Tony Leon on South Africa: “Days after Mandela’s burial, the unity of the ANC was shattered”

The former leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance talks about the fallout from Madiba’s death on the rainbow nation.

Tony Leon (r) shakes hands with Kgalema Motlanthe, then deputy leader of the ruling ANC, 2008. (Photo: Getty)
Way things were: Tony Leon (r) shakes hands with Kgalema Motlanthe, then deputy leader of the ruling ANC, 2008. (Photo: Getty)

In November 1997, the old adage in vino veritas was given new meaning after a city councillor from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) was arrested for drink-driving in Cape Town. Councillor Mzukizi Gaba reportedly warned the (presumably white) policemen: “When Mandela dies, we will kill you whites like flies.”

After his arrest and conviction, little more was heard from the politician, though his fly-swatting comment lives on in cyberspace as a justification

for the call to arms of the “South Africa Project” (one of several incubators of racism online), which, from the safety of Louisiana in the United States, urges readers: “Wake up or die, white man!”

When Nelson Mandela died on 5 December 2013, there wasn’t a racial pogrom in South Africa – instead, there was a brief reanimation of the “rainbow nation” spirit that Mandela had so successfully nurtured during his presidency. His loss was mourned by all sections of this often racially fissiparous nation.

However, the passing of Mandela did represent a turning point of sorts for a country that held its first democratic election 20 years ago and sought to build the foundations of a non-racial democracy after three centuries of exclusion and apartheid.

The current president, Jacob Zuma, doubtless hoped that the national mourning and international attention – over 90 heads of state attended Mandela’s memorial service – would bury the mounting criticism of his leadership. There have been multiple scandals on his watch. The £16m in state funds used for “improvements” on Zuma’s private home in Zululand has come to symbolise the pilfering of £1.5bn of public money each year through “misappropriation” and “waste”, in the words of the government’s auditor general. Zuma’s presidency has coincided with the country’s first recession in 17 years, which has contributed to stubbornly high unemployment.

Yet the memorial provided moments of embarrassment when Zuma was booed by large sections of the predominantly black audience, an unusual occurrence in a country that usually treats heads of state with reverence. Zuma’s poll ratings are low. His general approval rating is 43 per cent; among the increasingly restive youth, it is 31 per cent.

Days after Mandela’s burial, the unity of the ANC was shattered. Its largest trade union ally, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), announced it was disaffiliating. It is likely that after the 7 May elections, Numsa, together with other political casualties of the Zuma years, will form a party to the left of the ANC.

As well as grumbling at the top, there is deep unhappiness on the ground. In just three months, there have been thousands of “service delivery protests” by people angry at their lack of water, electricity or adequate sewerage facilities.

Still, the ANC’s majority seems unassailable. For black South Africans, who make up over 80 per cent of the electorate, the ANC remains a totem of liberation – albeit a fraying one. It is sobering to recall that the party’s “worst” electoral result was in 1994, under Mandela, when it polled just over 62 per cent of the vote. The spread between the ANC and its nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, at the last general election in 2009 was over 40 per cent. The first key question for the election is not whether the ANC will lose power, but if it will achieve less than 60 per cent of the vote.

The second is how far left the ANC will move. Recent polls suggest that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) could achieve 10 per cent of the vote. The EFF’s self-styled “commander-in-chief”, Julius Malema, models himself on the late populist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Malema faces corruption charges and is unlikely to take his seat as an MP – but a strong showing from the EFF could prompt the ANC to turn left, which would increase the party’s internal divisions. So expect no change and everything to change in South Africa in the next few months. The ANC and Zuma will be re-elected by a wide margin but it is likely that new and more significant fault lines will emerge, too.

Mandela was this country’s once-in-a-lifetime offer. He was also a contradiction: he was the fiercest political partisan and a staunch believer in multiparty democracy. Part of him would be horrified at the looming disunity in the ANC but the other part might smile at the arrival of more normal politics on these southern shores. 

Tony Leon was the leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance from 1994 to 2007. His new book, “Opposite Mandela”, will be published in May