ANC blames Apartheid, warns against coalitions: Political debate reveals sharp contrasts ahead of 2024

In a high-stakes debate hosted by The European House – Ambrosetti, South Africa’s ANC secretary general attributed the nation’s challenges to apartheid, cautioning against coalitions. With polls suggesting the ANC’s potential loss of its majority, opposition leaders from the Democratic Alliance and ActionSA criticised the government’s track record. Fikile Mbalula defended ANC’s policies, emphasising the struggle to undo apartheid’s legacy. As the electoral battle intensifies, the debate illuminated key issues, from power cuts to privatisation, offering early glimpses into the diverse platforms that will shape South Africa’s political landscape.

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ANC Blames Apartheid, Pans Coalitions Ahead of South Africa Vote

By Antony Sguazzin

The secretary general of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress blamed apartheid for the country’s manifold problems and warned against coalitions in a debate with opposition leaders, just months ahead of what’s likely to be the party’s sternest electoral test.

By contrast the leaders of the Democratic Alliance and ActionSA used the opportunity at a Johannesburg conference on Thursday convened by an Italian think tank, The European House – Ambrosetti, to criticize the government’s record and pledged widespread privatization if they took power. 

A slew of polls have shown that the ANC may lose its absolute majority in elections next year for first time since taking power in 1994, and be forced into a coalition to stay in office. The DA, South Africa’s biggest opposition party, and ActionSA, a party formed in 2020 that snatched 9.4% of the vote in the economic hub of Gauteng in local elections in 2021, have pledged to work together alongside a number of other parties to try and unseat the ANC. 

We have had to “reverse 300 years of apartheid,” said Fikile Mbalula, the ANC secretary general. “The journey up to this point has been very difficult but it’s not without its successes,” he told an audience of several hundred businessmen at an upmarket hotel. His remarks alluded to white rule as apartheid was only officially in force from 1948 until 1994. 

“Coalitions have not worked for this country,” he said, calling attention to the chaotic political combinations that have crippled the functions of some of the country’s largest municipalities.

The debate gave early clues to the platforms upon which South Africa’s political parties will fight next year’s election, expected to be held in April or May. Still, Julius Malema, leader of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters, didn’t attend the event as had been scheduled. The EFF is South Africa’s third-biggest political party and an offshoot of the ANC.

John Steenhuisen, the leader of the DA, and Herman Mashaba, the cosmetics tycoon who founded and leads ActionSA, slammed Mbalula on everything from recurrent power cuts to a dysfunctional work-visa system, inefficient ports and foreign policy that’s angered South Africa’s biggest trade partners. 

As if on cue, a scheduled power outage temporarily knocked out the lights and sound system at the debate.

“What happened a few minutes ago wouldn’t have happened under a DA administration,” Steenhuisen declared. 

Both Steenhuisen and Mashaba pledged to privatize energy and ports, two largely state-run sectors whose poor performance has hindered growth, and resolve a host of other bottlenecks. Mashaba, a firebrand former DA mayor of Johannesburg, went further to say he would slash South Africa’s strong worker rights, seen by some critics as inimical to economic growth, and repeal Black economic empowerment, known locally as BEE, legislation. Mashaba is Black.

Progress Undone

That gave Mbalula an opportunity to warn of the dangers of change. 

“I like Mashaba, he says what he likes and that’s very dangerous,” he said, “He doesn’t believe in BEE – everything we started in this country” could be unraveled, he said.

He said the ANC had been bold on policy, pointing to a plan to reform the rail system that’s yet to be implemented, and an announcement this week that the army would be deployed to tackle illegal mining gangs, who have been a pressing problem for well over a decade. 

Mashaba and Steenhuisen said that after three decades, and with a country beset by declining public services and one of the world’s worst unemployment rates, it’s time for change. 

“We should focus on solutions. We can have debates about colonialism, apartheid and 30 years of a failed government” but it won’t change things, Mashaba said to applause. Steenhuisen said “the South African story doesn’t have to be the one the ANC has written.”

‘Cross That Bridge’

Despite a largely sympathetic audience it wasn’t all plain sailing. Steenhuisen attracted derision for an inaccurate claim that Cape Town, run by the DA, doesn’t have an inequality problem, and an accurate statement that the Western Cape, also run by the DA, created 98% of net new jobs in the country in the last quarter of 2022. 

Mbalula acknowledged that unless the ANC sorts out its internal disputes and gets its voters to the polls it will lose its majority. He said that while he expects the party to get more than half of the votes in the election, the ANC will work with other parties if it has to.

“Coalitions are a reflection of the will of the people,” he said. “We will cross that bridge when we come to it.”

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