The Sad Decline of Nelson Mandela’s Party

Jansen VanderMeulen '19
Executive Editor

In April of this year, South African President Jacob Zuma survived a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly, the lower house of the Parliament of South Africa. Mr. Zuma is no stranger to votes of no confidence; he has now survived eight since his election to the presidency in 2009. Throughout his political career, Mr. Zuma has been dogged by an unceasing stream of allegations of impropriety and corruption. Claims including ones of rape, arms dealing, use of taxpayer money for home improvements, and illegal business collaboration with the shadowy Gupta brothers.1 A few weeks prior to his election in 2009, prosecutors dropped 786 counts of corruption against Mr. Zuma, though South African courts have since ordered that at least some of the counts should be reinstated.2

Photo courtesy of The United States Department of State.

Photo courtesy of The United States Department of State.

How, in a period of less than twenty years’ time, did South Africa’s presidency go from being occupied by the late statesman and Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela to its degradation under Mr. Zuma? The answer lies with the state of the party Messrs. Zuma and Mandela share: the African National Congress (ANC), a left-wing, African nationalist party with support from South Africa’s Communist Party but a moderate governing record. The ANC, outlawed throughout much of the apartheid regime, negotiated an end to the state-sanctioned regime of segregation and black disenfranchisement with the government of State President F.W. de Klerk in the early ’90s, and went on to win South Africa’s first free elections in 1994 with nearly 63% of the vote. Freed from the embargoes and condemnation that haunted South Africa prior to desegregation, the nation’s economy boomed throughout the ’90s and the first decade of the 2000s.3 The South African people rewarded the ANC with increased parliamentary majorities every election until 2009. 

The ANC also benefited from a divided opposition. In the election of 1994, Mr. Mandela’s main opponent was Mr. de Klerk’s National Party, the main party of government during the apartheid era. After those elections, in which Mr. de Klerk took around 20% of the vote, the National Party’s vote share steadily declined until it disbanded in 2005. In its place rose an opposition split mostly between the centrist, liberal, primarily white Democratic Alliance (DA) and, in recent years, the firebrand leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by ex-ANC youth-wing leader Julius Malema, who was once convicted of inciting racial hatred for singing a song encouraging the killing of white South Africans.4 Earning just shy of 70% of the vote in the 2005 general election, the ANC reached the peak of its power, winning enough seats to unilaterally amend the Constitution.

The story since then has been one of graft and decline. A fight between Thabo Mbeki—Mr. Zuma’s predecessor—and Mr. Zuma, then Deputy President, led to Mr. Mbeki’s early resignation and triggered allegations that the South African government’s charges against Mr. Zuma were politically motivated. Mr. Zuma’s election in 2009 was the first time since the end of apartheid that the ANC’s percentage of the vote declined from the prior election. It declined further in 2014, as the ANC sunk from nearly 66% of the vote to just over 62%, and more dramatically in the municipal elections of 2016, in which the ANC received less than 54% of the vote. The DA, traditionally confined to Cape Town and its Western Cape province, gained municipal control of Johannesburg, Tshwane (which contains South Africa’s executive capital, Pretoria), and Nelson Mandela Bay, three of South Africa’s largest municipal areas. The EFF, meanwhile, made its debut with more than 8% of the vote, entering into municipal coalitions with the DA against the ANC across the country despite their ideological differences.

While the ANC has continued to bleed support, the opposition has to contend with a host of hurdles that will prevent it from dislodging Mr. Zuma’s party for the foreseeable future. First, the country’s history of racial divisions remains contentious and visceral. The DA is a primarily white party—though it is now led by a black man, Mmusi Maimane—and despite roots in the anti-apartheid movement,5 it has struggled to win the votes of black South Africans.6 After its 2016 municipal breakthrough, the party was mired in controversy when its former leader, Western Cape province Premier Helen Zille, was sharply criticized for arguing in a tweet that the legacy of colonialism was not “ONLY bad,” noting South Africa’s “independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc.,” comments for which she later apologized and was suspended from all party leadership positions.7

The EFF, meanwhile, is thought to have limited appeal under Mr. Malema’s bombastic leadership. Mr. Malema was once a close ally of Mr. Zuma; when Mr. Zuma was accused of rape, Mr. Malema brought up the alleged victim’s “breakfast and taxi money” to show that she had “a nice time,”8 comments which earned him a conviction under South African hate speech laws. But he turned against Mr. Zuma, and was expelled from the party after another hate crime conviction. The firebrand Marxist typically dons a red beret, and is known to engage in heated shouting on the floor of South Africa’s National Assembly. While he has been successful in peeling off support from the ANC’s left, and his alliance with the DA shows an unexpected pragmatism, it is difficult to conceive of a man who advocates for the nationalization of South African industry9 and the Zimbabwe-style expropriation of white-owned property10 being elected to the South African presidency.

As Mr. Zuma approaches the ten-year limit placed on South African presidents, the ANC faces a crossroads: the leadership of the ANC will likely come down to Mr. Zuma’s Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Mr. Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (Mr. Zuma, a polygamist, is currently married to four women, with two additional ex-wives, including Ms. Dlamini-Zuma). If Ms. Dlamini-Zuma, an ally of her former husband, wins the leadership with Mr. Zuma’s backing, the party can expect to lose more ground on its right to the DA in the cities, and more to the EFF in its rural heartlands. Even short of losing power, the ANC presents western democracies with a cautionary tale about parties in power for too long. If the party of Mandela’s triumph can wither and slink into the party of Zuma’s shame, no political party is exempt from the one immutable rule in democratic politics: no party wins power forever.