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Outlook for South Africa’s Governing Party

January 11, 2017

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The African National Congress (ANC) celebrated the 105th anniversary of its founding on January 8 in Johannesburg. (The ANC is one of the older of the democratic world’s governing parties.) Last year was a bad year for the party. National president and ANC leader Jacob Zuma was tarred by credible accusations of personal corruption and that of close associates. He met judicial and political reversals. The economy grew very slowly. In a party that values unity, factionalism increased, centered mostly on Zuma himself. In the August local government elections, the ANC faced its most severe reversal since it came to power in 1994. Accordingly, at the anniversary celebrations the emphasis was on party unity and the acknowledgement (even by Zuma himself) that the party had made mistakes that threatened to isolate it from its core constituencies.

The coming year will also be challenging for the party. By December 2017, the party must choose a new president and National Executive Committee. Though not formally prohibited, there is little sign of party support for a third Zuma term as  leader and there is widespread expectation that he will be out by the end of the year. However, his term as president of South Africa lasts until 2019. There is no precedent for a president to remain in office once he is no longer party leader (Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, stepped down as president of South Africa after his removal from party leadership). However, Zuma may try to stick it out. But, absent his party leadership position, he would be politically weak. If he resigns, the interregnum would be filled by the current deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

Traditionally, the ANC distrusts internal, factional political competition. But, it will face factionalism in 2017. Already, the Congress of South African Trade Unions  has endorsed Ramaphosa for party leader. During the anniversary celebrations, the ANC Women’s League endorsed Zuma’s ex-wife and current head of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, refers to such endorsements as manifestations of ill-discipline. Factional competition for power is perfectly normal in most democratic parties. The ANC’s bias against it – as manifested by Mantashe – appears to be a vestigial remnant from its earlier iteration as a clandestine movement rather the democratic party it has become.

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