Fri Jul 12, 2024
July 12, 2024

S. African Elections: Ruling ANC Fears Decline in Support


Elections loom in South Africa on May 29, and once again the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is worried about its declining support. Decades of failure and capitalist exploitation have slowly eroded its base until now the party faces the strong possibility of being forced into a coalition government for the first time since the end of apartheid. While the current ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has proclaimed a mission to revitalize the party and root out corruption, the crushing weight of its failures have proven too great. His own complicity in corruption and involvement in violence and exploitation have not helped in this regard.

Even worse, a foe that Ramaphosa believed had been defeated has now emerged as a serious impediment to his plans to revitalize the ANC—former South African President Jacob Zuma. While Ramaphosa thought he had banished Zuma from the ANC, following allegations of serious corruption, Zuma has returned like a vengeful ghost to make trouble for the party. Despite remaining officially on the ANC rolls, he has become the main attraction to the new uMkhonto we Sizwe Party (MK). Drawing on Zuma’s past in the anti-apartheid armed group of the same name, Zuma has put forward a nebulous but conservative platform and gained support amongst traditionally minded Zulu voters in the province of KwaZulu Natal.

The MK is not the only challenger for the ANC this year. Zuma’s MK has merely joined the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the liberal Democratic Alliance in nipping at the ANC’s heels. In the face of these political alternatives and the decline of the ANC’s support, the political terrain in South Africa is rapidly shifting. For many, the question no longer is whether the ANC will retain its majority; instead it has become, who will be in its new governing coalition?

The history of the ANC

In the 1990s, the ANC was supported by the vast majority of Black South Africans, who saw it as the most significant political force against the repressive system of apartheid. Thus, the ANC came to power with a support base that was eager for significant change. The ANC played into this expectation with the Freedom Charter, a vague program that alluded to radical social changes such as nationalization of industry, redistribution of land and guaranteed access to health care, housing, and work. This had the effect of building illusions among the South African population, but kept the door open for policies that instead favored imperialist investments.

The ANC rose to power as part of a tripartite alliance with the Communist Party (SACP) and the COSATU union federation. The SACP had a perspective that the process of building socialism would have multiple stages, in which socialism would arrive only after a so-called “national democratic revolution” had produced a more equitable version of South African capitalism. So, while the South African people were sold on the prospect of massive social change, the ANC instead reached a negotiated settlement with the ruling National Party, forming a coalition government that required Mandela to keep some ministers from the former apartheid regime in his cabinet.

As part of this “national unity” government, Nelson Mandela presided over a new economic plan, GEAR: Growth, Employment, and Redistribution. This plan more or less amounted to systemic financial austerity. Mandela slashed taxes on the rich, privatized industries, and did everything he could to “open South Africa for business,” at great cost to the South African people. At the same time that Mandela carried out GEAR, the country normalized relations with the rest of the world, ending the pariah status it had faced under apartheid. Taken together, economic liberalization and the end of isolation more or less amounted to the selling off of much of South Africa’s resources to foreign imperialists and the deindustrialization of the economy. Indeed, the ANC government negotiated pacts with the World Bank around the country’s mining sector, where the government promised to avoid high taxes on conglomerates, keep regulation business friendly, and allow private business to take the lead.

Thus, while white rule officially came to an end in South Africa, the system of exploitation and oppression of the Black majority has continued. Indeed, since the 1990s many social indicators have either stagnated or declined. Living conditions among the South African working class remain poor and workers often don’t have access to proper sanitation. Free education is no longer guaranteed and the cost of public education has shot up. Since the early 2000s, South Africa has also entered into a power crisis. Under ANC oversight, the public power utility ESKOM has had to engage in frequent “load-shedding,” regularly leaving South Africans without power. This crisis has become a day-to-day reality for South Africans, who must check to see what hours of the day will have scheduled blackouts in order to plan when they can do things like cooking and showering.

