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The ANC: The end of the empire or just annus horribilis?

Since the end of the first decade of freedom in 2004, many political commentators have been looking for signs of that watershed moment when the ANC electorate stops voting solely for the party of their liberation, and starts voting for the party of their relevance.

The ANC has traditionally gained from being the instrument of liberation in taking the key role in the negotiations from 1990 to 1994 and for possessing the symbol of the struggle in Nelson Mandela. Most voters spent their first years of free elections voting for the ANC solely for this reason. For the past three years since the end of the first decade, there has been significantly more internal and external dissent, none more so than 2007. The question thus stands: Is this just a bad year for the ANC, or are we in the first throes of the end of the empire?

Between the violent and widespread delivery protests, corruption problems, the succession battles, Zuma’s graft and rape trials, open verbal warfare between the ANC, SACP and Cosatu, and the Health Ministry issues, the ANC as a party hasn’t seen a tougher year since coming to power. Thus far, this has translated into a somewhat shaken international respect, a difficult final term for Mbeki, and a lot of shouting at ANC imbizos, but has not yet manifested in the form of altered voter sentiment, but the real tests here are in the coming years.

Much has been made of the threats of splitting the tripartite alliance from the SACP and Cosatu, but this is a red herring. The SACP and Cosatu are not governing options without realistic policy, and according to much research done by Markinor, large tracts of their base would continue to vote ANC anyway. The real threat is that the traditionally loyal ANC electorate starts to interpret these internal problems as a failing government.

The ANC’s most powerful electoral tool is that it is the only political party in South Africa with governing experience; the only viable option for making our country work. But this is a false harbour in the next decade. A disgruntled group of senior and powerful ANC leaders, with enough figureheads to carry significant portions of the electorate, could make heavy inroads into the ANC’s traditional voting power. This is not an option under Mbeki, who has an iron-fisted control over the party structures and those in the upper echelons of ANC power. After 2009, however, with a new president of the country, this becomes more of a possibility.

Ultimately, it will all rely on the governing strength of the next president of South Africa and the leadership that he or she puts in place. If service delivery is improved, and if the left wing of the party is given more of a voice, these vulnerabilities will undoubtedly be healed, and the ANC should see another decade of powerful control. But their are many worrying signs for the ANC at present. Never has there been such internal dissent within the ANC’s structures, and there are large splits in the various factions within the party, as hard as the leadership tries to paper these over. Were one of these factions to split off in the next five years, and should these problems continue for the ANC, there could be significant long-term concerns for the party’s governing position. The opportunity is not yet fully formed, but there are undoubtedly factions within the ANC slip-streaming until they feel the gap is there.

Personally, my gut feel is that this is just an annus horribilis for the ANC. Getting through the ANC meeting in December should bring greater stability, both in the succession battle and in giving the left more of a voice. The next ANC president, if drawn from the current crop, should also have less of Mbeki’s stiffness and much more affability with the electorate, which should buy the ANC time to make real changes in provincial government and service delivery. There is undoubtedly time for the party to rectify these vulnerabilities, but it will take much fortitude and vastly improved communication with the electorate.

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