from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s Political Playground

May 23, 2014

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Elections and Voting

Political Movements

This is a guest post by Derek Charles Catsam, associate professor of History and the Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan fellow in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Perman Basin. Derek was senior editor for the Foreign Policy Association’s Africa blog from 2007 to 2014.

The coalition that makes up the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa enjoys tremendous diversity. This includes the ANC proper, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Together they are called the Tripartite Alliance, which covers a broad range of ideology from the center-right to the left. I wrote previously about the ANC’s recent landslide victory in the May elections. However, I have also been arguing for years that the biggest challenge to the ANC will come not from the Democratic Alliance (DA) or any other opposition party, but from within the Tripartite Alliance itself.

The DA is limited because no matter how many black politicians it promotes its reputation as a party for whites seems to endure and as the recent election results seem to reaffirm, its appeal outside of the Western Cape, and especially the environs of Cape Town, is limited at best. Indeed, the party only has any sort of real power base not because it garners something like a fifth of the national vote but rather because it controls the province and a vital, vibrant city that is central to the country’s economy and tourism industry. In every other province the ANC dominated both in terms of the percentages of votes won and the pure numbers of parliamentarians the ANC secured. In the end, the DA’s chief justification is that it is not the ANC, which is a pretty thin reed upon which to hang a political argument.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which came in third in the election and really does consciously try to attack the ANC from the left, got a smaller percentage of the vote than any third-place finisher in the post-Apartheid period, and is, in any case, largely a vanity project on the part of Julius Malema, the former head of the ANC Youth League whose shenanigans got him booted from the majority party.

It is one of the grand ironies of South African life, where seemingly everything carries within it a political subtext that the recent election, like the last few before it, had little to do with policy or even ideology. Ask a hundred South Africans across the socioeconomic spectrum to lay out five concrete policy differences between the ANC and the DA and you are unlikely to have a dozen people able to do so successfully. Indeed, from an ideological perspective, the DA really could fit comfortably within the ANC. It is not significantly to the right of the non-COSATU/SACP wing of the party. Were the DA to be absorbed into the ANC next week there would be little lost in terms of the policy dialogue in South Africa.

The greatest danger to the ANC’s dominance therefore lies within the ANC, most notably the Tripartite Alliance. At a certain point the leftists in COSATU and the SACP are going to grow tired of taking a backseat to what they see as the cautious economic centrists that dominate the ANC. The access to power that comes with maintaining the Tripartite Alliance may at some point in the future not be enough to keep the unions and the Communists in the fold. If and when that day comes the ANC might face its first true challenge, this time from a serious, undeniably African, party of the left.

Until that day comes the ANC will maintain its status as the virtually unchallenged political force. Consequently, the most dynamic politics in the country will take place within the ANC and not from its external critics. Indeed in many real ways Jacob Zuma might have already become the fastest lame duck in the history of politics. There is no clear and obvious successor to Zuma’s positions as head of party and head of state, which is not to say that there are not a lot of claimants to those dual titles. The ANC won another landslide in the 2014 elections. But that does not mean that there is no political drama in South Africa where political drama is one of the country’s most predictable outcomes.