🔒From the FT: South Africa’s ANC on shaky ground as election looms

Pilling suggests that the ANC’s fall is inevitable, emphasizing its loss of credibility and the upcoming general election as a crucial moment.

David Pilling of the Financial Times discusses the declining fortunes of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, highlighting issues such as economic stagnation, corruption, and public dissatisfaction. Despite the ANC’s prolonged stay in power since the end of apartheid in 1994, Pilling suggests that the party’s fall is inevitable, emphasizing its loss of credibility and the upcoming general election as a crucial moment. The political spectrum is expanding, with smaller parties gaining traction, and the ANC’s potential failure to secure a majority opens up possibilities for coalition scenarios, including alliances with both business-friendly and leftist parties. The article concludes with the acknowledgment that while many South Africans desire a change in leadership, the uncertainty about what follows complicates the likelihood of the ANC’s imminent downfall.

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The ANC will inevitably fall — just not yet

By David Pilling of the Financial Times

Prospects of change are widening the political spectrum

A decade ago, a book came out in South Africa called The Fall of the ANC: What Next? Ten years later, the African National Congress is still in power. At next year’s general election, which could be held as early as April, the ANC may well fail to clinch a majority for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994. But liberation movements have staying power and it is unlikely to lose outright.


Still, Prince Mashele, author of The Fall of the ANC, was right. The writing has long been on the wall for a party that has lost its credibility after 30 years in power. By the time the book came out, Jacob Zuma as president was busy selling off chunks of the state. The party’s economic policies have failed. Astonishingly, according to the IMF, South Africa’s economy has not grown in per capita terms since 2007. Nearly two in three young South Africans have no job.

In the absence of growth, South Africa has turned into what one observer called a “seedcorn banquet”. People and politicians “eat” what they can today, no matter the consequences for tomorrow. The assets of Eskom and Transnet, the state electricity and freight monopoly respectively, are literally being hauled off and sold by criminal gangs, causing industry-crippling power cuts and investment-throttling transport bottlenecks.

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The facilitation of such looting by some politicians makes the ANC’s fall both inevitable and necessary. But the manner in which it happens is far from obvious. The coming election next year will hint at what is to come.

In the last general elections in 2019, the ANC got 57.5 percent of the vote. Since then, President Cyril Ramaphosa has failed to keep the lights on or corral corruption. In Embalenhle, a township in Mpumalanga province, people stood around an open sewer this week complaining that the ANC-run municipality has never fixed it. “They have kept on promising the people since 1994,” said Khehla Mahlangu, a retired contract worker. “The ANC will be out, definitely.”

That seems improbable. Even John Steenhuisen, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, says his party will do well to get more than 25 per cent. But, he says: “It is the first election in 30 years where the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.”

The prospect of change has widened the political spectrum. From the social democratic Rise Mzansi to the rightwing Freedom Front Plus, small parties are placing their chips on the electoral table.

Outside the ANC, three bigger parties will help determine the outcome. On the radical left, the Economic Freedom Fighters, an ANC breakaway led by the firebrand Julius Malema, advocates expropriation of land without compensation, nationalisation of industry and mass house building. The EFF got nearly 11 per cent last time round. Malema’s role model is Hugo Chávez. For those who want to turn South Africa into Venezuela, Malema’s is the box to tick. On the right is ActionSA, a party founded by haircare-products entrepreneur and former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba. A self-styled “capitalist crusader” and death-penalty advocate, he runs his campaign from a table by his swimming pool in Sandton. He thinks South Africans can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if policies aren’t pushing them down. Asked if he would ever go into an alliance with the ANC, he huffs with indignation: “How can anyone expect me to join a criminal enterprise?”

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In the centre is Steenhuisen’s pro-market DA, which has struggled to widen its appeal since jettisoning Mmusi Maimane as leader after flatlining in 2019.

Next year’s election will probably break one of three ways. It is still conceivable the ANC machinery will crank into action, winning it an outright majority. Second, perhaps most likely, it will score above 45 but below 50 per cent, and cobble together a coalition with smaller parties.

Most intriguing is if the ANC drops below 45 per cent. Then, it might have to choose between a coalition with the Democratic Alliance or the EFF. The former would mean acceptance of more pragmatic, business-friendly policies; the latter a lurch leftward, possibly with Malema as vice-president.

There is a fourth possibility, however remote: that the opposition parties scrape together a majority. Steenhuisen has convened a “Moonshot Pact”, a pre-election alliance with several small parties including Mashaba’s ActionSA. If together they mustered enough votes, Steenhuisen could stand aside for a black leader, possibly Mashaba himself.

Millions of South Africans want to see the back of the ANC. The reason it probably won’t happen this time is that no one knows what comes next.

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© 2023 The Financial Times Ltd.

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