Posted on Monday, 23 March 2009 16:23

South Africa: Democracy at a crossroads

By William Gumede and Mandy Roussouw


As the anti-apartheid struggle fades into the back pages of history books, South Africa is now faced with a momentous choice between leaders of parties new and old in the upcoming national elections in April


On 22 April South Africans will cast their ballots in a febrile political atmosphere: how they vote and in what numbers will lay the basis of their country’s politics for much of the next decade.?


Over the past year, the governing African National Congress (ANC) has jettisoned one leader, Thabo Mbeki; picked another leader as interim president, Kgalema Motlanthe; and selected yet another as the party’s presidential candidate in this year’s elections, Jacob Zuma.?


Amid these party ructions, a group of ANC stalwarts led by Mosioua Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa walked out to form their own breakaway group, the Congress of the People (COPE). This new party is focusing on the government’s weaknesses as discontent mounts over worsening economic conditions and complaints of state corruption. COPE believes it can challenge longstanding political alliances and cut the ANC’s national majority along with its grip at the provincial level.

Presidential Candidates


Profiles of the ANC's Zuma,
COPE's Dandala and
the DA's Zille. Read more. 


?The ANC faces a more mature electorate. “People are fed up with the ANC. They love the party, but the people in the party make bad decisions. Now that they see it is election [time] they come and make promises,” said Edward Batman, a miner from Carletonville, Gauteng. ?


The ANC will win but by how much and at what cost? Its candidate, Jacob Zuma, is a canny politician: he outflanked the cerebral Mbeki, defeated him in party leadership elections and then presided over his ousting from the national presidency by the ANC’s national executive committee.


?Rumbustious and sociable, Zuma comes across as a grassroots politician. Turning up at Johannesburg’s central commuter station at six o’clock one morning, he was spontaneously cheered by local workers. Zuma is also a man of steel; as head of ANC security in exile, he oversaw some ruthless party purges and the crushing of dissident factions. ?


In the past four years, he has fought off accusations of corruption and is almost guaranteed to be South Africa’s next president – even with further corruption charges hanging over him. To improve his international image, Zuma’s minders have contacted some public relations consultants, including Margaret Thatcher’s advisor Tim Bell, who is now a member of Britain’s House of Lords.?


Another British conservative politician, Anthony Nelson, former British Minister of Trade and Vice-Chairman of Citigroup, speaks highly of Zuma: “He would make an outstanding president. None of the charges have held up so far, and I am impressed by his abilities on economics and politics. He has great strengths that inspire people and inspire me.” Nelson, who now lives in Cape Town, insists he was not paid to say that.


?A man for all men?


It is Zuma’s ability to appeal simultaneously to several different constituencies – trade unionists, communists, shack-dwellers, hard-line Afrikaners and English-speaking white businessmen – that makes him a moving target for Lekota and Shilowa.?


COPE has a difficult argument to make. Lekota says its core belief is the ANC mantra: “The people shall govern.” He says it is the ANC that has walked away from these beliefs as its senior members accuse South Africa’s judicial system of being counter-revolutionary or when the ANC youth leader Julius Malema announces: “We want Zuma, corrupt or not.”?


After some internal squabbling, COPE picked the head of the Methodist Church in Southern Africa, Mvume Dandala, as its presidential candidate. As a former anti-apartheid activist with the South African Council of Churches, Dandala seems an unimpeachable choice: the problem is that few South Africans have heard of him. ?


COPE spokesman Philip Dexter said Dandala’s lack of government experience meant he could not be tainted by ANC corruption scandals: “We don’t want to fight a defensive campaign; we want to look ahead and give voters hope for the future.” But COPE will also need a more distinct policy stance – apart from repeating that it is anti-corruption and subscribes to the ANC’s liberation ideals.?


"In COPE we move from the understanding that South Africans are inherently good people and they will vote for good people,” says secretary-general Charlotte Lobe, a former member of the ANC’s provincial government in the Free State. But COPE also needs a wider array of national supporters.


?The promised mass migration of senior ANC figures to COPE has not materialised. Neither has COPE been able to build up its own national organising structure to rival the ANC’s. And after an initial influx of funds when the party was formed last year, it now seems to lack the cash to finance a national election campaign.?


At the same time, Helen Zille, the leader of the mainly white Democratic Alliance (DA) and Cape Town’s mayor, has regenerated her party among its core constituency, even if it is still making slow progress in winning over black and mixed-race supporters.


Looking for a national agenda?