At the same time as the South African working majority has faced this immiseration, a tiny few have been able to become fabulously wealthy. The country is the most unequal in the world, according to bourgeois economic measurements like the Gini coefficient. According to the World Bank (the very people who participated in selling off the South African economy in the 1990s), race is still a major factor in who is rich and who is poor, with the Black majority suffering the most.

However, this has not been the fate of the current ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa. In the 1990s, he turned in his roles in the ANC and South African labor unions for a career as a businessman. In this new job he was helped along by his political connections with high-level ANC politicians as part of a scheme of “Black economic empowerment.” While this “empowerment” might have applied to Ramaphosa himself, it surely did not seem to apply to his employees.

In 2015, unionized platinum miners working for Lonmin Platinum in the town of Marikana declared a wildcat strike and demanded higher wages. Workers were dissatisfied with both their pay of around $800 a month and their union, which has been accused of subordinating the interests of workers to ANC politics. The workers walked off the job and protested; after six days, the police opened fire on the workers, killing 44 and injuring many more. Ramaphosa himself was a shareholder of Lonmin and leaked emails reveal that he had called the workers “dastardly criminals” and urged the company to take action against them. While in 2022 Ramaphosa apologized for the emails, he has not been able to wipe the blood of those massacred at Marikana from his hands, and many South African workers still hate and despise him.

This whole history clearly reveals the fact that the ANC does not represent South African working people and instead is the political party of a sector of the South African capitalist class. This group of capitalist cronies buy influence in the party and are in turn rewarded with favorable policies and government tenders, while working South Africans face bleaker and bleaker economic prospects.

Palestine – Electoral hope for the ANC?

However, despite its sinking popularity, the ANC’s stance on Palestine has been a small source of hope for their electoral outlook. Due to historic ties between the ANC and the Palestine Liberation Organization, based in their common status as liberation parties, Ramaphosa and the ANC already had a long history of backing the Palestinian struggle. Before Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza began, Ramaphosa was already on the record as supporting the Palestinian people, including calling Israel’s own system of apartheid a “duplicate or a replica” of what Black South Africans went through and posing for a picture with a BDS South Africa branded tote bag. Following the commencement of Israel’s assault on Gaza in October of 2023, Ramaphosa took time out of the ANC conference to pose with other ANC leaders wearing keffiyehs and to record a video condemning Israel, making him one of the first major world leaders to do so. Ramaphosa followed this statement up by bringing charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court in early 2024.

This full-throated stance in support of Palestine has resonated with many ordinary South Africans, who feel a sense of kinship with Palestinians due to a shared history of oppression and struggle. At the same time, this issue has cost the liberal Democratic Alliance as they pivoted from a more pro-Israel position to calling for equal rights and human dignity for “both sides.” The ANC government’s decision to become a leading voice internationally against the genocide in Gaza has lent it some new support in areas where it had little before. This can be seen in an Al Jazeera report, which quoted voters in the Western Cape, a traditional DA stronghold, as saying that they would hold their nose and vote for the ANC due to this one issue alone.

Despite the plaudits the ANC has received on Palestine, it is important to note that Ramaphosa—while rhetorically supporting Palestine and condemning Israel—has not done much concretely to advance the Palestinian struggle. Politically, he has stuck to the framework of negotiations and the two-state solution, which is inherently doomed to failure. In terms of action, while the ICC case is important symbolically, it doesn’t represent the type of military and material support that the ANC itself received from friendly countries during its own struggle against apartheid. Ultimately, while Palestine might win Ramaphosa some votes, it is not enough to stem the bleeding of support to opposition parties.

The opposition

The largest opposition to Ramaphosa and the ANC in this election is the Democratic Alliance and its coalition called the “multi-party charter” (MPC). This broader electoral coalition contains the entirety of the opposition excluding the EFF and Zuma’s MK. However, despite putting together this broad coalition, the DA does not offer any real solutions to the problems that South Africa faces. As a liberal party that resulted from the merger of the main white and liberal parties that existed during apartheid, its platform only offers more capitalism, more privatization, and more marketization. A DA government would merely mean the intensification of the privatization policies of Mandela and an all-out assault against public services and trade unions. Their MPC grouping also includes the racist Freedom Front Plus party, further tainting the whole effort with the stench of white racism. Thankfully, polling suggests that they have very little chance of unseating the ANC outright.

