black men and women in this age group are now estimated to be without jobs, and most of them, in the present circumstances, are unlikely ever to find one.

So far, there is much talk about the need to find solutions, to grow the economy, create jobs, stop corruption, reduce crime and unite as a nation. But there is little beyond talk as the electorate becomes more restive and the political in-fighting intensifies.

Whatever happens at the ANC conference in December next year — whether Zuma and his supporters survive or another leadership ticket succeeds — nothing much seems likely to change as the country heads to the next general election in 2014. As one commentator notes: it will be a case of the reins of the governing party being taken over by Tweedledum from Tweedledee.

But it is said that a week is a long time in politics. Given the volatile situation on the ground and within the ANC — and with nearly three years to the 2014 elections — an alternative in some or other form seems likely to emerge; it may be something wholly new or perhaps a viable challenger created out of a merger of several — eight? — existing parties.

It is also possible that the ANC could purge itself of its fractious and corrupt elements and set off as a renewed political vehicle. All that seems certain at this stage is that nothing is certain, but that change is in the air.

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