‘ANC will rule till Jesus returns,’ Jacob Zuma, the South African president, proclaimed before August’s local elections. If so, the messiah might be back sooner than expected as the African National Congress (ANC) is fast losing its once-unchallenged grip on the body politic: the party of Nelson Mandela barely won a majority of votes—just 54%—in the biggest electoral challenge to its dominance since the end of apartheid.
The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), won an apparently distant 27% across the country. But the seismic significance of these elections was in the loss of the big urban areas to the DA, a party that Zuma dismissed as ‘the child of the National Party, the one that exercised apartheid’. Of the six biggest cities, the BBC reported, the ANC won an outright majority only in Durban, a stronghold for Zuma (whose Zulu ethnicity is probably his greatest electoral asset). ‘The tide in our country is turning,’ said Mmusi Maimane, the DA’s first black leader.
Unlikely as it once seemed, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, led by the firebrand former ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, has become the second-biggest opposition party. In its new kingmaking role, after winning 8.2% of the vote nationally, it is backing the DA against the ANC. The electoral prizes now held by the DA include both the administrative capital, Pretoria (the DA won 43% of the vote to the ANC’s 41% in the surrounding Tshwane municipality), and the legislative capital, Cape Town, the powerbase of the party (the ANC won just 24% to the DA’s 67%). In the hotly contested Nelson Mandela Bay region, which includes Port Elizabeth, the DA wrested control by winning 46.7% to the ANC’s 40.9%, and formed a multi-party coalition with the ANC splinter group, Congress of the People, and two other small parties. ANC ceded power in Johannesburg for the first time, though it remained the largest party (ANC 45%, DA 38%, EFF 11%); it will also be run by a minority administration after the EFF agreed to vote with the DA but rejected a formal coalition.
The ANC’s vote appeared to have collapsed in only two years—in 2014, its vote shrank to 62%, the lowest in a general election since it took power in 1994. It had been a gently declining trajectory until this year: it also had 62% to the DA’s 24% in the 2011 local elections, 65.9% to 16.7% in 2009’s general election, and 66.3% to 12.4% in 2004. (It is worth noting that the varying figures given for shares of the vote depend on which calculations of Electoral Commission results are used; the most credible is the average of the proportional representation vote and the aggregate ward vote, without the distorting effect of district council votes, which not everyone has. As Business Day pointed out, as ‘the ANC has high support in rural areas, this third vote weighs in favour of the ANC.’)
‘Mandela Would Be Ashamed’
One of the most keenly watched battlegrounds was Nelson Mandela Bay. The region is an interesting demographic mix, at the cusp of the Coloured-dominated Western Cape and the Xhosa heartland of the Eastern Cape; the black African population is about 60%, 23% are Coloured, and 14% white, mostly speaking Afrikaans. ‘In past elections the DA wouldn’t dare to come here,’ Zodwa Twani, a 25-year-old IT graduate, told Reuters in a Port Elizabeth township, a former ANC stronghold. Despite 80% of voters in the rundown area backing the ANC five years ago (with the DA barely registering), an unemployment rate of nearly 50% for young black South Africans has made the unthinkable reality: DA placards now line the streets. ‘I loved the ANC but now they only focus on themselves, not the people. Mandela would have been ashamed,’ said Twani.
Though the DA has struggled to shake off its perceived image as the party of white privilege, changing only cosmetically since the apartheid era, the party estimated in 2014 that 20% of its support was from black voters. Under 36-year-old Maimane, the party has moved beyond its white liberal background to become the party of most minority voters. Meanwhile, the EFF is luring voters from the ANC’s left flank. Malema said his party was ‘caught between two devils’ and would allow the DA to form city administrations because it was a ‘better devil’ than the ANC, which he called ‘corrupt’ and ‘arrogant’.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation said that while the DA had not won as many townships from the ANC as it may have hoped, it benefited from the collapse of Cope, so ‘it doubled or tripled its support in some wards … the party has broken through the psychological barrier of black voters viewing it as a white party.’ The ANC had already alienated support elsewhere; after the 2011 local elections, Business Day noted: ‘The ANC lost ground in all provinces except KwaZulu-Natal compared to the previous local election, and declined everywhere compared to the general election. It has almost totally lost the support of all three ethnic minorities.’
