Africa’s oldest political party, the African National Congress (ANC), is sailing through troubled waters. Under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, who is also South Africa’s president, the ANC’s image has been severely battered. The party is seen to be battling for its soul. Two election intervals have shown a pattern of dwindling support at the polls. This has prompted calls for introspection within and outside the party, with some people going as far as calling for the resignation of Zuma as president of both party and country.

In recent times, these calls have pointed to an allegedly corrupt relationship the president enjoys with a wealthy émigré family that is seen to have overwhelming influence in how South Africa is run. This family, the Guptas, has various business interests, ranging from computer technology to uranium mining. The common view is that these enterprises may be unfairly benefiting from state contracts because of the owners’ proximity to political power.

“In the minds of most people, Gordhan’s legal battles are designed to coerce him into resigning, paving the way for a finance minister who might be able to create access and opportunities for Gupta-related enterprises.”

More damning is the perception that President Zuma takes instruction from the Guptas on whom to appoint to his Cabinet. This viewpoint gained traction when, in December 2015, South Africa had three Ministers of Finance in less than five days. Needless to say, the finance minister who was eventually settled upon, Pravin Gordhan, has faced various legal battles. In the minds of most people, Gordhan’s legal battles are designed to coerce him into resigning, paving the way for a finance minister who might be able to create access and opportunities for Gupta-related enterprises.

File picture. South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivering the 2010 budget speech in parliament, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: ANP/EPA/Nic Bothma 
File picture. South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivering the 2010 budget speech in parliament, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: ANP/EPA/Nic Bothma

Public Protector’s report points to growing Gupta influence

A recent investigation by South Africa’s Public Protector has delved into the growing influence by the Guptas in government and the manner in which certain strategic state-owned enterprises are run. This report, titled State of Capture, has added more weight to calls for Zuma to step down. However, critics argue that the extent of ‘state capture’ goes beyond the Gupta family and is significantly decided by white monopoly capital in South Africa. The latter refers, of course, to how whites still control the larger part of the country’s economy and exercise power and influence in broader government policies, most of which are inspired by neo-liberalism.

“The party’s two biggest setbacks, in 2007 and then in 2012, have had a lasting impact on the party’s fortunes, more so than the party faithful would care to admit.”

Away from the Guptas and white monopoly capital, the ANC still stands. It is still likely to win the general election in 2019, despite a poor showing in the last two elections of 2016 and 2014. One could argue that in reality the party’s two biggest election setbacks came in 2007 and then in 2012, results that have had a lasting impact on the party’s fortunes, more so than the party faithful would care to admit.

South African Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, addresses the media including releasing her final investigations on her last day in the office of the Public Protector in Pretoria, South Africa, 14 October 2016. Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Des van Rooyen, went to court on 14 October trying to get an order to stop Madonsela from releasing the "state capture" report. Photo: ANP/EPA
South African Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, addresses the media including releasing her final investigations on her last day in the office of the Public Protector in Pretoria, South Africa, 14 October 2016. Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Des van Rooyen, went to court on 14 October trying to get an order to stop Madonsela from releasing the “state capture” report. Photo: ANP/EPA

By the time it turned 100 in 2012, the ANC was showing glaring weaknesses as a political establishment. For close to two decades since 1994, the party and the government it was in charge of had felt firmly insulated from the plague suffered by most post-colonies on the continent: cancerous corruption, a debauched machinery of governance, economic exploitation, poor service delivery and rising unemployment.

At its critically important policy conference in 2012, Zuma encouraged the party faithful to engage in a festival of ideas in an open and democratic manner. However, ahead of an elective conference later that year, tensions within the party were visible. Party members derided Kgalema Motlanthe for standing against a ‘popular’ candidate, Jacob Zuma, even though he [Motlanthe] insisted that it was in the party’s democratic interests to be seen to be practising democracy internally.

