South Africa’s Never-Ending Party

Jacob Zuma's seemingly invincible ANC is back on top -- but that doesn't mean it will continue to rule “until Jesus comes back.”


CAPE TOWN — The 2014 South African election was supposed to be all about change.

This was supposed to be the year when the African National Congress (ANC) — the liberation movement-cum-political party that has dominated South African politics since 1994 — finally came crashing down to Earth.

Victory for the ANC in the May 8 elections was never truly in doubt. But last year, pundits predicted the ruling party’s share of the vote would decline to under 60 percent, a symbolic threshold which would, some said, necessitate the ANC recalling Jacob Zuma as president. Zuma’s tenure has become synonymous with scandal, spiraling unemployment, a sluggish economy, and systemic mismanagement. The ANC itself is still smarting from charges of cronyism and corruption, from the Marikana massacre and broader social unrest. As late as the morning of the election, Britain’s Telegraph noted that the ANC "could see a considerable drop in its support base and even lose the country’s economic powerhouse province, Gauteng."

Instead, the results of the 2014 South African election, held May 8, became a lesson in both the durability of the ANC, and the systematic flaws that still trouble this young democracy, which often seems more like a one-party state. The ANC won 62 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country’s only significant opposition party, secured 22 percent. The results saw a small decrease for the ANC, which captured 65 percent of the vote in the 2009 election, and a modest, 6 percent gain for the DA.

This was supposed to be the election when the upstart Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party led by Julius Malema, once an acolyte of Zuma and now his fiercest critic, would encroach upon ANC support. That, too, didn’t happen. Exiled from the ANC, accused of fraud and tax evasion, Malema was looking for both revenge and higher office. His party promised Chavez-style socialism and Mugabe-style land grabs. Despite disproportionate media attention, the EFF only scratched out a million votes, some 6.2 percent of votes cast.

It was also supposed to be the election when the DA emerged as a viable contender, a party for all South Africans, not just for all South Africans who aren’t black. That didn’t happen either. The DA has consolidated a constituency of white, Indian, and "colored" (South Africans of biracial heritage) voters. But in a country with a 79 percent black majority, that clearly isn’t good enough.

The DA has been attempting to make inroads with black South Africans who are increasingly disillusioned with the ANC. It has campaigned more aggressively in townships and other overwhelmingly black areas. Last October, it endorsed an affirmative action policy in Parliament (though subsequently made a U-turn when confronted with opposition from its base). And in April 2013, the party launched the "Know Your DA" campaign, an exercise in rebranding that subtly sought to rebut charges that the party was passive in the fight against apartheid.

But most black South Africans still regard the ANC as the party that delivered them to freedom, and consider the DA complicit in the country’s racist past (the DA was formed in 2000 from a merger between the traditionally liberal Democratic Party and the New National Party, a descendent of the party that created apartheid). For these voters, the DA is a symbol of white privilege, and the party’s platform of non-racialism is but cynical electioneering.

In 33-year-old Mmusi Maimane, the DA party’s high-profile spokesman, the organization found what it had been looking for, for over a decade — an attractive, intelligent, black candidate who could be groomed to become the leader of the party. Maimane, who was just tapped to become the DA’s speaker in Parliament, is known to be a favorite of party leader Helen Zille; the DA is rumored to have spent close to $10 million — a fortune for an opposition party in South Africa — on the Maimane-led campaign to wrest control of Gauteng, the country’s financial capital, from the ANC.

Maimane appeared in a series of commercials, self-consciously styled after Obama’s "Yes We Can" campaign, touting the party’s pledges to create 6 million jobs, introduce a youth wage subsidy, and erase the country’s legacy of inequality. (Democratic Party pollster Stanley Greenberg, who advised Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s presidential campaigns, played a key role in refining the DA’s messaging this year.) The commercials were vibrant — even inspiring. Turns out, it didn’t matter. Black people were never going to vote for the DA en masse. According to party leader Helen Zille, roughly 760,000 black South Africans voted for the DA. There are over 41 million black people in South Africa; that is a negligible result.

Too large to be a niche party but too small to be a serious contender, the DA is confined by its constituencies. With a million new votes this year, the party has experienced growth, but at the expense of other opposition parties, and with little threat to the ANC. To this end, it can only grow so much. Political analyst Steven Friedman argues that the DA "may well have an important role in [South Africa’s] future, but as a coalition partner, not as a national election winner."

