How world sees SA: A nation losing faith in Zuma’s ANC; at a turning point

The Financial Times of London hasn’t let SA’s municipal elections pass quietly. The influential newspaper today dedicates a full page “Big Read” to the contest (read it below), reaching a similar conclusion to other pundits: the ruling ANC is in decline. These elections will simply quantify that slide. Inside Luthuli House, the party’s last minute R1bn splurge provided a confidence booster profligacy often brings. But because Zuma and other members of the 60-plus aged Top Six still don’t “get” the new reality, they have failed to address the key transformation of a country whose metropoles are increasingly divided on class rather than racial lines. The EFF appeals to the bottom end, the legions of unskilled, unemployed workers who seek hope anywhere they can find it – even from one who idolises the disastrous Hugo Chavez, destroyer of Venezuela. At the other end, the DA attracts an educated middle class alienated by the ANC’s promotion of cadre deployment, tenderpreneurship and its general misrule. Largely through its own doing, Zuma’s ANC is now being squeezed between these two irresistible forces, especially in SA’s eight metropolitan municipalities. How tightly, will become apparent when today’s vote is counted. – Alec Hogg

By David Pilling

The African National Congress was meant to be different from other liberation movements on a continent where freedom fighters have mostly failed to make the transition to governing. Today, though, it is in trouble. Unable to bring jobs, economic growth, decent education or even hope to the black majority in whose name it struggled against apartheid, it faces an electoral turning point.

Boys ride their bicycles behind a trailer with ANC posters of a local ward councilor ahead of tommorow's local munincipal elections in Vuwani, South Africa's northern Limpopo province. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Boys ride their bicycles behind a trailer with ANC posters of a local ward councilor ahead of tomorrow’s local municipal elections in Vuwani, South Africa’s northern Limpopo province. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Just how far the ANC has fallen in the estimation of black South Africans will become apparent when the results of Wednesday’s election are announced later this week.Though just a municipal poll to select representatives of wards, towns and cities, it has become a bitterly contested referendum on the ANC. For the first time since it came to power in 1994 led by Nelson Mandela, the party’s share of the vote could drop below 60 per cent.

Worse still for the ANC, which maintains strong support among rural black South Africans, it could lose control of some of the nation’s most important cities. Pretoria, the capital, and Port Elizabeth, an industrial city with deep ANC roots, could fall into opposition hands. Even Johannesburg, the country’s urban powerhouse, may slip from its grasp, although pollsters suggest the ruling party will hang on by a whisker.

Read also: Election: What final polls predict on governing changes for SA’s big cities

The ANC under Jacob Zuma, the president, is clearly rattled. A poor outcome could give opposition parties a chance to show they can run things better in some of the most important cities in the land. That could in turn affect the 2019 general election and even Mr Zuma’s position as leader of the party, which he must contest next year. A heavy loss in the municipal polls could embolden Mr Zuma’s many opponents within the ANC who are waiting for a chance to strike. Equally, the president, a cunning and ruthless political operator, could use a defeat to blame – and purge – his enemies. If the party does better than expected, he may do the same.

Mr Zuma has pulled out all the stops. His party has piled a hefty R1bn ($71m) into its election campaign. It has “nationalised” the contest – a risky strategy according to some in the party – by plastering the president’s image on billboards across the country.

The campaign has, at times, turned nasty, In Johannesburg and elsewhere, Mr Zuma has attended boisterous rallies where he has accused the opposition Democratic Alliance of “blackwashing” what he calls its “white supremacist” history. He has painted the ANC as the only legitimate representative of black interests and anyone who votes otherwise as a traitor.

Municipal elections- tight contest

Tito Mboweni, an ANC veteran and a member of the party’s powerful National Executive Committee, seeks comfort in the election fervour. “It’s been like a political festival,” he says. “As somebody who fought for democracy, I’ve been so happy that so many people have been galvanised. Our democracy is like a baby that is growing, falling on its knees and standing up, but sometimes falling in the pond and nearly drowning,” he says. “It’s a maturing democracy.”

Not everyone has such a positive take. Senior figures within the party, many of whom went to prison for their beliefs, have publicly voiced dismay at the direction the ANC is taking under Mr Zuma. Trevor Manuel, former finance minister, is just one who has called for him to resign.

Many see the ANC, once regarded as the epitome of moral integrity, as having become just another African ruling party, more interested in enriching itself and its hangers-on than in serving the people.

Zuma campaign spend

Some supporters are even hoping that it suffers a big setback in these elections to shock some sense into it.

“That may well be a good thing for the ANC itself. It has to taste a loss of power to revive itself,” says Xolela Mangcu, a sociology professor at the University of Cape Town. “For the ANC to be better, it has to lose.”

The Democratic Alliance, whose forerunner garnered just 1.7 per cent of the 1994 vote, has steadily increased its support, winning 22 per cent in the 2014 general election. Now under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane, its first black leader, the DA hopes to nudge its support rate towards 30 per cent. Though primarily a party that appeals to whites, coloureds and Indians – terms still in use 22 years after the end of apartheid – the DA is slowly gaining the support of black voters, especially those in the aspiring middle class.

