The slow death of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress

South Africa's President and African National Congress party's President Cyril Ramaphosa is assisted by other members to cut the birthday cake during the ANC's 110th anniversary celebrations at the Old Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane, on January 8, 2022. PHOTOS | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Part of the problem was that ordinary South Africans, as represented by Cosatu’s 1.8 million members, have been under the whip economically, especially during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Once revered in Africa and respected around the world, the African National Congress (ANC), the oldest liberation movement on the continent and the political home of greats like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, is in shambles.

The ‘party of Madiba’ is headed towards a year-end elective conference that is more likely to lead to yet further divisions than heal its deep splits.

That the ANC was ‘in trouble’ has been evident since around the middle of the first decade of this century, and matters have only become more dire since.
This week, the ‘unthinkable’ took place: Gwede Mantashe, long-time unionist, lifelong party loyalist, cabinet minister and current ANC national chairperson, was booed from the stage of a conference of the party’s most loyal allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

In this file photo taken on August 2, 2008 former South African president Nelson Mandela (C) ANC president Jacob Zuma (L) and South African president Thabo Mbeki (R) arrive on stage during the Mandela 90th birthday ANC celebration at Loftus stadium in Pretoria, South Africa.

            What makes Mandela so special?

Part of the problem was that ordinary South Africans, as represented by Cosatu’s 1.8 million members, have been under the whip economically, especially during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

High unemployment – about 30 percent and 40 percent, the latter including those who have given up looking for work – in a much-weakened economy has meant that jobs are harder to come by and wages have hardly grown in recent years, with unions themselves having fewer paying members.

In a society where the ‘social contract’ with a once-revered liberation movement, in government for 28 years, has frayed to the point of collapse, the ANC’s ‘liberation premium’ had long since evaporated.
The party has become moribund, with corruption and incompetence through its policy of ‘cadre deployment’, which translates to ‘choice jobs for pals and lackeys’.

Efforts at board-based economic empowerment have failed to produce a large emergent ‘black’ middle class – ‘black’, in this context, being a political term with pseudo-racial connotations.

African National Congress (ANC) President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) toasts with former President Jacob Zuma (C) and Secretary General Ace Magashule (L) during the African National Congress' (ANC) 107th anniversary celebrations at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on January 12, 2019. 

With repeated multi-hour power outages becoming part and parcel of ‘daily life’, and with dozens of municipalities in financial crisis – some so dysfunctional that they have been taken over by regional authorities – there is no more reserve of goodwill left for the ANC to draw on.

The local government elections of last year showed beyond question what was already evident from previous polls: the ANC’s fortunes are in a tailspin of decline, which may become terminal.

In 1994, under the awesome personage of Nelson Mandela, the man half the world was calling to be released from decades behind apartheid prison bars to lead the country to freedom, the ANC was morally untouchable.

There had been violence against apartheid, but relatively little, so the ANC had fairly ‘clean hands’, coming into the democratic era, and held the moral high ground, domestically and internationally.

Supporters of the South Africa ruling African National Congress (ANC) party at an election campaign rally.

The ANC’s rival liberation movement, the breakaway Pan African Congress (PAC), through its armed wing – the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), Azania being the ancient Greek name for the southern part of Africa – was far more aggressive in hitting ‘civilian’ targets during the anti-apartheid struggle than the ANC’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

With beloved Madiba at the helm, South Africa seemed ‘golden’ – the miracle child of Africa seemingly embodying the very best in people, including the ability to forge a real fellowship of equals from a deeply unequal past.

The Rainbow Nation, as it was dubbed by another African Great, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was the amalgam of the colonial and the yet-more-intensely-racist apartheid eras, but one in which the past was not necessarily a determinant of the future.

Even the most casual and distant observer of global events realised there was something special in what had happened in South Africa – a great and terrible, seemingly unavoidable human tragedy had been averted and in its place was hope for a non-racial and truly democratic, modern society, vibrant in its diversity and rich in its human and natural resources.

Anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress member Nelson Mandela is released from Victor Verster Prison outside Cape Town, South Africa after 27 years as a political prisoner on February 11, 1990.

As a visibly shaken and angered Mantashe left the Cosatu congress stage in Midrand near Johannesburg this week, amid the jeers of his former comrades-at-arms ringing in his ears, what had happened to the Rainbow Nation and its promise of a better life for all was the unasked but ubiquitous question.

The rowdy union delegates, numbering about 2,100, were in effect asking that same question in refusing to hear a word Mantashe had to say, chanting to him, “we have no money”.

They were angered by the ANC government’s failure to live up to a three-year wage agreement with unionised government employees. And the ANC itself, which has repeatedly failed to pay its own workers’ salaries, is a month behind even as the congress kicked off, with September salaries unpaid.

The citizens, who have gone out into the streets demanding better services from their ill-functioning local councils, which are riddled with incompetence and corruption, have also been effectively voicing that same concern.

With the economy barely operating, the second quarter GDP declining by 0.7 percent off a first-quarter growth of just 1.9 percent, there is hardly anyone, rich or poor, not asking that same question in various ways.
It might be embedded in a subset of daily survival questions – When will there be electricity today? Will there be water today? When will we get our houses as promised 28 years ago? – but the deeper question of what happened to this country’s promise is always just beneath the surface, and it is difficult to find anyone not asking it out loud in some fashion or another.
So, what did happen to South Africa and its once so-promising future?
The easy, mostly correct but incomplete answer is simple: Jacob Zuma and his kleptocratic pals.
That answer is inadequate because it is the ANC itself – in power, but no longer led by someone of the stature of Mandela or Oliver Tambo – that allowed Zuma’s populist rise to power.

Before Zuma was a major national and African figure, he was a little-known provincial official in his homeland KwaZulu-Natal province, a former member of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and generally considered “an affable fellow who is likely to ask for a loan, given half a chance”, as one ANC former senior figure, also with an MK background, put it.

Zuma was renowned for his multiple wives, reputed many girlfriends and numerous children, all that putting a huge burden on him for the running of several households on an income barely sufficient for one.
Many ‘coming in from the cold’ of operating in exile against the apartheid regime had found themselves in dire economic circumstances, once back in democratic South Africa.
Zuma was one such.
His rise to power was far from inevitable, but the way the ANC had operated in exile had a bleed-over to the post-apartheid era.

During apartheid and as an underground member of MK, one survived, literally, on the goodwill, offerings and help, including financial, of a small circle of trusted friends – anything else led inevitably to disaster.

The apartheid state was not super-efficient at everything, but rather good at placing agents in key places and in ‘turning’ anti-apartheid operatives against their own organisations.
Not just the ANC in exile, along with its armed wing, were thoroughly infiltrated by apartheid spies, but almost every other conceivable nexus of the opposition.

Civil organisations involved in poverty alleviation and educational outreach, most non-governmental organisations, most journalists, many academics and even university student union bodies were all under constant observation and subject to disruption from agents provocateur, another of apartheid Pretoria’s specialities.

In the late 1970s, for example, more than half of the National Union of Students of South Africa (NUSAS) executive committee of about 30-plus students at the University of the Witwatersrand turned out to be police spies, most paid, some blackmailed.

The situation was no different at the University of Cape Town or any institution where any view other than the state’s might be heard in public.

The repression was so severe that one could not publish images of people designated by the apartheid authorities – the obvious instance being Mandela himself – or quote him verbally or refer to him without running the risk of indefinite political detention and prosecution for ‘promoting terrorism’, attracting a lengthy prison term if found guilty.

In such an environment – with ‘askaris’, the name the apartheid state gave to ‘turned’ anti-apartheid operatives – paranoia ran rife among underground operatives.
With that background, the mid to late 1990s saw Jacob Zuma in severe financial trouble and a set-up for corrupt conduct, that being merely, as it may be construed, just ‘more help from friends’.
With Mandela leaving a charisma vacuum, the pipe-smoking bookish Thabo Mbeki succeeded him as ANC and South African leader, but without the draw that Mandela wielded.

