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Is the ANC's dominance ending?

The creation of a new political party in South Africa is the latest sign of the ANC's problems.

Mamphela Ramphele announcing the birth of the Agang party Photograph: Getty Images

The formation of the Agang party in South Africa is the latest reflection of the failings of the post-1994 settlement.

Agang – Sesotho for "Let us build" – aim to capitalise on tensions highlighted by the deaths of 34 miners on strike last year. Their mantra is to restore political accountability and social justice.

Mamphela Ramphele is a potentially formidable leader of the new party. A renowned anti-apartheid activist, she was politically and romantically tied to Steve Biko and spent seven years under house arrest. Ramphele, 65, can also make a claim to economic expertise, as a former Managing Director at the World Bank.

Ramphele has already created political noise with her party – that the ANC have already expressed concerns about the party receiving funds from abroad shows that Agang are regarded as a threat.

Agang lack the infrastructure and organisational capacity to challenge for victory at next year’s elections. There was similar excitement over the Congress of the People party before the 2009 elections, but they only received 8 per cent of the vote. Still, Agang's formation remains troubling for the ANC.

Perhaps the real puzzle is why the ANC has been so dominant until now - since apartheid, their vote share has never fallen below 62 per cent. A weak and divided opposition, loyalty to the revolutionary movement and the notion that regime change could be effected within the party, as with the fall of Thabo Mbeki, explain their electoral success.

The ANC's success has not been confined to averting the feared Civil War. Rates of economic growth have been steady. Whatever the popular perception of the ANC "selling out" to neo-liberalism, South Africa boasts a more generous welfare system than comparatively sized economies, especially in childcare and pensions. Since 1994, the income of the poorest has increased, despite high levels of immigration and population growth.

Yet goodwill towards the ANC is rapidly eroding. Under Jacob Zuma’s leadership, the party’s reputation for being too close to big business has only grown. Educational standards, persistent accusations of ANC corruption - most seriously regarding a $5bn arms deal in 1999 - and draconian media laws have also added to discontent. And Mbeki’s appalling handling of the HIV / AIDS epidemic still haunts the party. No wonder striking has become endemic, costing over 6 million working days in 2011.

While Agang are attempting to exploit such anger, of more immediate concern for the ANC is the Democratic Alliance. Once regarded as essentially a party for the white middle-class, the DA have matured into a formidable operation. At the 2009 election, they increased their vote share to 17 per cent, and they gained control of the province of Western Cape. Recognising the need to broaden their appeal, in 2011 the DA selected Lindiwe Mazibuko as their first black parliamentary leader. 

The ANC will win again in 2014, but they face a more powerful political opposition than anytime since transformation. Given the corruption and complacency charges increasingly sticking to the party, it may be no bad thing.