South Africa After the ANC: Part I

South Africa After the ANC: Part I
ANC campaign poster, Cape Town, South Africa, May 8, 2011 (photo by Flickr user warrenski, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the implications of the African National Congress’ decline for South Africa’s political landscape. Part I examines the factors contributing to the ANC’s decline. Part II will examine the prospects for the opposition Democratic Alliance to become an alternative governing party. Despite President Jacob Zuma’s claim that the African National Congress (ANC) will rule South Africa “until Jesus comes again,” the party, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, is on an irreversible downward electoral trajectory. Its support fell for the first time in a general election in 2009 and declined again in the 2011 local elections, although, in a measure of the challenge facing its opponents, it still polled greater than 60 percent both times. Within the movement there is a recognition that the ANC has passed its electoral peak. This sense of a systemic rather than a passing crisis was captured effectively by a series of sharp criticisms of the party made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and three ANC powerbrokers over the course of September. Tutu denounced the party’s culture of self-enrichment, while contrasting it to the country’s grinding poverty and appalling state of education. He also evoked the deadly Marikana mine shootings in August, with their strong echoes of apartheid-era policing. From within the movement, Matthews Phosa, the party treasurer, bemoaned the ANC’s internal decay and the level of corruption under its rule. Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, lamented a visionless ANC that is “increasingly wracked by factionalism, patronage and corruption” and a state apparatus that was “increasingly ineffective or even dysfunctional.” And Tokyo Sexwale, minister for human settlements, called for changes in attitude, conduct and discipline to arrest a growing credibility crisis. The ANC leadership can hardly dismiss these stinging criticisms, as three of them come from within the leadership itself and the other from a person of the highest moral integrity. And while it is possible to see Sexwale and Phosa’s contributions as an attempt to destabilize Zuma, they tap into a growing sense of unease that the ANC is floundering. Where Sexwale and Phosa appear fundamentally flawed, however, is in their belief that the solution to this crisis lies within the ANC. The contemporary ANC is beset by problems it is incapable of seriously addressing, far less resolving. The main question now is whether it will experience a dignified “democratic decline” or a descent into Zanufication, whereby, like Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, the liberation movement asserts its right to rule on the basis of history rather than the will of the people. Paradoxically, the scale of the ANC’s dominance contains the seeds of the party’s decline. And while the ANC’s political hegemony had certain advantages for South Africa in providing stable, inclusive and generally benign government in the early democratic years, over time it has become a diminishing asset. Foremost among its increasingly apparent failings are the endemic corruption now openly acknowledged by the party hierarchy and a blurring of party-state boundaries to the point of invisibility. The ANC has sought to “colonize” the state and make it a reliable instrument of the party by placing party loyalists in key positions throughout the public sector. With party loyalty prioritized over managerial ability, these institutions and agencies have frequently become dysfunctional, which, in turn, feeds popular disillusionment with the ANC -- most graphically expressed in this year’s crescendo of service delivery protests. Political dominance has also produced a culture of entitlement and a creeping intolerance for other perspectives within the party, which does not view itself as one among many political formations, but rather the custodian of a heroic project -- the so-called national democratic revolution. Such an exceptionalist mindset provides fertile soil for the growth of authoritarian practices and, again, raises the specter of Zanufication. The ANC’s “broad church” approach -- seeking to incorporate all those opposed to apartheid -- was a virtue during the liberation struggle and a priceless asset in winning power in 1994 as a truly national organization. However, the achievement of liberation removed the glue binding the movement’s disparate elements together. In the postliberation era, the ANC has been forced to adopt policy positions that reveal the cracks in this broad coalition. What was an asset has now become an impediment to coherent policymaking, as clear policy positions inevitably challenge the interests of one or other faction within the movement. This has made the ANC an unwieldy instrument with which to govern a complex modern democracy, and governing the ANC has often taken precedence over governing the country. The inevitable consequence is either paralysis or a lowest common denominator politics in which consensus is reached only at the broadest of policy levels. These compromises are understood in different ways by the various factions and usually serve only as a temporary interlude before the inevitable renewal of hostilities. Its historic task of liberation having been achieved, the natural solution is for the ANC to peacefully fragment into its diverse ideological components. However, a number of factors point in a different direction. First, for many ANC cadres, loyalties have been forged over decades of struggle, giving party members a fierce attachment to the movement irrespective of its fortunes. Second, factional power plays within the ANC are often rooted in a competition for position and material acquisition, even if cloaked in ideological rhetoric. So long as the ANC brand remains a potent electoral asset, the party provides a gateway to career opportunities unavailable elsewhere, making leaving the ANC a risky enterprise. Thus, the Catch-22: The ANC will not break up until potential defectors are convinced there is a viable political alternative, yet the defections are required to weaken the ANC enough to make such an alternative viable. At present, the belief that leaving the party is a step into the political wilderness intensifies factional infighting characterized as a struggle for the soul of the party. For a society that remains the world’s most unequal, with at least a third of its workforce unemployed and a multitude of social problems to address, the prospect of permanently muddling through is a recipe for further social upheaval. This situation places a heavy responsibility on the opposition, particularly the Democratic Alliance, which would benefit from a fragmented ANC. However, the prospects for that fragmentation will improve if the opposition can move from being a mere irritant to the ANC to actually challenging its hegemony. James Hamill has been a lecturer in the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Leicester, U.K., since 1991. He has a long-standing research interest in South African politics, particularly in the country’s post-apartheid development, and is a frequent visitor to the country. He has published articles on South Africa in International Relations, Diplomacy & Statecraft, the World Today, Politikon: The South African Journal of Political Studies, and the Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

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