The question was never about whether the African National Congress would win last week’s South African election. The question was by how big a margin. Global media played up the reducing margins the ANC has been winning elections with since it won power in 1994. Corruption and unfulfilled pledges to the Black majority who form its bedrock of support are the obvious causes of the diluted support. Top among these pledges is the fight against Black poverty and runaway unemployment.
An implosion of the ANC is not going to happen, not in the foreseeable future. As long as South African politics is organised through race and class, a Kanu-style collapse is not on the cards. The African majority, almost by instinct, identifies with the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela. The token opposition is offered by the Democratic Alliance (DA), largely associated with white progressives who formerly formed the parliamentary opposition to the apartheid-era National Party.
This unequal political duopoly has come to be challenged by a radical offshoot of the ANC – the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – led by the firebrand Julius Malema. Malema long ago ran away with an old ANC mantra: “Radical economic transformation.”
South Africans vote for parties, not individuals in the strict sense. There were many observers like me who were eager to see how the EFF would perform. There was the little question of the Blacks swinging en masse to the DA. It has too much undeclared baggage it carries from the apartheid era and its linkage to white privilege. The fear was that, with the disillusionment in the ANC support base reaching a discernible high, EFF stood to cannibalise the giant ruling party. It didn’t happen, a testament to the resilience of the ANC and the divisiveness of Malema. Preliminary returns showed EFF support hovering at 10 per cent, below the DA, which tenaciously maintained its white middle-class constituency, which nowadays has a considerable sprinkling of urbanised Blacks. The ANC was slated to win around 57 per cent of the vote, a still-commanding margin but below its usual 60 per cent-plus majorities. Analysts put that to a weakened pro-ANC turnout.
The DA, the successor to a slew of apartheid-era progressive opposition parties, harps about corruption by the ANC and campaigns for thorough reform of the public sector, and accountability and prosecution of culpable ANC leaders. The EFF advocates an even more far-reaching reform agenda, of a kind the DA is not keen on. Though the EFF is also vocal against corruption, the centrepiece of its policies is land reform and wealth redistribution, which the ANC has been slow, or wary, to tackle.
South Africa is among the most unequal societies in the world. Over 90 per cent of the country’s wealth is in the hands of only about 10 per cent of the population, mainly whites. Land is an even more explosive issue. Some 72 per cent of farmland is owned by whites, a situation similar to Zimbabwe’s before Robert Mugabe cracked down. Ramaphosa has reluctantly picked up the issue of land expropriation, but deliberately leaves the details vague. However, it is Malema who has made land redistribution his political baby, and he campaigns for expropriation without compensation.
Though President Cyril Ramaphosa is assured of his seat, he is more of a titled prince in the party rather than the outright master. The party’s all-powerful national executive has a clutch of members who don’t particularly trumpet his policies. This is dangerous in a party that has a habit of kicking out its elected State presidents before they finish their tenures. The ANC has historically hewed to a leftist ideology. Ramaphosa enjoys strong trade union roots but the cadres that run the party are not necessarily besotted with him. The hardcore socialists in the hierarchy are openly contemptuous of his association with “white monopoly capital” which they think is a betrayal of the ANC’s working class pedigree.
These party gurus coalesce around the influential party secretary-general, Ace Magashule, formerly the premier of the Orange Free State. Magashule and his cadres backed Nkosazana Dlamini against Ramaphosa in the bitter party leadership contest in 2017, which she lost narrowly. They are still spoken of as being close to her husband and Ramaphosa’s predecessor, the much vilified Jacob Zuma. Magashule has been linked with Zuma to the controversial Gupta family, which is accused of having corrupted the state apparatus under Zuma.
Unless these ANC barons turn against Ramaphosa in a dramatic and as yet unforeseen way, it is safe to say that they are not in a position to oust the state president. They have corruption worries to contend with and the related attention of a feared state investigator, called the Public Protector. For now, Ramaphosa looks safe.