Mbeki, the arch diplomat, had maneuvered a young Cyril Ramaphosa, Mandela’s pick as successor, out of the deputy ANC leader’s position in the ANC’s first post-unbanning internal elective conference in Durban in 1991.

Between that conference and the 49th annual meeting of the party, held in December 1994 in the Free State capital of Bloemfontein, birthplace of the ANC, and the first after the ANC came to power, there had been much bloodshed, especially among the Zulus in KwaZulu-Natal, divided by generation and ideologically.
Young ‘comrades’ loyal to the ANC had taken on mainly older Zulus, also in single-sex mining hostels, dotted in high-density ‘black-designated’ areas around Johannesburg and the mineral-rich Reef on which it is located.
It was a fierce fight against older-generation traditionalists loyal to the Zulu royal household of King Goodwill Zwelethini, of which Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi was a member and the king’s ‘traditional prime minister’.
Buthelezi was also leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), once an ally of the ANC, but by the mid-1980s, its blood enemies.

No one, it seemed, could restore peace to South Africa without stopping the warring among Zulus in particular, along with some parallel conflicts drawn along similar lines and affecting the Xhosas of the Eastern Cape and even Cape Town, where many Xhosas had sought a better life.
Zuma played a key role in KwaZulu-Natal, along with King Goodwill, in stopping the slaughter that was claiming dozens of lives with each cycle of violence through the famous green and rolling hills of the lush province.

It was that role that led him to become a senior figure in the ANC leadership in the 1990s and put him on the path to the presidency.
In the early 2000s, Zuma was doing well, compared with a decade prior, but then came a series of problems, starting with allegations that he had raped the daughter of a close friend, brushed off as a ‘he said, she said’ dispute that critics used to undermine Zuma.

Removed as South Africa’s deputy president by Mbeki to “deal with his personal problems”, Zuma seemed to be done as a politician, but the sidelining only gave him time to plan his comeback.
Meanwhile, charges were laid related to alleged corruption in a 1990s arms deal in which Zuma, along with his friend and financial adviser Schabir Shaik, was accused of taking kickbacks from a French arms-dealing company.

That matter, for Zuma, is still pending. The trial proper started only recently after lengthy pretrial stalling tactics by Zuma’s defence team, a strategy he has used repeatedly and which has been characterised as the “Stalingrad defence”, which is to dig in and fight over every inch.
Almost a decade and a half have passed since Zuma’s financial adviser Shaik was convicted on corruption charges, the exact same 783 counts of fraud, money-laundering and racketeering now facing Zuma.

Like Zuma, after the latter’s jailing last year for contempt of the Constitutional Court, Shaik, who is said to be in relatively good health today, was given early release from his long jail term on highly questionable grounds of his imminent demise.
The charges against Zuma dropped on subsequently refuted and dubious grounds, he and his allies stormed the 2007 ANC elective conference in a comeback that could have come out of Hollywood.
Mbeki and his team never saw it coming, but the ANC was tired of its distant leader, remote in the fastness of seeming cold intellectualism, the promised ‘better life for all’ having been repeated each election cycle since 1994, people tiring of rhetoric without delivery, and Zuma saw his chance.
Branches from all nine provinces were quietly mobilised for a ‘coup’, with hundreds of silent pro-Zumaists at that conference, which saw his return to the halls of power on a tsunami of support from within the party.
What followed was years of kleptocratic and disastrous self-interest ‘rule’, not merely by Zuma but by a whole cadre of like-minded types who had turned the ANC from a vehicle for liberation into a vehicle to “get rich quick”.
At the very least, the party became a home for gatekeepers and self-interested careerists, as once despised among real anti-apartheid fighters.

From top to bottom, the rot had fully set in by the time even the ANC, after protecting Zuma again and again in parliamentary votes of no confidence, saw that he could not stay in power and forced him to step down in early 2018.