When the electorate gives you a drubbing at the polls, it would seem wise to take notice. But the ANC appears to have adopted an axiom attributed to Stalin: ‘The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.’ The New York Times said: ‘Instead of introspection, Mr Zuma and his allies have moved aggressively to tighten their grip on the state’s coffers … With little explanation, Mr Zuma announced that he would directly oversee the state enterprises that have long been the source of public corruption. And his allies have renewed their attacks on Mr Zuma’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, who has built a reputation for probity and has tried to uproot malfeasance in government.’ The Fitch ratings agency warned that the ruling party may turn to big-spending economic populism in a desperate effort to claw back support from voters fed up with still living in grim townships 22 years after apartheid ended.
Zuma first made the quip about the ANC reigning until Jesus returned in 2004, and again in 2008, and even claimed: ‘When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven … the holy ones belong to the ANC.’ But the predestinarian boast had long rung hollow. In 2014 Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary-general, had warned about the threats to former liberation movements across the continent. An internal report leaked to the Mail & Guardian said: ‘The concerns of youth regarding employment are used as a mobilising tool … The urban constituency, as seen with our middle class in recent elections, is another soft spot.’ Last year, Mantashe went further, declaring that if the vote were to fall below 60%, it would mark a ‘psychological and political turning point’.
After the DA’s gains in 2011, a Business Day commentator said of Zuma: ‘The “man of the people” president is no more popular or able to solidify the party behind his leadership than his reputedly ascetic predecessor [Thabo Mbeki]. He is indistinct as a leader, buffered by factions, organisationally all over the place, and consequently struggling to connect.’ This time round, even party stalwarts were telling Zuma to go. The New York Times quoted Sasabona Manganye, an ANC branch chairman in Johannesburg: ‘If the ANC leaves Zuma to remain president until 2019, we should just accept that Zuma will be the last president that the ANC had.’
The author Mark Gevisser noted that, with two-thirds of South Africans now living in urban areas, the demographics weighed against the ANC, which he thought could become a ‘backwoods’ party like Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. William Gumede, head of the Democracy Works Foundation thinktank, agreed. ‘The ANC may just become a rural party,’ he predicted, before the full results had even been released.
Pointing to the ‘unemployment, maladministration and rampant corruption of the ANC’, Athol Trollip, the DA’s successful mayoral candidate in Mandela Bay, told Reuters before the election: ‘To lose Nelson Mandela Bay would be humiliating for the ANC and terminal for Jacob Zuma.’
Zuma has clearly been badly hurt by the humiliating local election results but the veteran ANC cadre is nothing if not a survivor. Countless unanswered questions have swirled around the president for years, not least over alleged arms deal bribery involving the jailed Durban businessman (and Zuma’s financial adviser) Schabir Shaik—a story that dates all the way back to 1999 (Zuma denies any wrongdoing). And women loathe Zuma for his chequered sexual record, Gevisser says.
The high court ruled in April that Zuma should face 783 corruption, fraud and racketeering charges, which were dropped weeks before the 2009 election that saw him elected president, the BBC reported. A month before, a damning constitutional court judgment against him said he had broken the law by refusing to refund some of the 240m rand ($16m) of state money spent on refurbishing his private residence in Nkandla. This story dates back to a Mail & Guardian exposé in 2009.
The walk-in closets in Zuma’s luxurious KwaZulu-Natal homestead seem full of assorted skeletons yet he has somehow managed to survive scandal after scandal. Though Zuma might well avoid his day in court for some time (he is appealing against the corruption charges being reinstated, Reuters reported in late August), the political career of South Africa’s president certainly looks to be in need of resurrection.
The ANC, too, is at a watershed. Memories of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani are fading. ‘The legitimacy conferred on the [ANC] by the struggle is no longer a mask for their failings in a country that is now scarred by stories of rampant political corruption, crime and poverty,’ Justice Malala said in the Observer. But, as he rightly concluded, ‘South Africans are using the ballot box to speak to their leaders and that can only be a good thing.’