The latest opposition party to emerge is Jacob Zuma’s MK. The MK has no clear program and instead bases its appeal on the personal popularity of Zuma himself. As president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma promised to realize some of the radical promises of the early ANC, and proposed a platform of Radical Economic Transformation (RET). However, this radical change never emerged, and instead Zuma became infamous for sex scandals and some of the most blatant corruption that South Africa had ever seen.

The patronage systems by which South African capitalists bought influence in the ANC reached new heights under the Zuma government, especially as it came to the wealthy Gupta family. As a later government investigation into “state capture” by the Gupta family reported, Zuma made key political decisions entirely at the behest of this family. This included the hiring and firing of ministers, and the composition of the board of the power company ESKOM. It was ultimately the state capture scandal that cost Zuma his presidency, as the ANC opted to replace him with Ramaphosa, forcing Zuma into a short exile from politics.

Now that he has returned, it seems that his commitment to “Radical Economic Transformation” has become deemphasized, and instead his new power base is built on support amongst traditional Zulu leaders. Ever since Zuma made his intentions to run this year known, he has faced legal trouble, briefly being declared ineligible for office due to his past convictions for corruption and having to face down the ANC in court over his use of the party name “uMkhonto we Sizwe” (“Spear of the Nation,” the name of the ANC’s paramilitary wing, founded by Mandela and others in the 1960s). However, so far, the MK and Zuma have won their court battles and they appear poised to win a sizable chunk of the vote in majority Zulu areas of the country.

On the left, the most serious opposition to the ANC in this election is the Economic Freedom Fighters, although the EFF has stated its willingness to serve as part of an ANC-majority government. The EFF was founded by the leadership of the ANC’s youth wing in the 2010s after they came into conflict with party leadership in the lead-up to the fall of Zuma. Because of this history, many top EFF leaders have a past as followers of Zuma and at one time were enthusiastic supporters of his RET plan. However, following their ouster from the party, they became Zuma’s and the ANC’s greatest critics.

The EFF draws on an eclectic political framework that incorporates aspects of Marxism, Bikoism, and the ideas of Frantz Fanon. Its program is relatively radical and pro-Black, calling for a mixed capitalist economy that would include some nationalizations (i.e., of the mines) and intensive land reform to return land to the Black majority. Recently, it has also become more outspoken on behalf of LGBT rights, including by picketing the Ugandan embassy in protest of the anti-gay legislation passing in that country.

However, the party has some worrying issues and has demonstrated rank opportunism from time to time. For example, in the lead-up to this election it attempted to buy the support of the Zulu king, Misuzulu Zulu, by giving him a free car. Similarly, the EFF has held fundraising events typical of capitalist parties, where businessmen pay huge sums to sit down for dinner with party leaders. These leaders, such as the “commander in chief,” Julius Malema, also appear to be largely unaccountable to the membership, and decisions are largely made in a top-down manner. These issues, along with its insufficient program, show that the EFF falls short of what is needed in South Africa today.

What is clearly needed in South Africa is a mass working-class party whose program breaks with the system of capitalist exploitation. The ANC has been exposed over the last few decades as merely an expression of the political interests of a small coterie of capitalists. However, the DA and their MPC are no better in this regard. They merely represent a different clique of capitalists who believe that it is their turn to eat. Of the existing parties, the EFF is the most promising, but their inability put forward a class line in politics as an opposition party makes it hard to trust that they would do so in government. With the ANC ailing and the likely possibility of a coalition government following the election, it has become more urgent than ever for the South African working class to build a political alternative actually capable of taking power and solving the dire problems facing the country.

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