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4 June 2024

The tragedy of the ANC’s collapse

South Africa’s ruling party wasn’t overtaken by a rival in the election. It simply ceded ground to the country's latent demons and parasitic forces.

By Simone Scriven

It’s true that the polls, in this case, were right – but in the weeks leading up to South Africa’s election, it was difficult to take them seriously. It was like a prediction that there would be peace in the Middle East by the end of the summer – not technically impossible, just hard to imagine, let alone believe. Yet, on Sunday 2 June, it was confirmed: the African National Congress (ANC) had lost its majority in South Africa’s National Assembly.   

The ANC was the party that set in motion South Africa’s democratic transition post-apartheid. Expressed in its share of the National Assembly seats, its mandate was big and bountiful. Its government executed a complete overhaul of legislation and policy, and the roll-out of huge projects to house and educate those who had been excluded from shelter and learning, new anthems, flags and designs on the money. Though there has been much lamenting of how they did not go far enough – that they did not overhaul the economy, or redistribute privately, and unfairly, owned land – they confidently pushed the country into new and unchartered democratic terrain. 

The result marks a major shift in South African politics. The ANC will still govern, but now it must form a coalition with one of the country’s (other) minority parties. With only 40 per cent of the vote, it cannot rely on small partners alone. It will need to negotiate with the Democratic Alliance (DA) at 22 per cent, or one of two other parties, which are arguably exiled factions from its own ranks: the radical, anti-establishment parties uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, 15 per cent, or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on 9.5 per cent. The collapse is even more pronounced at the provincial level: the ANC has lost a majority in three new provinces, the Northern Cape, and crucially, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).  

While it can easily retain control of the first province through coalition, and less easily the second, it has likely lost KZN to the MK party – which started only four months before the election, and is the vote’s real success story. The MK party positions itself as a defender of Zulu culture and rights and draws on the iconography of Zulu warriors – many worry the party leaders intend to reignite a militant ethno-nationalism in the province, if it suits their aims. The last time ethnic identity was seriously mobilised for political aims, in the 1990s, during the denouement of the apartheid state, over 10,000 people were killed in the violence. Since then, the province has retained a pronounced violent underground, albeit more mafia-like in nature.  

The new political parties promising “good governances” and “new leaders” did not make much of a mark. Indeed, in KZN, many of the province’s voters chose a party started by the corruption-accused former president, Jacob Zuma. This is all the more sobering as these voters live in the province principally affected by the “July Riots” of 2021, which caused approximately $3.4bn in damages to infrastructure and private property and the death of 300. This violence erupted in the wake of Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court, and is seen by many to have been orchestrated by his allies. Instead of fresh faces or clean administration, many of those looking for change chose the party of ethno-nationalism, seemingly ignoring – or ignorant of – the role its leaders may have played in the violence and decline of opportunity around them.  

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A national coalition government, and a rise in the number of provincial coalitions, brings to the higher levels of government a trend that has been playing out in the cities for several years. In the last few years, if you wanted to scare a South African about coalition government, you just needed to whisper one word: Johannesburg.

The country’s largest and wealthiest city, which had been enjoying around a decade of urban renewal, entered coalition rule in 2016. These arrangements became increasingly volatile after the last election in 2019, when fragmentation of the vote between 18 parties gave marginal players the power to swing the city government. When he was appointed in August 2023, the current mayor Kabelo Gwamanda was the sixth in less than two years. He was a first-term city councillor and came from a political party that scraped 1 per cent of the vote.

Hard hit by the fallout of Covid, unstable municipal governance has destroyed the chances of dealing with the city’s accelerating maintenance and corruption problems. Suburbs all over the city – including the wealthiest – have gone weeks without water due to leaks, and the city not only suffers from national grid black-outs, but power cut-offs due to the malfunction of substations managed locally. Johannesburg is decaying.

So much for the long-held, great hope of the left that a progressive, non-racial, worker-oriented faction of important ANC leaders would “split” off to form a new party with all the best policies, and all the key political IP, with a strong command of the national vote. Unfortunately, that split was the formation of the MK and EFF parties. Except these splinter groups embody some of the most malignant forces in the party: links to corruption and criminal activity, ethno-nationalism, and a valorisation of traditional leadership structures in way that is distinctly anti-democratic – as well as some of its most emotive branding, with references through icons, colours and clothing to the anti-apartheid armed struggle and the worker-movement respectively. 

A coalition between the ANC and a party of exiled ANC leaders would not signify change through real political competition. But the ANC may well decide to go into a coalition with the DA, the partnership that would be looked on most favourably by the markets. The DA is hardly a refreshing change – its prescriptions for fixing the country (neoliberal-ish good governance) have not changed significantly in the last three elections, and neither has its vote share. In a majority black country, it has largely failed to retain black leaders or attract black voters. Yet the most thrilling but very contingent possibility in this election is that it could secure slightly more leverage within government to address basic, failing infrastructure and administration problems – conditions that would need to be in place before any ambitious policy proposals could hope to work.

Thinking in multiple-election terms like this summons intimations of previous eras. The one thing that even committed democrats openly envy about autocratic regimes are the time lines. In no democracies with healthy electoral competition can an incoming administration expect decades in power to see through its policies. Apart from, perhaps, for a party of liberation – whose identity retains the idea of change, long after it has become the status quo. After 30 years in government, it’s this fertile certainty that the African National Congress has lost.

Perhaps the ANC squandered a revolutionary moment – during the French Revolution, the Jacobins went so far as renaming the days of the week. So much of what was built in those first 15 years post-apartheid – institutions and their cultures, as well as the basic norms of a non-racial society — required long-term vision. The greater problem turns out to have been the party’s inability to stick to this vision. And worse: to have presided over a project to dismantle it, during Jacob Zuma’s administration, now labelled in the local press the “state capture era”.

In recent years, the ANC threw away yet another boon, which could have allowed the nation-building project to resume. Riding on a wave of popular optimism and goodwill, the administration of Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been president since 2018, branded itself the “New Dawn” to indicate both a break and a renewal from the corrupt Zuma era. Neither materialised.

Instead, Covid decimated lives and livelihoods, power cuts deepened, the murder rate rose, and the tentacle of criminal cartels were found in almost every sector of the state and economy. When Zuma was jailed in 2021 and the July Riots erupted, Ramaphosa gave the furious impression of doing nothing, arrested no high-level conspirators, and so enabled the rise of the MK party.

The most damning element of the ANC’s collapse is that it hasn’t been overtaken by a rival party, or a new answer to South Africa’s problems. It has simply ceded ground to latent demons and parasitic forces, such as militant Zulu nationalism, cronyism and organised crime.

[See also: The future starts in South Africa]

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