In January, Africa’s oldest surviving political movement and party, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) celebrated its 110th anniversary. But has it succeeded in transforming from a liberation movement to an effective governing party or has it outlived its usefulness? Mushtak Parker reads the runes.
The mood music to mark the ANC’s 110th anniversary celebrations in Polokwane, Limpopo Province on 8 January 2022 was distinctly subdued. The restrictions arising from the Omicron variant of Covid-19 sweeping the country and the decade-long policy delivery failure which has left many of its supporters well behind and disgruntled, saw to that.
As Cyril Ramaphosa, President of the ANC, navigates its course during 2022 and beyond, he is only too aware that after 28 years in power after the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, the party can no longer take refuge behind the legacy of 84 years of White rule and its subsequent liberation history.
There are already signs that the party is starting to pay the political price for its lacklustre governance history, starting with the Zuma kleptocracy between 2009 and 2018 and its knock-on effects on Ramaphosa’s tenure.
The changing demographics and voter profile of South Africa present a major threat for the party going forward. Despite clinging on to a policy of cadre deployment, it can no longer take its traditional base for granted. Millions of ANC supporters have been left behind over the last decade as a beleaguered party continues to be defined by multiple metrics of shame which would have the founding fathers and its most famous son, Nelson Mandela turning in their graves.
Under the ANC’s watch over the last decade, the country, according to the IMF, has a long list of some of the worst metrics imaginable: the highest socio-economic inequality in the world; the highest income disparities; the highest incidence of gender-based violence and domestic abuse against women; the highest youth unemployment rates in the world; the highest incidence of HIV/Aids cases; a high crime rate; and entrenched structural economic deficiencies driven by policy and decision-making indecisiveness, corruption and cronyism.
In an age dominated by the internet, the next generations of voters, nurtured on an endless diet of social media interactions, will set the political agenda in the country. Many of them were born well after ANC rule began and have no experience of living under the brutality of the Apartheid state.
Their assessment of ANC delivery is based on their and their families’ actual experiences. This, according to Frans Cronje, the prominent political commentator, in his provocative book The Rise and Fall of the ANC, could spell the end of ANC rule.
This is a far cry from 8 January 1912, when the visionary quartet of Rev John Langalibalele Dube, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Josiah Tshangana Gumede and Sol Plaatje convened with chieftains, tribal aristocracy, people’s representatives, church organisations, and other prominent individuals in Bloemfontein to launch the African Native National Congress. It was later changed to the ANC to reflect opening party membership to non-Africans – Indians, Coloureds and White democrats.
There are uncanny parallels between the movement’s history and its immediate future challenges. It was born in 1912 out of the fight “to bring all Africans together as one people to defend their rights and freedoms”. Its values were essentially based on the traditional African Ubuntu concept and Christian social conservatism.
The party’s most famous son, Nelson Mandela during his two terms, largely followed this tradition. But after Thabo Mbeki’s departure, its moral compass shifted towards one of self-enrichment, entrenched corruption and state capture under Zuma, which inevitably spilled over to the Ramaphosa era.
The President’s address to his comrades in Polokwane laced with the rhetoric of timeless aspirations – renewal, rebuilding and resilience – is a social democratic vision reimagined in “this Year of Unity and Renewal to defend and advance South Africa’s democratic gains”.
There is a catch though! Ramaphosa failed to mention the ANC’s coalition partner, the South African Communist Party (SACP) in his address, which coincidentally celebrates its centenary this year.
The extent of SACP’s Marxist ‘influence’ on ANC government policies, especially on the privatisation of national assets, is unclear. In the energy sector, Ramaphosa did pass a law expanding the involvement of Independent Power Producers in the country’s energy mix.
In contrast, the ANC is beholden to the controversial ‘Expropriation without Compensation’ legislation now before parliament precisely because of the influence of its own radical factions – the SACP and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
Land rights today remain a legitimate issue, especially for rural Black populations, just as they were following the adoption of the 1913 Land Act, which prevented Africans from buying, renting or using land, except in the so-called ‘Native Reserves’.
Party infighting and factionalism is a characteristic of political movements throughout history. The ANC was born out of the desire for unity. Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the founding treasurer, who was the first Black South African to attend Columbia University in the US, lamented at that fateful meeting in Bloemfontein: “We are one people. These divisions, these jealousies, are the cause of all our woes today.”
Today, the factionalism within the ANC, driven by the supporters of disgraced ex-President Jacob Zuma, and the vitriolic name-calling with other parties such as the PAC, IFP, EFF, suggests that the polity of Black African aspirations remains divided. It reared its disturbing head in the unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last July in a failed attempt by Zuma loyalists to undermine ANC rule.
Crises of credibility
That the ANC is a party facing a crisis of credibility, in near bankruptcy, perceived as entrenched in corruption and entitlement, is not in dispute. Just look at the rise in voter apathy and fall in voter turnout, especially amongst the youth. At the 2019 general election, its share of the popular vote eroded to 57.5% – the first time it had gone below 60%. That trajectory was repeated in November’s nationwide local elections when the ANC’s share of the vote sunk to a new low at 46.04%. Voter turnout slumped to an all-time low of 47.1%.
Yet its National Executive Committee has the chutzpah to establish the ANC Renewal Commission to develop “a Vision 2032, which describes the desired state of the country and the ANC in 10 years’ time”.
At the 109th anniversary of the ANC in 2021, Ramaphosa bravely declared that “we will work to modernise the ANC, to ensure financial sustainability, to improve and modernise our core organisational systems”.
Hardly 10 months later, the spectre of the party resorting to crowdfunding to raise money to pay salaries to staff who were forced to strike because they were not paid for three months and because of their “appalling employment conditions”, suggests a huge gap between rhetoric and reality. If the ANC can’t get its house in order, what hope is there for its management of the country and its challenges?
Unless Ramaphosa reforms the party and key policies, he has little chance of replicating the economic circumstances the ANC was successful in achieving between 1994 and 2007. The democratic dividend was substantial and was reflected in the material improvements in the lives of Black people, the doubling of jobs, rise in university students, increased housing, halving of the murder rate and increased Black ownership of suburban housing.
Economic growth rose to an average 5% between 1994 and 2007 for the first time since 1970. Government debt levels halved, and a budget surplus was recorded – something the ANC never received due credit or recognition for.
President Ramaphosa in Polokwane called for “a frank assessment of how far we have gone during the past year in meeting our core mandate.” The ultimate assessors of the ANC’s policy delivery will be South African voters in the looming general election in 2023. Will the ANC still be a force to reckon with or a poor shadow of its once glorious past?