The Independent Democrats, a smaller party formed by former members of the Pan-Africanist Congress and led by Patricia de Lille, are not running against Zuma nationally. Instead, they want to focus on winning the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces.


All the opposition parties, including COPE, are talking about forming an anti-ANC coalition after the election.?All the parties agree on the key issues in the elections: crime, education, health and jobs. According to government statistics for the fourth quarter of 2008, the official unemployment rate now stands at 21.9%. But using the expanded definition of employment, which includes those not actively seeking work, the figure could be high as 40%. More than 11,000 jobs were lost in the car industry last year; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) estimates that 20,000-50,000 jobs may be lost in the mining sector this year. ?


Cosatu’s general-secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, who backed Zuma for the ANC leadership, says his organisation will now set “minimum policy demands” for Zuma in return for its support. The KwaZulu-Natal branch of Cosatu says it will set “house rules and conditions” for Zuma, including political appointments. “Workers will not endorse the ANC during the 2009 elections if there are no concrete results for them,” said Vavi.?


The ANC’s answer to Cosatu is a commitment to financing a state-led industrial policy programme. Its manifesto says: “Fiscal and monetary policy mandates, including management of interest rates and exchange rates, need to actively promote creation of decent employment… and other developmental imperatives.” It adds that the political independence of the Reserve Bank may be “overated”. COPE and the DA regard any attempt by politicians to influence the Reserve Bank as an indication of the growing leftist influence in the ANC. ?


Zuma is agnostic on the issue. As finance minister Trevor Manuel said in a back-handed compliment to Zuma: “His strength is that he knows what he does not know.” If Manuel (who has led the country’s economic reforms for the past decade) stays, he will have to confront leftists such as South African Communist Party general-secretary, Blade Nzimande, and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, who are headed for cabinet positions in a Zuma government.?


COPE and the DA also want massive investment in the public sector but do not support the direct intervention proposed by the ANC’s industrial policy. The DA wants to end the restrictions on the hiring and firing of workers in current labour laws, but that is a non-starter with COPE and the ANC.


?The ANC manifesto talks up its achievements in government over the past 15 years despite Zuma’s supporters’ criticism of ousted President Thabo Mbeki. That makes it difficult for ANC campaigners to accuse COPE of representing Mbeki’s “failed agenda”. ?


More people than ever have access to basic services, more children go to school and more than 12m adults and children receive social grants from the state. The ANC has committed itself to gender equality: half of all government jobs are reserved for women. ?


However, the ANC and COPE differ on electoral systems. COPE wants direct elections for the national president, provincial premiers and municipal mayors. ?


Currently, the party which wins more than 50% of the national vote chooses the national president, and all the country’s members of parliament are elected on a proportional representation basis from party lists. There is no link between MPs and the constituencies that they represent.?


The parties agree on the need for black economic empowerment, accountability and improving health and education services. COPE, however, says there is a need to address what it calls the “unintended consequences” of affirmative action, including “nepotism and cronyism in the public service… and using race as a sole criterion of employment”.


The ANC’s decision to abolish the Scorpions, a crime-fighting unit, looked political because the unit investigated leading ANC figures such as Zuma and his associates. Both the DA and COPE promise to reinstate the unit; the ANC is vague on how to improve a police service riddled with as much corruption and brutality as it was under apartheid. ?


My kingdom for two-thirds


?Most analysts believe the ANC will not be able to repeat its 2004 election victory when it won 69.69% of the vote. Many predict that the combined weight of the opposition parties will stop the ANC from getting a two-thirds majority, which would give it the power to change the constitution and, quite possibly, give Zuma immunity from prosecution.


?The great uncertainty is how the opposition vote will divide up: early polls suggest that COPE will win 8-12% and the DA could win as much as 20%. In the provincial elections, the Western Cape is likely to stay under opposition control, even under a COPE-DA coalition.?The Inkatha Freedom Party and United Democratic Movement will attract votes in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, but not enough to break the ANC stronghold over these provinces. ?


Opposition representation is almost certain to grow after April’s elections, but this will not be the turning point that Lekota, Shilowa and Zille want. Instead they will be part of a slower redrawing of South Africa’s political map and the repositioning of the ANC’s political juggernaut. ?


Under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, the ANC will have to decide whether it is to be a party of leftists and trades unionists who have mobilised the voters or a party of the business oligarchs who have funded its election campaign. Both sides will demand their payback.


South African Parties and Platforms 2009

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