Among the other predictions that never came to pass, this was also to be the year of much-touted "born free" election
s, when young South Africans who were born in or after 1994, and who had no experience of apartheid, exercised their right to vote. It was an appealing story. The "born frees" made headlines in the days leading up to the election — "South Africa’s ‘Born-Frees’ Cast First Ballots" wrote AFP; "South Africans Vote in First ‘Born Free’ Elections," said Reuters — and appeared in newspaper profiles and television reports. The only place they didn’t appear, it seems, was at the ballot box. Fewer than a third of this new, baggage-free generation of voters registered for the election. Young voters in general failed turn up: The New York Times noted on the eve of the election that the "weight of younger voters, who are more likely to abandon the ANC, is expected to offset the dominance of older voters." But that can’t happen if young voters don’t actually vote: While 90 percent of people in their thirties registered to vote, that number fell to 60 percent for those in their twenties.

The 2014 election turned out to be about loyalty and apathy. It wasn’t so much a victory for the ANC, but for the status quo.

South African voters aren’t happy with their incumbents: An Ipsos "Pulse of the People" survey released in January found that the ANC "shed almost a fifth" of its "overall support" between November 2008 and November 2013. The reasons for the decline, according to Ipsos, included the controversy around Nkandla, the luxury presidential compound Zuma built with more than 215 million rand ($23 million) of taxpayer money, the Marikana mine disaster, and protests over the government’s failures to deliver basic services like water and electricity.

So why did this dissatisfaction not translate into a shellacking for the ANC at the polls?

The easy answer is the ANC’s aggressive election campaign, their superior political machinery, and exhaustive outlets for propaganda. (The South African Broadcasting Company, with its three television channels and 18 radio stations is once again a government mouthpiece, much as it was during apartheid.) The more complex answer is best suggested by Zuma himself, who in 2008 said that the ANC "will rule until Jesus comes back." Exaggeration aside, Zuma is right: For many South Africans, the ANC is not just a political party. For all its failings, 20 years after the end of apartheid, it remains the political party.

Political commentator Susan Booysen wrote a few days before the election that the "riddle of ANC supremacy amid adversity has three legs — the ANC’s unremitting, albeit changing, linkage with the South African people, which often overrides leadership malfunction; the innate weakness of opposition parties; and the use of state power to compensate for decay in the ANC’s support base." Critics accuse the ANC of not reforming fast enough, or at all. They say the organization is too large for its own good — that it has become increasingly undisciplined and slow to react to important events. But the ANC’s huge size remains an advantage at election time, and its campaign machinery is formidable.

Many South Africans voted for the ANC in spite of Zuma, not because of him. In South Africa, discontent with the state of the nation rarely translates as discontent with the ruling party. An editorial in the influential newspaper Business Day opined that the government’s "lack of accountability is a function of the electorate’s lack of expectation of accountability. There is simply no culture of using the vote to force either political parties or individual leaders to account for their actions. People may take to the streets to protest, burn down municipal buildings or councillors’ homes and even boo the president, but they could still vote for the party responsible."

And yet South Africa inches toward change. Since the 2004 election, when the ANC secured almost 70 percent of the vote, support for the party has slowly but steadily declined. The ANC has lost significant influence in urban areas, and may well lose Gauteng, which generates more than a third of the country’s GDP, in the next election.

Earlier this year, Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy. While South Africa’s infrastructure is stronger than Nigeria’s in almost every respect, the downgrade was a symbolic blow. Union strife has kept business at bay and overseas investment is down. The country’s official unemployment rate is 24 percent — unofficially, it’s as high as 40 percent.

Analysts say Zuma’s post-election objective will be stabilizing the economy, which means enabling industry and pushing back against the labor factions, with whom he’s been accused of being too cozy. And yet this isn’t without danger. Anger at the government’s neo-liberal policies is electric on the left. If the ANC is undone anytime soon, it is likely to be from a coalition of embittered allies, who break out on their own, much like Malema and his EFF. The ANC’s real threat is from within.

The ANC is likely to retain its broad support for the remainder of the decade, and possibly beyond. But, with significant challenges in its future, and fresh incidents of political unrest seemingly every day, whether it will last until the day Jesus comes back is looking more and more in doubt.

The ANC has a storied past and a questionable present. What matters is that millions of South Africans care about the party, even if the party doesn’t often care about them. The ANC is ubiquitous and, at least for now, it seems, invincible.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola