The ANC is in trouble – yet they may be safe for now

Corruption and poor governance blight South Africa’s long-time incumbents, but a divided opposition appear unable to punish them politically, says Kiri Rupiah.

The World Today
3 minute READ

Kiri Rupiah

Communities Editor, The Continent

Africa’s oldest operational liberation movement is in trouble – and like its counterparts in the region, the danger is coming from within. 

The disillusionment of African National Congress supporters in the governing party’s strongholds was evident during its rallies and door-to-door visits in the lead-up to the 2021 local government elections. Not only did the ANC’s share of the vote fall below 50 per cent nationally for the first time, but turnout was also less than half of registered voters, falling at least 10 percentage points from the last local government elections five years previously.

In towns across the country, local municipal governance has deteriorated to the extent that residents are using their own resources to repair potholes, provide water and remove waste among other services that ought to be carried out by the municipality. 

‘Service delivery’, a common phrase in South Africa, describes the distribution of basic resources, such as water, sanitation, infrastructure, land and housing. The government’s delivery and upkeep of these resources is unreliable. There are many reasons for this, but a major factor in the failure to deliver services lies with institutional deficiencies: effectively, a lack of basic infrastructure that was not previously supplied to the excluded majority.

Another reason, according to the country’s auditor general, is rampant corruption in the form of unauthorized expenditure. In the 2019-20 financial year, only 27 of the country’s 257 municipalities received a clean audit. Service delivery protests have long been one of the main ways in which disaffected citizens have expressed their frustration. 

Now, citizen forums made up of volunteers are coming together to provide time, money and resources to plug holes. Some are even contesting elections. For instance, residents of Ficksburg, in the Free State province, established a forum to run for public office to curb their municipality’s decline. 

The Setsoto local municipality, with a population of only 115,000, has the most bucket toilets in the country, according to StatsSA, the national statistical service. The Setsoto Service Delivery Forum (SSDF) was formed in response to the revelation that the authority had incurred more than $36 million in unauthorized expenditures in three years, while shelling out more than $12 million in salaries.

The Makana Citizens Front’s aim is similar to that of the Setsoto’s delivery forum. Based in the Eastern Cape province, home of Nelson Mandela, citizens came together to contest the 2021 local elections. Makana is one of 24 financially distressed municipalities in the region, unable to provide quality services to their residents or pay creditors. In addition to not having supplied water to parts of the city in years, the Makana municipality owes the parastatal electric company Eskom $2.2 million. 

And the trend continues. In the Cederberg local municipality in the Western Cape, the Cederberg First Residents Association contested the elections. In the Northern Cape, the Siyathemba Community Forum did the same. In the run-up to these elections, the ANC fielded accusations from its own members of manipulating votes at branch general meetings, with members threatening to challenge the party’s candidates list selections in court. 

A crisis of the ANC’s own making 

Flush from the glow of a new democracy in 1994, South Africans believed the ANC would deliver a ‘better life for all’ through equality and access to opportunities. The party has dominated South African politics ever since, winning five successive general elections. But for the first time it appears to finally be reckoning with a crisis of its own making in the form of poor governance and staggering corruption. After 28 years, democratic South Africa finds itself mired in rampant inequality, massive job scarcity and mistrustful constituents, according to Afrobarometer.
In the first quarter of 2022, unemployment hit 34.5 per cent, the highest recorded since the survey began in 2008. Following post-Covid global trends, nationalist sentiment is gaining a foothold in mainstream South African politics. A vigilante movement known as Operation Dudula has gained popular support with its anti-migrant fervour and the perception of fighting crime often erroneously attributed to African migrants.

It is against this backdrop that the ANC will hold its party conference and choose its leader in December. Traditionally, whoever this is will go on to lead the country, such is the hold of the ANC over national politics.

An unwillingness to ‘self-correct’ means the ANC could be woefully unprepared for the elections of 2024

However, the steady decline in support for the ANC at a local level could be mirrored nationally in 2024. South Africa’s proportional representation electoral system means a voter has two votes, one for national level, one for provincial level. These votes contribute to the proportionate vote of the chosen party.

In the 2019 general election, the ANC pinned its electoral hopes on the wealthy businessman and former trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa, given his reputation then as an anti-corruption standard-bearer. 

However, his presidency has been marred by internal rivalries within the ANC. On the one hand, in Ramaphosa’s corner is the political elite, who are seen to be cosying up to foreign investors and the largely white corporate South Africa.
On the other is the RET, so-called for the belief that ‘radical economic transformation’ away from a white-controlled economy is needed. This is where Jacob Zuma, who has been accused of the misappropriation of state funds and benefiting from lucrative government contracts and appointments, aligns himself. 

Just over a year ago, Zuma, began serving a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court by failing to appear before a commission investigating government corruption. That commission found that officials and private individuals linked to the RET ran a shadow government with the help of Zuma during his nine years in office. The current energy crisis in South Africa, typified by rolling blackouts, can be traced back to the mismanagement and corruption in the state-owned enterprise, the commission also found. 

An ineffective opposition

The present electoral system has been especially helpful to the ANC by bolstering its dominance of the political infrastructure since 1994. That may change with electoral reforms making their way through the legislative process. A bill to allow independent candidates to contest national and provincial parliaments is currently before parliament.

A seeming unwillingness to ‘self-correct’ means the ANC could be woefully unprepared for 2024 – but not disastrously so. Electorally, the ANC has been ceding ground, but it can partly credit its continued survival to the opposition parties, which have yet to gain a foothold with the electorate. 

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is perceived to be a party for white people

Despite the scandals within the ANC and growing dissatisfaction from the public, the main opposition Democratic Alliance party has not been able to capitalize on its woes. The Democratic Alliance has battled to distance itself from the perception that it is a party for white people because of the exodus of black talent from within its ranks. 

Allegations of racism and mixed messaging about its relationship with the more militant Economic Freedom Fighters have hindered its trajectory. The EFF, while popular on social media, has not spun that perception into votes. Meanwhile, Freedom Front Plus, a conservative party whose main support comes from the Afrikaner community, is winning over Afrikaner and conservative white voters from the Democratic Alliance. 

A party to watch is ActionSA, founded by Herman Mashaba, a former Democratic Alliance mayor of Johannesburg, who became kingmaker in the local elections. Its growth may continue into 2024.

Despite the ANC’s steadily increasing failures, it is unlikely that the current crop of opposition parties will be able to knock it from dominance. What is certain is that South Africa is now in the same boat as countries with proportional representation electoral systems. The future for the ANC – and South Africa – may be in coalitions.