Ramaphosa replaced him on a platform of “cleaning up” the party and the government, but that job has proved much harder than anticipated, since the extent of the problem was now nearly complete, from top to bottom, and affecting all arms of government and state-owned enterprises.

State capture, as it became known, had been the personal ambition of many, not merely Zuma, but he enabled all that followed him in those tracks.

That is what Chief Justice Raymond Zondo found as a key element in his summary of what caused state capture and how it came to operate.

Having issued several reports as a result of his four-year probe, Justice Zondo pointed the finger, ultimately, at the ANC itself, its leadership over successive administrations, and the ‘culture of entitlement’ that lay behind it all.

The core idea was that those who had suffered under apartheid “must eat now”; it’s their “time in the sun” and their “turn at the trough”, a reference to much milder but still evident corruption among those who had made up apartheid’s elite.

The ANC did not invent corruption in South Africa, but as one wit put it, “they sure have perfected it”.

That is now the general perception, driven home as a lengthening list of post-apartheid political and administrative heavyweights have appeared with co-accused in batches before the courts, of late, on corruption charges.

Ironically, their appearance in the dock is the delayed (by Covid and internal factors within the ruling party) outplaying of Ramaphosa’s promise of clearing out corrupt and incompetent elements from both his party and the government.

With many competing problems to handle, Ramaphosa has nevertheless managed to pull most of the ruling party in behind him.

But the ANC is still factionally riven, and Ramaphosa in his person has a serious problem ahead of him, in the run-up to the year-end ANC elective conference. This is in the form of the Phala Phala game farm issue wherein a large amount of US dollars was said to have been stolen in early 2020, with a cover-up following.

Ramaphosa has repeatedly put off explaining himself in public.

It is understood that this is in part because he has plausible deniability for legal liability arising, in that there were other people responsible for running his game farm.

The future for the ANC remains bleak, even if Ramaphosa can beat off several challengers for the party top job in December, including Zuma’s choice in the 2017 leadership race, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

So much damage has been done to the ANC brand, and thus to South Africa, that Ramaphosa was treated as an also-ran leader of minimal status in his recent meeting with US President Joe Biden.

This latter slight was due to South Africa’s “pro-mediation” position on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

While most of the rest of the leaders of countries with sway in the international community were speaking last week at a plenary of the United Nations about the threat posed to the world by that overt act of aggression by one state against another, South Africa’s foreign minister was blathering away about what some saw as “ideological irrelevancies” on the fringes of the global focus.

The minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, addressed the 77th session of the US General Assembly in New York City, with a speech that seemed to critics at home and abroad almost entirely disconnected from the realities of the day.

Standing in for President Ramaphosa, Pandor spoke to a clutch of favourite international issues in which South Africa seems ever less a relevant player or even commentator, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and sanctions on Zimbabwe and Cuba as ostensibly the cause of the economic woes in those two countries, and the conflict in disputed Western Sahara.

But in Russia in Ukraine, nothing worthy of comment, from even one other speaker.
South Africa has lost its once powerful voice in international affairs, just as the ANC has lost credibility at home and among ordinary South Africans.

The sorry tale of the demise of a once ‘glorious revolutionary movement’ seems now relentless – almost regardless of any success in getting the power back on reliably and giving services to frustrated and angry citizens – the ANC is now saddled with an entirely different aura than it once had.
Come 2024 and the next general election, the situation for the ANC, even with the still generally popular Ramaphosa at the helm, will likely be fraught, facing the loss of national power, possibly to an alliance of opponents, most likely to be the largest party in an unwieldy and ruction-riven coalition.

Even then, the problems for Madiba’s beloved ANC will not be over – the party has been kicked out of power positions in several of the country’s major metros and does not look likely to regain it any time soon, except perhaps briefly as coalition alignments shift around.
The long-term outlook for the once proud liberation movement known around the world is not good. Most likely its weakening will continue until the party crumbles into factions, which already exist but are being held together by the ‘glue of history, and personal ambitions for power, but little else.


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