South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) celebrates its 107th birthday this year against a backdrop of an election campaign it’s likely to win handily – but which is likely to mask its longer-term decline.
January 8 is the day the ANC was founded. It observes it by issuing a statement compiled by its national executive committee which sets out its plans for the year. The statement, once the subject of endless analysis, is now often better at saying what the ANC would like to do than what it really will.
But, since the ANC is much better at diagnosing the ills which beset it than fixing them, it could touch on some of the factors which ensure that even a comfortable ANC election win in May is unlikely to halt its decline.
At this stage of the campaign, the ANC seems headed for just under 60% of the vote. This would be its worst performance in a national election. But it would still be a triumph since it would be the first time since 2004 that its vote increased: since Jacob Zuma became ANC president, it has lost ground in every election, dropping to 54% in the 2016 local poll.
The general election result could create the impression that the ANC is regaining ground which it lost only because it elected a divisive and unpopular president. This will be an illusion. Many of the ANC voters who stayed away in 2016 because they were angered by Zuma and his faction will probably return. But its problems run far deeper than the identity of its previous leader. Unless it finds ways to address them, the decline will continue until its national vote sinks below 50%.
There are three reasons why the ANC is in decline – one general problem and two others which stem from it.
Insiders and outsiders
The general problem is that the ANC has become a symptom of what it was supposed to end – an economy divided between insiders and outsiders. It’s useful to think of South Africa as a country whose economy was, when democracy was achieved in 1994, run by an exclusive club open only to white people. Admittedly, the club has admitted new, black, members. But they enjoy fewer privileges than the older, white, members. And it is still exclusive because millions are still denied its benefits, which may be as basic as a weekly wage.
Many of the ANC’s problems stem from this. Because the market economy doesn’t offer most black people a route into the middle class, those who can, use politics as a substitute. To name but one example, in many parts of the country, winning election as a local councillor is the difference between being middle class and poor.
This creates huge problems for the ANC. It creates a factional divide between those who have been able to join the club and whose well-being depends on the market economy, and those who want politics to propel them into the middle class and keep them there.
It also creates a host of problems which are often discussed in ANC documents. Because the stakes are so high, battles for position are rarely fought fairly: this has created internal decay so serious that ANC factions spent much of 2017 in court challenging the processes which choose leaders. The toxic blend of politics and money which is fuelled by economic exclusion has prompted political killings, particularly in the KwaZulu-Natal province.
This malaise prompted many ANC voters to withhold their votes. Many will return because the faction which wants a stronger market economy and so is tougher on corruption has won the presidency. But the ailment is unlikely to go away – so serious it is that former president Kgalema Motlanthe has suggested that the ANC may need to lose a national election to rid itself of those who see it as a route to resources.
Black Middle Class has Walked Away
The second problem is that the ANC’s malaise has lost it the black middle class, many of whom see it as irretrievably corrupt and some of whom feel that it has not come to the aid of black professionals who still experience many of the prejudices their parents faced.
The ANC acknowledged that it lost the black middle class in the 2014 election. This continued in 2016 and the signs suggest that the middle class has not returned – the world of many middle-class black people is very different to that of ANC leaders who are products of the days when only whites were allowed to benefit from the market. Working class and poorer voters are likely to return to the ANC now, not the middle class.
In post-1994 South Africa, losing the middle class does not lose elections – it is not nearly big enough. But it does deny a governing party which claims to represent black aspirations credibility among key people in the economy and, most of all, skills. Not long ago, black intellectuals gravitated almost automatically towards the ANC – now they are likely to run to avoid it. This deprives it of talents which it clearly needs.
The loss of young talent
The third problem is the decimation of the ANC’s youth leadership. South Africans who last year enjoyed opposition leader Julius Malema harassing Zuma overlooked the fact that, when Malema ran the Youth League, his first election as president was challenged by most of the provinces but endorsed by a national leadership who saw him as an ally. And his second election – unopposed – was helped by driving his opponents out of a meeting hall.
By the time Malema was expelled, the Youth League was in the emergency room, plagued by factionalism and the exclusion of anyone talented who threatened the leadership.
Had the ANC leadership acted swiftly to restore democracy to the Youth League, it could have become once again a nursery for political talent. Instead – presumably because they feared that a new Youth League leadership would threaten their control – they delayed elections and did nothing to revive vigorous democracy. The result is a youth leadership which is either anonymous or an embarrassment – the inevitable result of allowing talented young people to be driven away.
A party riven by the politics which economic exclusion creates, alienated from intellectuals and the middle class and which has lost most of its talented youth leadership, is clearly on a downward path. Whatever the ANC says on January 8, if it does not find ways to address these problems, the election is likely to offer at most temporary relief for a liberation movement which has lost much of its lustre.
Steven Friedman is a professor of political studies at the University of Johannesburg