South Africa: the rainbow fades, the ANC on automatic pilot

The African National Congress started out in post-Apartheid South Africa as one of the most legitimate political parties in the world. But its promise of a ‘rainbow nation’, of co-operation among the many different groups that South Africa’s racially-based politics had left behind, has failed to materialize. This month has seen the sad spectacle of the ANC’s Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, in which Zuma tried to make it appear as if everything was still going according to plan. But a new generation of activists has sprung up, and the ANC’s policies and promises – as expressed by Zuma’s presidency, anyway – are looking increasingly unconvincing.

REUTERS/Mark Wessels

The economic figures are bad. 8.3 million unemployed. 26 million living in absolute poverty. President Zuma has attracted both criticism and a good deal of ridicule for having appointed a rapid succession of Finance Ministers (3 in 4 days), and the current incumbent, Pravin Gordhan, has spoken this week of the ‘catastrophe’ of the South African economy. This seems to suit Zuma, whose State of the Nation Address was mainly about his and the ANC’s strategy to improve the economy, as if what the ship of state needs is his steady hand on the wheel in these stormy waters.

The grey-haired ANC members nodded gravely and applauded at appropriate places, but it took a considerable effort, as the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical Marxist party that is now the third party in Parliament, created considerable chaos by making repeated but spurious points of order and subverting the whole proceedings. The leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, who is 35 years old, managed to use one of his interruptions to make a speech in which he said that the ANC had betrayed South Africa and that Zuma is ‘morally compromised’. The Speaker of Parliament declared that the speech was out of order and should be struck from the record, but with live internet streams that was rather a pointless move, and after a few more such interruptions (forcing Zuma to stop speaking on several occasions) the EFF MPs demonstrated what they thought of Zuma’s speech by walking out, preferring to give their own speeches outside to the TV cameras that followed them.

The EFF make some worrying accusations about the ANC rule. They say that provincial ANC premiers make their opponents disappear, and that the whole country is run by ANC corruption. There is evidence to support these claims. But perhaps the one accusation that calls the whole principle of ANC rule into question is the EFF’s assertion that most of South Africa is still owned and run by white people, whose only use for blacks is as cheap labour. After 20 years, both the land and the industry remains in white hands, and attempts to lift black and coloured people off the bottom of society have largely failed. The ANC started off with exactly this problem, so they can hardly deny that their policies haven’t worked. The EFF’s solution, however, is something that has already been tried in Zimbabwe, where it only made things worse: expropriation and nationalization. This radicalism will probably mean they will stay as a minority party aimed at angry young men: but their messages about what is wrong with the ANC system are getting through.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, the question of race was answered with Desmond Tutu’s ‘rainbow nation’ slogan. Nelson Mandela said that South Africa was now ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,’ and this happy fairy story has been endlessly repeated, in spite of all the drugs, rape, crime and social collapse.

The Democratic Alliance, which is the official opposition party, started out as the Progressive Party in the old South Africa, and although it was founded as an anti-apartheid group, multi-racial parties were illegal under white rule, so paradoxically it was then a party of white people only. Its leading star is the white mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille. She and the DA have regularly been attacked for being white supremacists, and while they deny this strenuously, anyone who knows any white South Africans will be aware that generations of an ideology of white superiority cannot be magicked away by the power of wishful thinking: and incidents where DA members express openly racist sentiments continue into 2016. However, the DA leadership knows that if they are ever to challenge the ANC at a national level, they have to be able to attract black voters, so in May 2015 Helen Zille gave up leadership of the party to the leader of its parliamentary group, Mmusi Maimane, a Tswana who speaks 7 of South Africa’s 11 official languages and who at 35 is therefore Leader of the Opposition: and backed up by other young and energetic black MPs he presents a position that is less radical than that of the EFF, but still based on complete rejection of Zuma and the ANC. The DA line is that Zuma is living on ‘planet Zuma’, and that the ANC has become an ‘old age home’ which is irrelevant and should be removed from power. In January this year Maimane also announced that all new DA members would have to sign an anti-racist charter.

The ANC seems to be suffering from a political disease that afflicts the entire African continent: the fact that old men refuse to surrender power. Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist, has directly told young South Africans that they must respect their elders – meaning himself. But young people, especially those born into freedom after 1994, have a different perspective and don’t see why they should automatically support the ANC. Indeed, they don’t seem to believe in political parties at all and are statistically more likely to join violent protests against particular policies than to think in terms of joining any political party. The ANC has another chance after Zuma, who must retire in 2019, when he will be 76 years old. He favours one of his ex-wives, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, currently chair of the African Union, to replace him, possibly because he thinks this will protect him from over 700 charges of corruption, tax evasion and money-laundering hanging over his head, which as presidents often do he claims to be politically motivated.

However, there is another aspect to Zuma’s rule which make him an important symbol of unity for the ANC. The party’s mass appeal still comes from the simple message of blaming the whites for everything that is wrong with the country, and this means that support for the ANC among white voters has now practically disappeared; but for the black population there is also the important question of tribal politics. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were Xhosa, and during their time in power the main black opposition party was not made up of economic dissidents, but was Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s tribally-based Inkatha movement in KwaZulu-Natal. The fact that there is a Zulu president has temporarily pushed Inkatha into the background, but if the ANC leadership (there are no votes or primaries) decides against Zuma’s ex-wife in favour of any non-Zulu candidate (like deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, a Venda), KwaZulu-Natal could bring Inkatha back as the voice of the Zulus and they could arguably go into coalition with the rebranded DA to challenge what is still today the ANC’s iron grip on South Africa’s political establishment.

Where is South Africa going? A one-party state based on institutionalized corruption? A Zulu-dominated dynastic system? Collapse into tribal politics? It is in the hands of the old men in the National Executive Council of the ANC.

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