“The living party, which ought to make possible the free exchange of ideas which have been elaborated according to the real needs of the mass of the people, has been transformed into a trade union of individual interests.” – Frantz Fanon

It was clear, however, that the party was in decline and was operating within the realm of the prophetic warnings issued by the revolutionary theorist Frantz Fanon, who said: “The living party, which ought to make possible the free exchange of ideas which have been elaborated according to the real needs of the mass of the people, has been transformed into a trade union of individual interests. Since the proclamation of independence the party no longer helps the people to set out its demands, to become more aware of its needs and better able to establish its power.”

A five-phase decline

The weakening of the ANC has occurred in five distinct phases. Firstly, in May 2005, a businessman was found guilty on corruption and fraud charges and Jacob Zuma was implicated in some of the transactions. In the following month, then President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela, fired Zuma as his deputy.

Former President Thabo Mbeki. Source: SABC
Former President Thabo Mbeki. Source: SABC

Secondly, at the ANC’s 52nd elective conference, Zuma challenged Mbeki for the position of party president and won, thereby unseating Mbeki, who remained as the country’s president. Another ANC stalwart, Kgalema Motlanthe, became the deputy president of the party and country. When Zuma appeared in court in August 2008 to face fraud, corruption, money-laundering and racketeering charges, the case was dismissed on the basis that the charges were politically motivated.

Thirdly, the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC), the highest decision-making organ of the party, met a month after Zuma’s charges were dropped and took the decision to recall Mbeki as Head of State. Mbeki resigned immediately after the decision was taken and Motlanthe became interim president until 2009, when the country was due for another election.

Fourthly, Zuma was elected national president in 2009 and successfully defended his position in 2012, having fended off, as indicated earlier in the article, an internal challenge from Motlanthe during the party’s elective conference, held in the 100th year of the party’s existence. In 2014, the ANC again won elections and Zuma was re-elected for his final term. Cyril Ramaphosa, who was one of the chief negotiators for freedom pre-1994, became deputy president of both party and country.

Julius Malema, leader of the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), addresses supporters at the launch of the party’s local election manifesto in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 April 2016 Photo: ANP/EPA Cornell Tukiri
Julius Malema, leader of the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), addresses supporters at the launch of the party’s local election manifesto in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 April 2016 Photo: ANP/EPA Cornell Tukiri

The fifth and perhaps most distinct phase of ANC demobilisation was the expulsion of the firebrand ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, and his executive in 2012. The charge was that of bringing the party into disrepute. As the leader of the Youth League, Malema amassed power, exerted influence and advanced some policy positions that were not consistent with the party’s own in practice. These included calls for the nationalisation of land and the mineral wealth in South Africa for purposes of advancing “economic freedom in our lifetime”. Malema also took international policy positions, endorsing Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe while calling for the removal of Ian Khama in Botswana.

Despite having played a key role in Mbeki’s recall and the ascendency of Zuma to the presidency, by the time of his expulsion in 2012 Malema had fallen out of favour with Zuma. In November 2011, as his disciplinary proceedings were under way, Malema spoke of a dying culture of open engagement and free expression in the ANC, although, in the same breath, he vowed never to resign from the party. He would later face various legal challenges, resulting in the loss of his plush home, luxury vehicles and a farm.

In all of this, Malema has received overwhelming support from many young people across South Africa, especially the unemployed and those disillusioned with the promise of 1994. They repeatedly showed up in large numbers at his disciplinary hearings and subsequent court appearances.

Malema also took international policy positions, endorsing Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe
Malema also took international policy positions, endorsing Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe

Therefore, the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by Malema himself, was only a matter of time. Even though it is only three years old, this political party is now represented in parliament and municipal councils, including metropolitan governments. Malema is certainly not dead and buried, as many people predicted after his expulsion from the ANC. Rather, he has become a powerful voice and a thorn in the flesh of the ANC.

Unless the ANC reinvents itself, the future of the party is bleak. In 2017, the party will hold yet another elective conference and already, internecine succession battles are being fought. Party fragmentation is a possibility and this makes the ANC’s reinvention quite unlikely.

It is, perhaps, time to add the ANC to the catalogue of liberation movements that, after 20 years or so in power, prove their incapacity to lead effectively and satisfy liberation aspirations.

Over to you, then, Julius Malema?