from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s Ruling Party and the South African Government

February 24, 2016

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The African National Congress (ANC) is a big tent. Politically, under that tent is the Congress of South African trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Both run candidates for office as ANC, not under their own label. The Secretary General of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, is also a former chairperson of the SACP.

The relationship between the ANC and the South African state can be ambiguous. Some within the ANC see the two as essentially coterminous, as was the case with the Communist party and the former Soviet Union. Others, however, see the two as separate, just as governing parties in other democracies are separate entities, and a ruling party of today can be the opposition tomorrow should the electorate so choose.

Especially among the opposition parties, civil organizations, and the non-ANC media there has long been concern that South Africa is too much governed from Luthuli House, the ANC party headquarters in Johannesburg, rather than the administrative seat of government, Union Buildings, in Pretoria.

Yesterday’s blog post discussed Mantashe’s accusation that the U.S. embassy in Pretoria was engaged in trying to bring about “regime change” through exchange programs and the highly effective response by the U.S. ambassador using humor and sarcasm. To no surprise, the Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said on February 23 that the ANC was not happy with the ambassador’s response to Mantashe. She said that if the situation had been reversed, “I would go to the Luthuli House of the U.S. and have a discussion. As the ANC leadership we are going to do that. We are going to have engagement to clarify these things. It will still happen, but at the right time.” (There is, of course, no American equivalent of Luthuli House.)

As her reference to Luthuli House indicated, she went on to say that the Mantashe episode is a ruling party issue – not the governments. She went on to say that from the government’s perspective, “our relations with the U.S. are going well.” At least two other ministers have also pointed out Mantashe’s accusation had come from the ANC, not the government. The telecommunications minister characterized Pretoria’s relations with Washington as “very cordial.”

The Zuma government appears to be distancing itself from Mantashe’s ludicrous accusations while not alienating elements within its ruling coalition. More broadly, this episode may indicate that as the ANC weakens, so too may Luthuli House.

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