SA's unemployed

The threat to the ANC is not just from the centre-right DA. The Economic Freedom Fighters, an ANC breakaway led by Julius Malema, won 6 per cent in the last general election, its first outing. Campaigning on a platform of redistribution and expropriation of white land, the party of beret-wearing Mr Malema, who models himself on the late Venezuela leader Hugo Chávez, could move into double digits this time round.

Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of the former president, Thabo Mbeki, says the ANC is being undone by the same forces that unseated other African liberation movements. From Ghana to Kenya and from Angola to Zimbabwe, nationalist parties failed to change the colonial economic structures they inherited. Instead, the temptation was simply to substitute themselves as the ruling class. “The ANC is using that structure to benefit the black elite and the black middle class – and they’re doing very well thank you.”

The party, says Mr Mbeki, has not moved away from a low-value-added economy primarily dependent on raw materials and consumption. The higher value-added bits, such as banking and insurance, tend to employ only the educated elite. That means the economy can neither absorb the vast amounts of unskilled labour nor fund the welfare state needed to appease the jobless. Over time, those black South Africans excluded from economic activity “realise that they’re not getting anything. They may get a little bit of social welfare, but it’s not pulling them off the bottom rung,” he says. “And so they start to rebel. And that’s what’s happening today in South Africa, especially in the big cities.”

The proximate cause of the ANC’s woes is Mr Zuma, who weathered sacking and numerous scandals to emerge as leader of the party and, from 2009, president of the nation. For the elite of the ANC, Mr Zuma’s presidency has been an unmitigated disaster. A Zulu from KwaZulu-Natal with little formal schooling, his personal life has been an embarrassment to party elders. He has had to use all his political nous and popularity with ordinary South Africans to survive attempts to dislodge him.

Violet Esau

His presidency has been symbolised by his sprawling homestead at Nkandla, where, in the style of “Big Men” African leaders, he has made huge modifications at taxpayer expense. After much legal wrangling, the constitutional court in March ordered him to pay back part of the money.

But Nkandla is symbolic of something graver. Mr Zuma is accused of doling out patronage to his allies and of eroding the nation’s institutions to protect his interests. Critics allege that, under his watch, the independence of the prosecution authority, the security services, the tax authority and the state broadcaster have all been weakened.

Read also: Nkandla’s new architectural showpiece takes shape – this time for the people

Much as it is tempting to make a pantomime villain out of Mr Zuma, the ANC’s crisis goes deeper than one man. In truth, its troubles began the day it took power in 1994, having raised huge expectations among ordinary black South Africans.

Under apartheid, whites, about 8 per cent of the population, had systematically impoverished blacks, who make up 80 per cent of South Africans, by giving them inferior education, inferior jobs and forcing them to live in crowded townships. The ANC inherited what was in essence a small first world economy surrounded by a large third world one.

Read also: RW Johnson: Why Zuma’s ANC turning to racism, fuelling anti-white rhetoric

Under Mandela, the ANC resisted the temptation to expropriate land belonging to whites, or assets – an omission that is increasingly criticised by many South Africans, particularly on the left. That made it difficult to bring opportunity to the black majority. One option might have been through Chinese-style industrialisation based on cheap black labour but, given the aspirations of its voters to catch up with white living standards, that was politically untenable.

Instead, it opted for what was essentially a high-wage, high-productivity model. But given the lack of skills of most of the population, that meant mass unemployment. On a broad measure, a third of South Africans have no work. More than half of young black people are jobless. The ANC has, in short, become the party of the unemployed. According to figures from Ipsos, a pollster, 64 per cent of those who voted for the ANC in 2014 had no job.

Xolela Mangcu

Many rely instead on government grants. Around 16m South Africans receive some sort of state support. The economy, which has stalled, is making things worse. With no growth at all expected this year, there will be even fewer resources to spread around an expanding population.

“It’s worse than it used to be,” says Clayton Laurie, walking around a compound in which at least four families live squashed together with shared toilet and a leaking pipe. “The children are dying with drugs, there’s no jobs and we have nothing to do,” he says.

Mr Laurie, who lives in Eersterust, 15km from Pretoria, is an ANC member. He is sticking with the party “that crippled the apartheid regime”. But some are not. “We keep on voting, voting, voting. I haven’t got any food in my house,” says Leh Violet Esau, a 72-year-old resident of the same town. “I’m cross. I’m not going to vote any more.”

2011 Municipal election results


Just down the road, Samuel Dywilli, who hobbles on a false leg after being shot by police at an anti-apartheid demonstration, is a life-long ANC supporter. But this time, Mr Dywilli, who runs a key-cutting and shoe-polishing service, is weighing up his options. “I will decide on the day I go to vote,” he says.

Such wobbling of ANC support, even among the faithful, may suggest it is eventually doomed to lose power. All it has to do is look north to Zambia where the once all-powerful United National Independence party, which brought the country liberation under Kenneth Kaunda, now lacks even a single member of parliament. Worse for South Africa, if not necessarily the ANC, is the example of Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has hung on grimly to power at the cost of ending any semblance of political pluralism and dragging the economy towards ruin.

No one is predicting that the ANC will lose its majority, either in today’s polls or in the general election of 2019. But beyond that, even its own supporters warn, if it cannot address the needs of its core supporters, its days of electoral dominance could be numbered.

(c) 2016 The Financial Times Ltd.