Can South Africa's ruling party overcome its reputation for corruption, nepotism and violence?

Ahead of the ANC conference, where the country's next president will likely be anointed, Martin Plaut examines the internal divisions plaguing the party.

In less than two weeks the African National Congress will gather in Mangaung – the metropolis around Bloemfontein. They will select the party’s president and – almost certainly – the next president of South Africa. The election has been a protracted, bloody and even murderous affair.

One victim was Councillor Wandile Mkhize. On the 30 June he arrived at his home in Manaba, on the south coast of Kwa-Zulu at ten at night. He had come from an ANC meeting, at which he supported Jacob Zuma. But when he got out of the car men driving a Toyota Corolla drove by, opened fire, and left him dying in the road.

He had received death threats before, but never taken them too seriously. In a campaign of many months, the ANC election has pitted its president, Jacob Zuma against his deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.  At the meeting Mkhize had led ANC delegates in songs praising Zuma and had become involved in a confrontation with rival Motlanthe supporters.

Once his murder would have been blamed on political rivals outside of the ANC, like the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP); but no longer. This was a struggle for influence within the ANC. As Zwelinzima Vavi – Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary - put it: “Political killings are so commonplace in KwaZulu-Natal that we can no longer blame them on the IFP warlords because it's an inside job," Vavi said.

In this province alone there have been nearly 40 political murders since 2010. Dozens more have been killed in provinces like Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo.  The ANC has repeatedly promised to act to halt the attacks. “The ANC has never condoned violence,” said its spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.

Yet party meetings continue to be broken up and the assaults continue unabated. On the 30 November the ANC conference in Limpopo to select the party’s leadership had to be abandoned. It “…was collapsed [on Friday night] by violent hooligans," provincial spokesperson Makonde Mathivha said. "Delegates had to flee the venue. It was terrifying."

There have also been repeated allegations of membership manipulation, with “ghost members” being paid for in order to win backing for particular candidates. Party members have claimed that auditors padded the figures for provinces crucial to Jacob Zuma's re-election campaign.

The whole ANC leadership is up for re-election, but this still does not explain why such extraordinary steps are being taken to win what are, after all, only internal party positions.

The reason is not hard to find. Even minor positions, like a ward councillor, provides access to state resources and an influence over government contracts. Supporting the right faction is the surest route to political power and this is often the only means of escaping poverty. With more than 30 per cent of South Africans unemployed, gaining a foothold on the political ladder is a means of winning access to contracts and key resources, like housing.  

A study by Professor Doreen Atkinson concluded that municipal malpractice had become “extensive”.* She set out just how these corrupt practices work.

“There are numerous ways in which municipalities lend themselves to personal enrichment. Typical problems are the abuse of mayoral funds, unauthorised transfers of municipal money to outsiders, favouritism in procurement processes, the payment of bribes to secure services the abuse of travel allowances, fictitious tenders, involvement of councillors with companies which then win tenders, non-payment of municipal services by councillors using municipal facilities for party-political or personal purposes, and irregular performance bonuses.”

Backing a winning slate is therefore worth fighting for.

It is now certain that Jacob Zuma will win the contest for the presidency, since he has already received the backing of nearly 60 per cent of the 4,500 delegates. For his deputy, the quietly spoken Motlanthe, the outlook is bleaker.  He is not on the Zuma slate and looks likely to be replaced by the millionaire businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa. 

For a while it looked as if the Marikana massacre, in which 34 miners were gunned down by the police, would sink Ramaphosa’s chances of election.  Although once a miner’s leader himself, he is today South Africa’s second richest man, with a stake in Lonmin, which operates the Marikana mine. His election would be seen as a powerful encouragement to business, at a time when multinational companies have been reducing their holdings in the country, following this year’s damaging wave of strikes.

If elected, Cyril Ramphosa will be in a position to succeed Jacob Zuma. This would be a turning point for the ANC, which since 1994 has been run by the exiles who carried the movement through the apartheid years.  Ramaphosa would be the party’s first leader to have won his spurs inside the country. He made his name during the union revival of the 1970s and the growth of the United Democratic Front of the 1980’s. Both were built on the principles of grassroots democracy, very different from the ANC’s practices in exile and the underground.

Cyril Ramaphosa, once favoured by Nelson Mandela as his successor, could revive the ANC at a time when it is facing a critical test.  Popular support is ebbing away. The previously derided opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) is becoming a credible challenge. At the DA’s party conference in November it elected young blacks men and women onto key positions and declared that it was ready to take on the ANC in the 2014 elections.

To achieve this would require a transformation of their electoral fortunes. But as they meet in Mangaung, ANC stalwarts know they need to undertake a root and branch renewal of their party, if it is to slough off its current reputation for corruption, nepotism and violence.

D Atkinson, "Taking to the streets: Has developmental local government failed in South Africa?" in State of the Nation: South Africa 2007. Cape Town, HSRC Press, 2007, p 66.


President Jacob Zuma delivers a speech at the Parliament in Cape Town. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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America’s domestic terrorists: why there’s no such thing as a “lone wolf”

After the latest attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, America must confront the violence escalating at its heart.

First things first: let’s not pretend this is about life.

