Following the election less than three months ago, the politics of South Africa are undergoing a radical transformation. The movement towards a more open, multi-party democracy is stronger than at any time since Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994. At the same time there are growing demands for better governance.
This may seem counterintuitive. The ANC won the May general election hands down, taking 62.15 % of the total vote (pdf). Its closest rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA), took 22.23% of the vote, while the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of Julius Malema received 6.35%.
Put another way, the ANC’s share of the vote fell by only 3.75%, while the DA’s vote increased by 5.57%. Most political parties around the world would welcome such a convincing victory after 20 years in power, yet the ANC now faces serious challenges.
The DA broke out of the white, middle-class ghetto to which it was once confined. Even though the party still relied heavily on white and mixed race voters, it received the backing of 750,000 black Africans – many of them poor.
Malema – expelled from the ANC’s ranks in April 2012 – has emerged as a serious irritant for President Jacob Zuma. The EFF’s self-styled commander-in-chief knows just how to wind up the ANC leadership.
His latest ploy – insisting that his 25 MPs enter parliament dressed as miners or servants, wearing bright red overalls – infuriated the ruling party. When the EFF tried the same tactic in the Gauteng legislature, which governs the Johannesburg area, they were forcibly expelled. Riot police, stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas were used to eject the EFF from the chamber.
The ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, has resorted to describing Malema as a fascist. Malema is a “Hitler in the making”,Mantashe declared. He said the EFF’s strategy of using uniforms and liberation rhetoric to attack the ANC followed the path taken by the German dictator during his rise to power.
Malema is a powerful orator and a demagogue, but he is no Hitler. Nor is South Africa today Germany in the 1930s. So why use this exaggerated rhetoric?
The ANC is rattled. The election result was worse than the overall figures indicated. Turnout and registration for elections has been falling and the party is losing support in key metropolitan areas.
A report for the foreign office pointed out that the ANC vote in the key area of Gauteng – the country’s economic heartland – fell by 10% (pdf). Its support in the Port Elizabeth area was also eroded and it had already lost the Western Cape to the DA. The ANC is increasingly reliant on its rural base outside of KwaZulu-Natal.
Corruption has undermined the party’s standing at national and – more importantly – local level. Housing is routinely awarded to associates of local party leaders, leading to widespread anger. Water and electricity are not provided; textbooks are not delivered. Money is siphoned off and accounts falsified. Only 9% of South African municipalities were given a clean bill of health by the national auditor in last month’s report.
The failure to provide basic services to communities across the country has resulted in anger spilling out on to the streets. The minister of police, Nkosinathi Nhleko, says the protests are stretching his officers.
The main trade union movement, Cosatu, with its 1.8 million strong membership, once gave its undivided support to the ANC. This year, the largest of the unions – the 340,000 strong metalworkers union, Numsa – broke with this tradition and refused to campaign for the party. The union accused the ANC of having “become dysfunctional and incapable of defending working-class interests”.
What really worries Zuma is what lies ahead. Numsa announced it will hold a conference in March to launch a United Front, linking unions, community organisations and existing left-wing parties. These include the Workers and Socialist party, which has ties with Britain’s militant tendency.
The metalworkers hope the United Front will emulate the United Democratic Front (UDF), the grassroots organisation that confronted the apartheid government during the 1980s. The UDF led the opposition to the regime at a time when the ANC was banned, underground or in exile.
Union links with the ANC go back to at least 1986 and have been the bedrock of the party’s relationship with the organised working class. But sections of the unions have become increasingly disillusioned with the ANC leadership.
Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, warned in 2010 thatcorruption undermined the state’s ability to deliver services for ordinary people. To try to halt this, organised labour has built links with a range of community and campaigning organisations. The Treatment Action Campaign, which successfully fought for the rights of HIV-positive men and women, is the best-known of these.
In October 2010, Cosatu held a conference to discuss the way forward. More than 300 delegates from 56 civil society organisations met over two days to thrash out a strategy. Speaking at the event, Vavi said his stomach had been turned by the new ANC elite who were “spitting on the faces of the poor” with their displays of wealth, often, according to Cosatu, secured by dubious means.
The ANC was infuriated by the attacks and by being left off the guestlist. It described the conference as an attempt to divide the movement,inspired by unnamed foreign interests.
While the metalworkers insist that the United Front is not a political party, Numsa said it would explore the possibility of forming a Movement for Socialism, a party committed to “the establishment of a socialist South Africa”.
In a remarkably frank statement, Mantashe made plain his concerns. The ANC was “under siege” he declared. The ANC general secretary renewed his accusation that those who wanted to split the movement were acting in the interests of shadowy “international forces opposed to our movement”.
If the United Front gives birth to a new, socialist party, South African politics could be transformed. With union and community support such a party would have wide popular appeal and attract a substantial slice of the urban electorate. The era of real multi-party democracy would have dawned.
In the past, President Zuma has assured his party it will hold power until the second coming of Jesus Christ. A genuinely popular socialist party could prick that bubble.