from Africa in Transition

Fissures Within South Africa’s Governing Party

April 13, 2016

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South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) has long been a big tent, with its membership united by opposition to apartheid and, less salient, support for “nonracial” democracy. Conventional wisdom has seen the ANC membership, policy, and electoral support as revolving around four poles or tendencies:  the "democrats," devoted to Nelson Mandela’s vision of nonracial democracy and the protection of human rights; the South African Communist Party (SACP), in many ways a Marxist party of a generation ago in Western Europe, but also devoted to a nonracial state; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which promotes the interests of the country’s “labor aristocracy” rather than the unskilled unemployed; and the “Africanists,”  those who want a redistribution of wealth from whites to blacks and an assertion of black identity that recalls the Black Power movement in the United States. (Many of them would drop the nonracial modifiers of democracy.) Depending on the issue, support varies for each of these “tendencies,” and there is substantial overlap. In any event, however sliced and diced, the ANC is likely to remain intact to contest the August provincial and local government elections.

Though this analytical model may be losing its relevance, spurred by accelerated change within the party that is crystallized by an effort to get President (and party leader) Jacob Zuma out of office. The SACP has diminishing influence, is dependent on other parts of the ANC for its funding, and no longer serves as a link to the former Soviet Union. COSATU is no longer a monolith, with the largest trade union in the country, the National Union of Mineworkers, having withdrawn from the federation. However, the “democrats” and the “Africanists” have staying power in South Africa’s evolving political world.

Leaving aside the SACP and COSATU, within the ANC it is perhaps more useful to see the fissures as between the urbanists, whose power base is in the cities, and the countryside: Zuma’s power base. This division also corresponds to a rift between the “modernists,” those in favor of “good government,” with close ties to big business and international markets on the one hand, and, on the other, the rural poor, the very poorest of South Africans, dependent on government allowances and patronage. This latter population is most concerned about getting from today to tomorrow rather than “good governance.” With good reason, the rural poor often feel left behind in the “new” South Africa.

South Africa is rapidly urbanizing. An estimated 60 percent of the population is now urban. Those left behind in the countryside are relatively poorer than in the past, even if a system of family allowances alleviates the worst poverty. In the countryside, unemployment in some areas probably exceeds the rate of 50 percent (among males) in the townships. As under apartheid, the rural population is disproportionately female youths. The ANC, often using teachers from the grossly underfunded schools, has built powerful patronage networks. As in Mayor Curley’s Boston or Mayor Barry’s Washington, D.C., participation in these patronage networks is an important means of survival.

The ANC is challenged in the rural areas by Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), now the third largest party in parliament, though with only 6 percent of the vote. The EFF’s signature political position is expropriation of white wealth (including land) without compensation. The EFF is probably pushing the ANC toward the left, despite the latter’s close ties with big business. Zuma, for example, in a recent visit to a rural town in KwaZulu, called for black South Africans to vote as a bloc. According to the media, he said that was the only way they could recover the land stolen from their ancestors. This is not a message that will be pleasing to the ANC’s big funders. But, if they have the money, the rural ANC machine has the votes.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Elections and Voting

Political Movements

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