Twenty Years of Defeat

Today, South Africans will likely reelect Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress. But the party of Nelson Mandela is losing ground.

South Africans vote today in the fifth national election since the end of apartheid twenty years ago.

President Jacob Zuma’s first term has been plagued by scandal — from multiple marital indiscretions, to service delivery scandals, to the state massacre of thirty-four striking workers at Marikana, to the construction of a $21.5 million palatial fortress for his family in Nkandla. His presidency has been littered with tales of rampant corruption, state repression, and a reversion to a reactionary masculinist and ethnocentric style of politics within the African National Congress.

The proud traditions of political diversity, debate, and ideological commitment associated with African’s oldest liberation movement have disappeared and been replaced with a seedy morass of corruption, blind party loyalty, and a paranoid style of politics associated with the increasingly powerful security apparatus within the ANC. Patronage networks, particularly centered around traditional authorities (a relic of apartheid and colonialism), continue to be used to mobilize voters. All the while, thousands of protests directed at corrupt local governments and the lack of social services rage throughout the country. South Africa is also amid its longest strike ever as platinum miners continue to fight, now into month five, for a basic wage of $1,250.

The ANC seems rudderless, unable to respond to an unemployment rate comparable to Greece or Spain, immense levels of inequality, and the economic needs of the black majority. The party lacks a vision beyond the tepid neoliberalism of their National Development Plan (NDP) — a cocktail of platitudes touting “labor flexibility” and “special economic zones” so that foreign capital can swoop in and liberate the oppressed majority by way of superexploitation.

Yet the ANC is set to win over sixty percent of the vote, and no opposition party seems to be capable of breaking its grip on power. The ANC’s political rhetoric is largely based on a pathos of struggle centered around the recently deceased figure of Nelson Mandela and its claim of a “good story to tell” about their twenty years in power.

The country’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, rules the province of the Western Cape and is set to win around twenty-three percent of the vote.

The DA’s platform is almost identical policy-wise to the ANC (it also endorses the NDP) and purports to offer clean and effective governance and a more business friendly government. The DA has been unable to shake its reputation as a shrill voice of the white minority’s continued privilege and make inroads into the ANC’s base. Instead it has focused employing tactics of “divide and rule” to pick up so-called “coloured voters” (mixed race) terrified of African majority rule who had previously voted for the National Party in years past.

But there are signs everywhere that the country is due for a political shift.

The most important development of this election has been the breakdown of established political identities in favor of new concepts of “tactical voting.” This ranges from the shackdwellers movement’s Abahlali BaseMjondolo endorsing the neoliberal DA in order to “‘weaken’ the ANC” to ex-struggle stalwarts like Ronnie Kasrils sounding the call for voters to spoil their ballot or vote for an opposition party in order to signify disgust with the ruling party.

Also significant is the emergence of the radical nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a split from the ANC running on a “Marxist–Leninist Fanonian” platform. Led by Julius Malema, the EFF fuses archetypical populism with calls for nationalization of industries and the redistribution of land without compensation. They carry them with a certain flair, which they employ well to target disgruntled communities across the country.

Their politics is more that of the spectacle than one built to last, and the leadership has a number of serious corruption allegations hanging over their heads from their time in the ANC. Many single them out for a style of politics which fuses socialist rhetoric with Armani loafers and partying at the country’s premiere nightclubs. Other senior figures in the party have rape charges and convictions of inciting xenophobic violence standing against them.

Their politics are closer to Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF than the late Hugo Chávez’s PSUV and are too opportunistic to likely present a future left alternative, but they have encouraged many black working class youth into articulating radical political demands.

Observers of South Africa should view the election as more of an indication of future trends than a referendum on the ANC’s rule. Events within the country’s trade union movement, particularly the 330,000 worker-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s call for a new united front of community and worker organizations against neoliberalism and the eventual establishment of a labor party, present more viable future left political options than those currently on offer.

Today’s elections will be further evidence of the ANC’s resilience. Hyperbolic narratives of the ANC’s decline, which have dominated pre-election coverage, will be proved wrong. But only for a moment.