Three people have died and nine were injured on Friday in the latest attack on a women’s health clinic in the United States. Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was besieged by a gunman whose motives remain unclear, but right-to-lifers—who should really be called “forced birth advocates”—have already taken up their keyboards to defend his actions, claiming that women seeking an abortion, or doctors providing them, are never “innocent”. 

This was not unexpected. Abortion providers have been shot and killed before in the United States. The recent book Living in the Crosshairs by David S Cohen and Krysten Connon describes in sanguine detail the extent of domestic terrorism against women’s healthcare facilities, which is increasing as the American right-wing goes into meltdown over women’s continued insistence on having some measure of control over their own damn bodies. As Slate reports

In July, employees at a clinic in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, reported an attempted arson. In August, firefighters found half a burning car at the construction site of a future clinic in New Orleans. On Sept. 4, a clinic in Pullman, Washington, was set ablaze at 3:30 a.m., and on Sept. 30, someone broke a window at a Thousand Oaks, California, clinic and threw a makeshift bomb inside.

The real horror here is not just that a forced-birth fanatic attacked a clinic, but that abortion providers across America are obliged to work as if they might, at any time, be attacked by forced-birth fanatics whose right to own a small arsenal of firearms is protected by Congress. 

The United States is bristling with heavily armed right-wingers who believe the law applies to everyone but them. This is the second act of domestic terrorism in America in a week. On Monday, racists shouting the n-word opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring three. This time, the killer is a white man in his 50s. Most American domestic terrorists are white men, which may explain why they are not treated as political agents, and instead dismissed as “lone wolves” and “madmen”.

Terrorism is violence against civilians in the service of ideology. By anyone’s sights, these killers are terrorists, and by the numbers, these terrorists pose substantially more of a threat to American citizens than foreign terrorism—but nobody is calling for background checks on white men, or for members of the republican party to wear ID tags. In America, like many other western nations, people only get to be “terrorists” when they are “outsiders” who go against the political consensus. And there is a significant political consensus behind this bigotry, including within Washington itself. That consensus plays out every time a Republican candidate or Fox news hatebot expresses sorrow for the victims of murder whilst supporting both the motives and the methods of the murderers. If that sounds extreme, let’s remind ourselves that the same politicians who declare that abortion is murder are also telling their constituents that any attempt to prevent them owning and using firearms is an attack on their human rights. 

Take Planned Parenthood. For months now, systematic attempts in Washington to defund the organisation have swamped the nation with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric. Donald Trump, the tangerine-tanned tycoon who has managed to become the frontrunner in the republican presidential race not in spite of his swivel-eyed, stage-managed, tub-thumping bigotry but because of it, recently called Planned Parenthood an “abortion factory” and demanded that it be stripped of all state support. Trump, in fact, held a pro-choice position not long ago, but like many US republicans, he is far smarter than he plays. Trump understands that what works for the American public right now, in an absence of real hope, is fanaticism. 

Donald Trump, like many republican candidates, is happy to play the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist fanatic in order to pander to white, fundamentalist Christian voters who just want to hear someone tell it like it is. Who just want to hear someone say that all Muslims should be made to wear ID cards, that Black protesters deserve to be “roughed up”, that water-boarding is acceptable even if it doesn’t work because “they deserve it”. Who just want something to believe in, and when the future is a terrifying blank space, the only voice that makes sense anymore is the ugly, violent whisper in the part of your heart that hates humanity, and goddamn but it’s a relief to hear someone speaking that way in a legitimate political forum. Otherwise you might be crazy.

American domestic terrorists are not “lone wolves”. They are entrepreneurial. They may work alone or in small groups, but they are merely the extreme expression of a political system in meltdown. Republican politicians are careful not to alienate voters who might think these shooters had the right idea when they condemn the violence, which they occasionally forget to do right away. In August, a homeless Hispanic man was allegedly beaten to a pulp by two Bostonians, one of whom told the police that he was inspired by Donald Trump’s call for the deportation of “illegals”. Trump responded to the incident by explaining that “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

But that’s not even the real problem with Donald Trump. The real problem with Donald Trump is that he makes everyone standing just to the left of him look sane. All but one republican governor has declared that refugees from Syria are unwelcome in their states. Across the nation, red states are voting in laws preventing women from accessing abortion, contraception and reproductive healthcare. Earlier this year, as congressmen discussed defunding Planned Parenthood, 300 ‘pro-life’ protesters demonstrated outside the same Colorado clinic where three people died this weekend. On a daily basis, the women who seek treatment at the clinic are apparently forced to face down cohorts of shouting fanatics just to get in the door. To refuse any connection between these daily threats and the gunman who took the violence to its logical extreme is not merely illogical—it is dangerous.

If terrorism is the murder of civilians in the service of a political ideology, the United States is a nation in the grip of a wave of domestic terrorism. It cannot properly be named as such because its logic draws directly from the political consensus of the popular right. If the killers were not white American men, we would be able to call them what they are—and politicians might be obligated to come up with a response beyond “these things happen.”

These things don’t just “happen”. These things happen with escalating, terrifying frequency, and for a reason. The reason is that America is a nation descending into political chaos, unwilling to confront the violent bigotry at its heart, stoked to frenzy by politicians all too willing to feed the violence if it consolidates their own power. It is a political choice, and it demands a political response.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.