If the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is widely favoured to be returned to office after South Africa’s general elections scheduled for May this year, the political party once revered for its sustained struggle to bring an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa has plunged to considerable depths from the pedestal upon which it had been placed by the international community.
One of the lasting memories of the first of a series of public events held in December to mourn the passing of the country’s first black President and iconic leader Nelson Mandela, was the sight of the assembled mourners, most if not all of whom would have been ANC members and supporters, jeering the country’s current President Jacob Zuma as he delivered his own tribute to Mandela. That was a moment of ridicule which Mr Zuma will never forget.
The occurrence was witnessed by what, arguably, was the most high profile collection of heads of state ever to gather in one place. The public embarrassment to which a visibly shaken Zuma was subjected would have shaken his government as well. The jeers directed at President Zuma marked the high point of a tirade of domestic and international ridicule to which the ANC government had been subjected over the past year or so ending with the year-end comment by the global Corruption Perception Index that South Africans “have reached a kind of saturation point in [their] tolerance for corruption.” The reception accorded Zuma at Mandela’s funeral in December was also the high point of a sustained outpouring of opprobrium directed towards Zuma and his government by some of the very people who put him there.
Now in its twentieth year in office the ANC’s sternest, most vociferous critics are no longer the remnants of the now near silent and altogether irrelevant apartheid regime, but one-time ‘soldiers’ of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Accordingly, in May the ANC will find itself competing for votes against new political parties led by some of its one-time allies in the liberation struggle, like South Africa First (SAF) created by previous members of the ANC’s military wing, Umkonto We Sizwe; the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP), set up by independent mineworkers; the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM); Agang South Africa (ASA); and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) which is led by one-time prominent anti-apartheid activist and controversial former ANC youth leader Julius Malema.
So it seems likely that if the ANC has Zuma, whose personal image may well be tarnished beyond repair at the helm, it might offer the ANC’s new opposition a genuine tilt at taking power at the polls next time around.
Zuma is not the only problem. Other political high fliers, mostly one-time freedom fighters and their families are accused of being too busy immersed in graft and corruption to pay attention to the ills of the society. That leaves the party particularly vulnerable to loss of a share of the working class vote upon which it relies.
Much of the debate about the political future of South Africa has to do with just how quickly the ANC’s support amongst South Africa’s black majority is slipping and whether or not the party can recover the ground it has lost before that loss seriously threatens its grip on power. All of this is of course happening when the ANC no longer has the powerful talisman in the form of Nelson Mandela at its disposal. Down the road lie the dangers of a real political rivalry amongst factions within the country’s black majority and the impact that that might have on South Africa’s political future.