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Thirty years after coming to power the ANC is in problems

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By Stephen Chan

South African’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), is in trouble. After 30 years in charge, it is scrambling for support ahead of the upcoming national elections.

The ANC has run the country since the end of apartheid in 1994, initially with Nelson Mandela as its leader. Crumbling infrastructure, particularly to do with electricity supply, a growing lack of employment opportunities, and the perception of elite corruption  have all eroded the promise and the early nobility of Mandela’s emergence on to the South African government stage.

Even the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has had his own brush with corruption accusations. He was cleared of these, but his track record as someone able to turn South Africa around and help it find its feet once again towards economic progress and fairer distribution, has been hampered by massive infrastructure disintegration. Huge electricity blackouts and unreliable transport have affected domestic voters as well as the huge industries that depend on energy and getting their products to the coast for export, which has constrained South Africa’s economic growth.

So, given all of that, in the elections coming on May 29 it seems for the first time that the ANC could lose its parliamentary majority. This is of great importance in that it is parliament that elects the president and therefore both the party and the president could be ousted. It will also be hugely symbolic for the country as the ANC has led this first period of democracy.

Figures who were once in the ANC, such as Julius Malema who leads the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and former president Jacob Zuma who, while still an ANC member, has started a new party, uMkhonto weSizwe, named after the former paramilitary wing of the ANC, are playing a significant role in election campaigning.

One argument being highlighted in the campaign is that industry control is even now, three decades after 1994, still in the hands of white corporate bosses – and there is much evidence this is the case. That message might stymie the parliamentary ambitions of the Democratic Alliance – which boasts an effective and efficient administration in the Western Cape, but has a senior leadership that is entirely white.

Some opinion polls have the ANC as low as 40% in voter support And, although the ANC insists it is clawing back ground, there is no secret in Pretoria that overtures have been made to the EFF as to which portfolios in a coalition government would satisfy its ambitions. Some feel Malema may demand the vice presidency as part of a deal.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s highest court has just ruled that Zuma cannot stand for parliament in the election. The court ruled that anyone convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment cannot serve in the National Assembly, until five years after the completion of a sentence.

Zuma was sentenced to a 15-month prison term in 2021 after he was found guilty of contempt of court for refusing to testify before a judicial commission. He was released after three months as part of a presidential remission programme.

The ANC has declined to pursue disciplining or expelling Zuma for forming a rival party. Not expelling him may be the first step towards a coalition after the elections.

ANC history

The celebrations of electoral victory by Mandela and the ANC in 1994 were shared by domestic and international well-wishers who had supported Mandela throughout his years of imprisonment.

But Mandela and the ANC faced formidable problems. They inherited a public administrative system used to serving only a small white population. One of Mandela’s first decisions was based on the realisation he could not trust the system and its personnel to deliver benefits to all.

It meant the appointment of ANC personnel to key positions nationwide, not on the basis of capacity and ability, but loyalty. It meant many of the ANC’s reformative and distributive policies were never fully or well implemented, for lack of expertise.

Mandela had been in prison for close on three decades. He had never had any training or experience as a president. Deputy president Thabo Mbeki (1994-99) became the technical brains behind the government. When he succeeded Mandela as president in 1999 he brought to bear his international experience. His policy of Black Economic Empowerment (later Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment) was derived from US policies of positive discrimination. It encouraged the creation of black firms which, all other things being equal, would be awarded municipal contracts.

But many of the contracts, such as the construction of housing units, resulted in poorly planned and poorly built houses.. And bribery at municipal level began to burgeon as firms lobbied, and then paid, municipal administrators to award them the contracts.

When the internal politics of the ANC, an uneasy amalgam of those who had stayed to resist apartheid underground, or who had been imprisoned, and those who had left, either to fight or organise international support, led to the downfall of Mbeki and his replacement by Zuma, things started to go badly wrong.

The presidency of Zuma, a man who had never had his own bank account, led to the beginnings of a discernible economic downturn and saw also municipal corruption grow into national corruption. Under Zuma, “state capture”, such as the plundering of state-owned organisations and nationalised industries by cronies of the president, and his appointment of unqualified people to run huge national and international operations led to a growing sense that South Africa had lost the promise it once held.

In effect the much-trumpeted legacy of Mandela of an end to white domination and the creation of a new South Africa is far from complete. And 2024 probably marks a historic lurch towards a coalition government – something very different to the past, but also one that might be able to refresh South Africa’s reputation.

All pictures made in 1994 by Sylvia Mooreshe

This articel was first publishe by the Conversation:

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