Loosening the ANC's Stranglehold on South African Politics

If the African National Congress loses a key provincial election, it could be the start of a sea change in South African politics, says David Hornsby.
By: /
April 3, 2014
Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Recent revelations surrounding the misspending associated with South African President Jacob Zuma’s traditional residence—Nklanda—feed into a narrative that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is drunk on its own power and slipping into a pattern of corruption and cronyism. In recent years, it has become increasingly hard to explain away the various allegations of corruption and incompetence consistently leveled against members of the ANC-led government in both the South African and international media. 

The moral standing of Africa’s oldest freedom fighting organization has been consistently called to question for some time now—and particularly since Jacob Zuma came to power in 2009 amid allegations of rape and inappropriate behaviour in an arms deal. Subsequently, when South Africa’s Public Protector (equivalent of an Ombudsmen) revealed that the President unduly benefited from the ZAR246m ($25m) security upgrades to Nklandla and should pay back some of these costs, it came as little surprise that Zuma deflected blame by saying: “They did this without telling me… so why should I have to pay for something I didn’t ask for?”  The President stands by this excuse even in light of documentary evidence that suggests he knew and approved of the non-security related upgrades that included a swimming pool, amphitheatre, a cattle enclosure, a chicken run, and paving.

Such a response smacks of a President, political party, and government that, despite being in the midst of an election, has little to worry about.  Regardless of the Public Protector’s bombshell of a report, the ANC appears certain to win the national elections taking place on May 7. This is because the ANC and its coalition partners—the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)—still command a huge amount of loyalty and mass support, which is held over from the anti-apartheid struggle days. So, it seems inevitable that they will form another majority government, albeit with a reduced share of the vote.

To an outsider, such a fact might be shocking and somewhat confounding, but within the South African context, the legacies and memories of apartheid are still fresh.  Many still rely on the ANC’s massive social policies that extend important (and necessary) benefits to many in the country—including health care, education, electricity, housing, and even water.  Despite the obvious existence of clientelism between the government and the governed, South African political observers are rather focusing on the share of votes that the ANC will get and whether it will hold in provincial and municipal leadership positions as an indicator of potential public dissatisfaction and discontent. Indeed, some are predicting that the Northwest Province and the province of Gauteng—South Africa’s economic and financial engine—could go the largest opposition party—the Democratic Alliance—that maintains its seat of power in the Western Cape (the location of the legislative capital, Cape Town).  While this wouldn’t change much at the national level, it would mean that South Africa’s two largest and most economically prosperous provinces would no longer be governed by the ANC. 

And that is significant in terms of thinking about policies pertaining to infrastructure, public housing, education, water and sanitation, and other key government services that have typically been controlled by the ANC.  In effect, it would dilute the ANC’s ability to align key policy areas and budgets between the national and provincial governments. This is because the provinces, in a manner reminiscent of Canada, maintain constitutionally enshrined concurrent and exclusive powers and could easily deviate from the approach of the national government. This development would constrain the ANC’s ability to extend their electorally popular social programs unabated, or at least to claim sole credit for them.

Such a shift at the provincial and municipal level could have important knock on effects that will influence future elections. While it would be premature to speculate on the prospect of an ANC defeat at the national level, it not unreasonable to think that the ANC government in its current incarnation might undergo a significant transformation in the not too distant future. As mentioned earlier, the ANC is the major player in a coalition with the SACP and COSATU. However, fractures in this so called Tripartite Alliance have begun to emerge in recent years signaling that the solid bond once thought to exist between these parties might no longer be as compelling as previously thought. Already a split has occurred within COSATU when its largest constituent union – National Union of Metalworkers South Africa – breaking off and taking a non-aligned position for the upcoming election. Indeed, if the underlying coalition of political actors that form the current government falls away completely, a true multiparty contestation of elections could actually take place. This only has benefits for the democratic development of South Africa and, in my view, is an inevitability.

So, despite the disturbing trends that appear to be emerging from South Africa and the potentially corrupt ANC government—South Africans are still very much in control of their own future and can temper the influence of corruption or cronyism that seem to be becoming more and more common place. The method might be somewhat more nuanced than those of us in Canada are used too… but the effect just might be the same.