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?

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Libya’s slave markets are a reminder that the exploitation of Africans never went away

Slavery was recorded in 20th century Ethiopia and continues to exist in Mauritania today. 

A recent African summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saw one welcome piece of news: the African Union had – for the first time – called on Mauritania to end slavery within its borders. In what was described as a “landmark ruling”, the African Union reprimanded a member state for allowing the widespread practice of hereditary slavery. This is not what is now termed “modern slavery”, but the ancient practice of one person owning another: chattel slavery, as it is known.

While the announcement was a step forward, it was not quite what it seemed. This was not a declaration of African heads of state. The final statement from the summit failed to mention Mauritania. Rather, the call came in the form of a ruling by one of the African Union’s many subsidiary bodies: the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC).

Anti-Slavery International, which has campaigned against the scourge since 1839, welcomed the decision, but urged action. “The message to the Mauritanian Government is extremely clear: ensure that their masters are prosecuted with the full force of the law,” said Anti-Slavery’s spokesman, Jakub Sobik. 

How Mauritania responds remains to be seen, but the ruling came shortly after shocking evidence from CNN of the slave markets of Libya. “Eight hundred,” shouts an auctioneer. “900 ... 1,000 ... 1,100 ...” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars – the equivalent of $800. And with that, the ownership of refugees captured by human traffickers change hands.

CNN’s report was not the first to expose the practice, but the channel’s broadcast jolted public opinion. In the UK a petition calling for the British government to act attracted more than a quarter of a million signatures. As a result, it was debated in Parliament, with Labour MP Marsha de Cordova noting the outrage of her constituents from the African diaspora. “This is modern-day chattel slavery,” she said, “And a window into practices that form part of a particularly traumatic collective memory for many communities.”

In Britain, discussions about slavery have long focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and rightly so. Britain carried out slavery on an industrial scale: between 1640 and 1807, when the British slave trade was abolished, it is estimated to have transported 3.1 million Africans, mostly to the Americas. Furthermore, defenders of slavery justified their lucrative trade in human misery by promoting racist ideas that left indelible scars on Western society. It is only in recent decades that politicians have fully addressed the role of the slave trade in Britain’s history beyond the abolitionist movement, and even in 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped short of a full apology, for fear of reparations. The more recent campaign against “modern slavery” has concentrated on criminal gangs exploiting undocumented workers, and elite families keeping vulnerable women as unpaid maids. 

Discussing slavery within Africa is, it seems, an uncomfortable subject, not least because of the potential in a digital age for a nuanced discussion to be used as an excuse to let the West off the hook. Liverpool’s otherwise excellent International Slavery Museum skims over the mention of slavery on Africa’s East Coast. How many schools explain that for five thousand years African slaves were captured in wars or raids and marched along the Nile, across the Sahara or transported over the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Asia?

Forms of slavery existed in the Ottoman and Roman empires, but its presence can be traced far further back in time, and across the world. Europeans practiced slavery at least since the times of the ancient Greeks; so did the Chinese, Japanese and Indians. Maori turned prisoners of war into slaves. In Africa, “the first evidence was carved in stone in 2900 B.C.E. at the second cataract depicting a boat on the Nile packed with Nubian captives for enslavement in Egypt”, according to the late Robert Collins of the University of California. The trade on Africa’s East coast, to the slave markets of Arabia, India and beyond took place for at least a millenium. Collins calculated that the Asian trade numbered an estimated total of 12,580,000 slaves from 800 to 1900.

Slavery generally shared common attributes: brutality, oppression and frequently racism. Even when both master and slave were African, this did not prevent the most derogatory descriptions being used about the group from which the slaves were drawn. For example, racist terms were routinely used by Sudanese Arabs against those African groups they enslaved. This racism was manifested by Arabs’ derogatory use of the term “abid” (slaves) – and what the Northern Sudanese writer Mansur Khalid called “a series of [other] unprintable slurs – to apply to western and southern peoples.”

Much East coast or trans-Saharan slavery was practiced by Arabs. Ronald Segal (who wrote on trans-Atlantic as well as Islamic slavery) suggested that while there is a tradition of debate about the former, the latter has been less satisfactorily explored. “There is a conscious and articulate black diaspora in the West that confronts the historical record of slavery and racism there,” he wrote in his 2001 book Islam’s Black Slaves: The History of Africa’s other Black Diaspora. “That Islam has no comparably conscious and articulate black diaspora to confront it with the reminders of slavery does not make that record any more immune to examination and judgement.” 

African slavery was not restricted to Arabs or to Muslims. Nor did the African trade in slaves end in 1900. There is evidence of slaves in Christian-ruled Ethiopia in the 1930s: a photograph from the time shows slaves carrying their owners’ money to fund Emperor Haile Selassie’s war effort against Italy. 

It was the Italians who finally abolished the practice after they occupied the country. “The Italians issued a decree in April 1936 which liberated more than 400,000 slaves,” according to Seid A. Mohammed, historian at at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.

Even then, slavery was not eliminated. Mauritania continues the practice, failing to enforce a 2007 law designed to end the practice. Anti-Slavery International reports that slavery is still to be found in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan. “People born into descent-based slavery face a lifetime of exploitation and are treated as property by their so-called ‘masters’. They work without pay, herding animals, working in the fields or in their masters’ homes. They can be inherited, sold or given away as gifts or wedding presents,” says the organisation.

Mauritania is also a reminder that even if the situation in Libya stabilises, the deep roots of slavery may be harder to remove. What is required is a wholehearted campaign by African leaders to name, shame and impose sanctions against their fellow heads of state who continue to tolerate this practice. Until Africa as a whole acts, the scourge of chattel slavery will continue to blight the lives of its people.

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?