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.

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.

 

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

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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