from Africa in Transition

Political Ferment in South Africa

July 08, 2013

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Elections and Voting

Heads of State and Government

South African politics recently appears to be entering a period of flux. The opportunity for change is signaled by national icon Nelson Mandela’s serious illness. The media is regularly reporting that he is now on life support and South Africans seem to be reconciling themselves to his death. Increasingly in recent years, he has been an important touchstone for the legitimacy of the governing African National Congress (ANC), especially as scandals involving party leaders have multiplied.

Indeed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, second only to Mandela as an icon of the anti-apartheid movement, compared the ANC to the old National Party that imposed apartheid because of the Zuma government’s unwillingness to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama, likely for fear of offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, the media reports ANC scandals on an almost daily basis. The archbishop has said specifically that he will not vote for the ANC in the next elections. Furthermore, the Mandela family is feuding publicly even while the patriarch is apparently dying, creating such a spectacle that the archbishop has publicly pleaded with them to stop airing their dirty laundry in public.

But, there are also signs of new growth. Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the architects of the 1993-94 transition to non-racial democracy, was widely thought to be hand-picked to be Mandela’s successor as ANC leader and president of the republic. When Thabo Mbeki became the party’s choice instead, Ramaphosa removed himself from politics and went into business. He was highly successful and appears to have the confidence of both the domestic and international business communities. Often described as both “brilliant” and “highly competent,” following the last ANC party convention he is now deputy president of the party. That makes him well placed to be Zuma’s successor. One possibility is that before the next national elections in 2014, Zuma could step down as president but stay on as party leader. Ramaphosa would then be in a strong position to be the ANC’s presidential candidate. Many speculate that an ANC government under Ramaphosa would be very different from the current Zuma government.

The formal opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), dominates the Western Cape. The governor, Helen Zille, the mayor of Cape Town, Patricia De Lille, and the party leadership generally are seeking to expand the party’s electoral base beyond its traditionally white and coloured constituencies. Its parliamentary leader is a young black woman, Lindiwe Mazibuko. They are particularly looking to make electoral inroads among the black middle class. They emphasize improved service delivery, clean government, and “constitutionalism.” The DA is looking to increase its total share of the parliamentary vote and, just possibly, to capture the Johannesburg city government and that of Gauteng province, the heart of the modern economy.

An altogether new party has also been organized by Mamphela Ramphele. She is an icon of the anti-apartheid movement and trained as a medical doctor; She was one of the founders of the Black Consciousness movement and is the mother of liberation martyr Steve Biko’s children. Subsequently she was vice chancellor (president) of the University of Cape Town, and later a World Bank official and a business woman. Her new party, Agang SA, will focus on four areas where many South Africans believe the ANC has failed: the economy, education, health, and security. The DA shares many of her views, and she has been chided by some for not joining forces with them so as not to split the anti-ANC vote. But, as veteran journalist Alistair Sparks observes, under proportional representation, the percentage of votes that a party receives determines the number of seats it has in parliament. If both the DA and Agang SA do well and cooperate (as they are likely to), the ANC’s dominance in parliament could be eroded in this election and possibly end in the next—scheduled for 2019. The ANC, however, will almost certainly continue to provide the executive.

Finally, Julius Malema, the former ANC Youth League bad boy, is talking about launching a radical, black political party. However, he faces fraud charges and may go to jail. Even if he does not, it is questionable whether he has the finances or organizational skills to launch a viable political party.