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. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.