AJUOK: Decline of ANC an indictment of South African freedom parties

Soon the former uniting ruling party will be a pale shadow of itself, replaced by a cacophony of ethnic entities defending only tribal interests.

In Summary
  • What good has independence brought the common man if the new black colonialists ended up just like the white ones?
  • DA-run Western Cape is the best-run, while most ANC areas grapple with poverty, crime, income gaps and despondency.
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa.
DYING PARTY: South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Image: BBC

The peerless Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on February 11, 1990. It was the biggest story of several decades for the continent. Four years later, he would take up the seat of President of Africa’s most consequential party, leading the continent’s most celebrated freedom organisation, the African National Congress (ANC).

In my young mind then, I kept wondering how a man who had been behind bars for nearly three decades, amidst serious socio-cultural and political changes in both country and continent, would cope with leading in an environment when he was basically a stranger.

But I am sure the statesman himself had bigger worries. Among them how to end biting poverty within the majority black South African population, and how to bridge the inequalities and uniting a nation torn apart by long years of apartheid. He set about the task with gusto, as an adoring world cheered him on, but in a country where pessimists and optimists abounded in equal measure.

Young Africans growing up in the ’80s and ’90s who had not been alive to witness the transition from colonial to black rule in our countries in the ’60s. They often used the ANC’s rise to power as the Rainbow Nation as a reference point to relive what we considered the glorious moments witnessed by our ancestors at Independence. Because of this, the ANC became the most well-known political party on the continent, while children named Nelson Mandela filled the land.

Mandela himself, unlike the image we had built of the founding fathers in African other countries, didn’t seem interested in either hanging onto power for decades, or amassing enviable amounts of wealth. He retired after just one term, leaving behind younger lieutenants to find ways to pacify a restive black population frustrated by the slow pace of economic emancipation as well as the delicate question of vast majority of the country’s wealth still in the hands of the white minority.

These frustrations seemed to come to a head during last month’s general elections in the Southern nation, in which the ANC lost its majority for the first time since 1994. Needing a coalition to form government, the ANC turned to the Democratic Alliance (DA), white minority liberal party, whose own performance in the elections had mesmerised pundits. It garnered more than 21 percent of the vote, over half of the ANC’s tally. Many black people seeking reparations and land redistribution must have been shocked by the turn of events.

Before one condemns the new union offhand, it is important to mention that the Western Cape Province, managed by the DA, remains the best-run in the country, while most of the ANC neighbourhoods grapple with poverty, high crime rates, income gaps and general despondency. At face value, a small party with impeccable management credentials ordinarily offers great prospects as a ruling partner, especially a pro-business liberal one like the DA.

But in a country where black rule came just three decades ago, the story is more complicated than that. Many a black African’s pride is hurt when the celebrated black liberation movement has to turn to the White minority to shore up its dwindling fortunes, eve if, to be fair, the DA is different from the apartheid National Party that held sway under segregation. But this fact alone brings into sharp focus, the joy accompanying the advent of black rule in all of Africa and the realities and disappointments that came with the stark inability of the new rulers to fulfil the aspirations of the population. It is difficult to explore the why of this issue in one sitting.

Needless to say, that in picking the DA, the ANC chose to shun both the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the voluble Jacob Malema, and uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a party led by former President Jacob Zuma. Both of them are basically breakaways from the ANC, and are largely responsible for its marginal decline in national support. They both oppose its policies, especially as regards the leftist EFF’s radical proposals over black empowerment, which the centrist ANC views as unconstitutional, for their suggested strong measures against the white minority.

It is, however, former President Zuma whom I find detestable in all this. Having served as President in a reign dogged by corruption allegations and controversies over state capture, I imagined he would find a quiet place in retirement alongside his other liberation peers. But his formation of a party whose sphere of influence doesn’t extend well past his ethnic Zulu heartland falls right into the pattern of another African curse; that of independence parties breaking up into little ethnic enclaves, and rendering the freedom and nationhood dream a stillbirth.

There are those who say that in striking this “Lucifer deal” with the DA that President Cyril Ramaphosa seeks to complete one last term, before retiring and leaving the ANC to its own devices. But before we begin to write a mini-eulogy of the ANC, to mirror its cousins across the continent, it is well worth noting that at its peak, the ANC was an admirable and inspirational political movement.

Its powerful branch networks, its passionate support and internal management structures, stood out in a continent where multi-party democracy was only a paper idea. Many political movements admired the party’s ability to recall both Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma from power, testament to the power and reach of a real movement as envisaged by the fathers of our democracy.

But it feels like a lifetime since the “living saint” Nelson Mandela was the face of South Africa, and when most black people saw the Rainbow nation as a representation of their own struggles. When the entire continent chanted “release Mandela” and “Amandla”, there was a moment there when our collective hopes and aspirations were as a people were expressed through the South. But inequality, unemployment, social and economic justice, as well as runaway crime, are not issues that can be sorted by mere sloganeering, as many of our proudly independent countries have rudely come to acknowledge.

To add the proverbial salt to injury, each time xenophobic attacks have erupted in South Africa, targeting nationals of other African countries, we have been reminded of our own social frailties, and the unending anecdotes of tribalism and sectarianism that abound in the land. The overriding story of the moment is that Africa’s best-known liberation movement, one after whose image many wanted to fashion themselves, has lost its majority against the backdrop of mass anger and frustration. From here, it will most likely be the familiar downhill trend. The losses will become bigger with every electoral cycle, as provincial and ethnic parties begin to play a bigger role and enjoy greater presence on the negotiated democracy and coalitions table.

Before long, the former uniting ruling party will be a pale shadow of itself, in its place a cacophony of ethnic entities defending only tribal interests. Then the beautiful story of black rule will end where most others did; chaos presided over by newly minted millionaires created from the perennial concept of budgeted corruption. Which would beg the question of what good independence brought the common man if the new black colonialists ended up just like the white ones. Familiar story, anyone?

Political commentator 

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