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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood