2012 was a year marked by controversies within the African National Congress. The political class struggled with scandals from the personal to the political. More than anything else, the year saw the fruition of the longer-term challenge to the legitimacy of the African National Congress, the party that has ruled South Africa since the end of Apartheid. While South Africa continued to struggle to provide basic services to its townships, prosecutors began an investigation into President’s Zuma’s upgrades to his home at Nkandla due to alleged public funding discrepancies. In addition, the nation reeled under the apparent spectacle of an ANC government siding with multinational interests over protesting miners at Marikana.
While both controversies are complex, the perception was certainly negative for the ANC and South African President Jacob Zuma. Consequently December 2012 was marked by feverish speculations around the possibility of a leadership challenge to the incumbent Zuma at the ANC Convention. Yet the year ended with a landslide victory for Zuma over challenger Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe: in essence, a powerful reaffirmation of the status quo in South Africa. However it is not clear whether the end of 2012 marks the end of these controversies, or whether there exists a deeper malaise for Africa’s largest economy. Nor is it clear how can the ANC respond to the challenges that seem to lie ahead. However, what is plain is that 2013 will continue to reveal the long-term challenge to the ANC.
This challenge comprises three key crises for ANC. Rather than an aberration confined to 2012, they all have a long history and no simple solution.
First is a building crisis of ANC legitimacy. The party that once held an unassailable lead still retains substantial support, winning around 70% of the vote in the 2009 General Election. However the Democratic Alliance opposition has made significant advances, winning the Western Cape province and continuing to secure further support. Moreover the ANC has suffered fractures, with the “Congress of the People” movement breaking away in 2008. In addition, the ANC has become the focus of a series of scandals, delighting South Africa cartoonists but dismaying loyalist. It has become increasingly associated with corruption scandals, authoritarian policies and public relations gaffes. These problems have contributed to a continued slow bleed of support.
Second is a crisis of youth. The ANC suffers as a generational change occurs and young voters do not feel the same tie to the party of the struggle against apartheid. These young voters can feel unrepresented by the ageing Grandees of the ANC. South Africa faces a profound challenge from these young people, who suffer from poor standards of education and high youth unemployment. Many young people have little access to the means with which they can change their lives. With a growing perception among young voters that they are missing out on economic growth and that their protests are ignored, it is small wonder that the populist policies of Julius Malema, the exiled ANC Youth Leader, have received such enthusiastic backing. When the ANC expelled Malema, they further undermined their ability to represent the next generation. Further underscoring these problems, Marikana revealed how the ANC represent the older unionised workers, rather than the concern of unaffiliated younger miners. This was highlighted by its inability to prevent wildcat strikes across the mining industry. The ANC therefore faces profound difficulties in re-engaging with the next generation of its core voters.
Third is a crisis of economic direction. In the years following Apartheid, ANC attempted to follow of a dangerous balancing act. It attempted an aggressive liberalisation of the economy, hoping for fast growth to pay for infrastructure and welfare projects. But economic growth has been lower than expected and welfare projects have been left underfunded. Consequently while poverty has been somewhat reduced, both private and public action has proved insufficient to meet the true scale of the problem.
While expectations for poverty eradication following the end of apartheid may have been unrealistic, it has contributed to a powerful sense of disillusionment. In an era of global recession, it is unlikely these expectations will be met in the foreseeable future. The ANC therefore needs a fresh strategy, less reliant on the fluctuations of the mining sector, and an ability to sell fresh ideas to a sceptical public.
The ANC therefore faces a serious challenge in the form of three interlinked crises. These problems are likely to continue to ferment into the future. The reality is that the ANC needs rapid and significant change in order to continue to represent a changing South Africa, demographically, culturally and economically. These changes require real and positive dialogue from the ruling party, both internal and external, with parties on all sides the political spectrum, along with a real engagement with groups outside its core support.
The ANC should be capable of learning from and responding to these challenges. In so doing it can leverage its powerful political support in order to strengthen its position within the country and provide a new direction for South Africa. In so doing they can add another chapter to the extraordinary story of the ANC. However, the early signs for a responsive and flexible ANC are not good. In his address following his re-election, Zuma promised “unity” in 2013. But it was a unity based not on compromise but on “an ability to deal with the comrades who disrupt ANC meetings”. The ANC leadership is used ruling, but the changing situation in South Africa may finally force it to listen.