from Africa in Transition

Is There “Democratic Space” in South Africa’s Ruling ANC?

June 27, 2012

Blog Post

Eighteen years after the coming of “non-racial democracy” to South Africa, critics of the perpetually ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), see it as increasingly corrupt, authoritarian, and devoted to the narrow interests of the “national bourgeoisie”--blacks who have enriched themselves through access to the public sector and beneficiaries of Black Economic Empowerment. The ANC, to some, appears to have abandoned an agenda that would improve the lives of impoverished South Africans.

Interestingly, the ANC’s most trenchant critics are not the formal opposition, the Democratic Alliance, or the white-dominated business community. Rather they are blacks on the left, especially those who have been marginalized by former president Thabo Mbeki and current president Jacob Zuma. The two best known are Julius Malema, once the head of the ANC Youth League, and Winnie Mandela, once head of the ANC Women’s League and the divorced wife of national icon Nelson Mandela. But, beyond these radicals, criticism of the ANC is growing within the party and within the country’s powerful civil society organizations that have often been associated with it.

The ANC policy conference now underway is demonstrating a remarkable self-awareness among party activists of their own shortcomings, and that is a sign that there remains more “democratic space” than its critics often perceive. (The policy conference is held once every five years to develop the party’s platform for the next elections in 2014.)

As reported in the press, ANC policy analysis of South Africa’s shortcomings are trenchant and move beyond merely invoking the evil legacy of apartheid: unemployment ( currently, over twenty-five percent), poor education for blacks, uneven infrastructure development, an extractive-industries dependent economy, a failing health system, widespread corruption, and “a divided society.”

Some of the proposed solutions, such as nationalization of banks and mines or expropriation of white-owned farmland, are politically unrealistic and have little popular appeal beyond a few party activists. More hopeful is the analysis of some participants that “the party has silently shifted “from transformative politics to “palace politics wherein internal strike and factional battles over power and resources define the political life of the movement.”

Such clear-eyed and public analysis of the ruling party is rarely found in Africa. It is also evidence that, indeed, “democratic space”--open criticism of the party’s leadership and public debate of party methods and options--remains within the ANC. That reality holds out the promise that the party can reform itself. A genuinely democratic ANC is of paramount importance. Blacks are about eighty percent of South Africa’s population, and electoral behavior continues to be largely (not exclusively) determined by race. Blacks overwhelmingly vote for the ANC; demographic reality means that the party is likely to remain in power. That means South Africa is likely to have an ANC-dominated government as long as South African electoral behavior is largely determined by race.