Are we in the throes of a power struggle amongst the heirs of Nelson Mandela that might one day threaten, perhaps even derail the formidable post-apartheid power base of the African National Congress (ANC) and with it the democracy that has won equally generous measures of global attention and acclaim? Political analysts both inside and outside are now wondering whether the ANC might not be on a path to frittering away the gains of South Africa’s liberation struggle.
For now at least the political grip of the ANC, buttressed as it is by the support of South Africa’s black majority remains unthreatened. In politics, however, the tectonic plates can shift with mind-boggling speed and there are already clear signs of divisions amongst Mandela’s heirs that could conceivably have a destabilizing effect on the country’s democratic process. South Africa, it seems, has arrived at a juncture where political jousting amongst the country’s black majority lawmakers has degenerated into ugly brawls that seriously tarnish the heritage of the father of the nation.
What now seems certain is that the post-liberation era of black majority rule in South Africa has unleashed its own demons, manifested mainly in fissures inside the ANC, which on account of its pre-eminent political role in the fight to end apartheid had more than earned the right to govern the country.
As it happened the end of Mandela’s stay as the country’s first post-apartheid President saw a sustained and discomfitting jockeying for power between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the two who followed him. More friction in the succeeding years has led us to the contemporary upheavals.
On Thursday, for the second time in three months, the police were summoned to South Africa’s National Assembly to deal with an ugly brawl amongst some of the nation’s parliamentarians. There were physical confrontations between rival parliamentarians and there were injuries and rumblings over whether the forcible removal of parliamentarians from the House might not have amounted to a serious aberration of democracy.
When the space designated for discourse and debate amongst the nation’s lawmakers on the affairs of state and the well-being of the populace is reduced to a combat zone, one has a right to question the entitlement of the protagonists to enjoy the privilege of making the law, and that is one of the problems that the country’s black lawmakers could face in the future.
Equally important at this stage is just what all of this might mean for the future of South Africa as a whole. If it may be precipitate at this stage to suggest that the uproarious excesses in South Africa’s Parliament point in the direction of the unravelling of its democracy, current events warrant at least an attempt at an assessment of the robustness of the political legacy that Mandela left behind.
Up until relatively recently and given the ANC’s parliamentary majority the National Assembly was a relatively quiet place. After the elections of May 2014 and the entry into the Parliament by the group known as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by one-time ANC youth leader Julius Malema, the House assumed a livelier atmosphere. The cut and thrust of political jousting between the EFF and the ruling ANC has focused mostly the country’s serving President, Jacob Zuma and more particularly on the scandal arising out of the use of public funds reportedly in the region of US$24 million to upgrade and renovate his private residence.
This is not the first occasion on which South Africa’s third – and most controversial – post-apartheid President has generated domestic political controversy (even inside the ANC itself) and the politically ambitious Malema sees Zuma as a weak link which his own party might use to break the support base of the ANC.
Zuma’s personal reputation not only led to a leadership challenge in 2012 by his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe but has meant that the ANC, on more than one occasion, has had to come to his rescue in the face of widespread criticism from his political enemies. Last year, for example, after Zuma was accused by the country’s Public Prosecutor of “unethical conduct” in the matter of state expenditure in the renovation of his rural home in Nkandla, a parliamentary committee report passed by a majority of ANC parliamentarians exonerated him.
As it happens the EFF and the majority opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), do not currently command anywhere near the level of popular support either in the 400-member National Assembly or in the country as a whole to threaten the ANC’s power base, though these days, the ANC itself, the party of Nelson Mandela, reportedly favours cronyism and corruption and appears to be doing a pretty good job of draining its support base.
Here again, President Zuma, with the Nkandla scandal on South Africa’s front burner, and having regard to his reputation for a lavish lifestyle remains a controversial figure amongst South African blacks who remain in poverty after more than two decades of majority rule.
There are those who argue that it was the departure of Nelson Mandela from the political centre stage that precipitated the divisions within the ANC. The truth of the matter is that it was Mandela, personally, who served as the ANC’s moral rudder and once age and ill health had brought his active political career to an end there was no telling how his heirs would spend the political capital that he had accumulated. It would appear that answers to that question are beginning to emerge.
There had already been some clues regarding the intensity of the internal struggle inside the ANC, manifested as it was in the rivalry between Mbeki and Zuma which culminated in the 2008 ‘recall’ of Mbeki as South Africa’s President. Inside and outside the ANC there are those who have still not forgiven Zuma for the ousting of Mbeki, so that there is no shortage of political opponents who are keen to keep the pressure on the South African President as he struggles in the quicksand of serious corruption allegations. Malema is only one such opponent. Both on November 14 last year and on Thursday last the ruckus in the South African Parliament, though spawned by questions about Zuma’s personal and political track record, could have implications for the political future of the ANC and for the evolution of black majority rule in South Africa.