South Africa’s ANC marks its 112th year with an eye on national elections, but its record is patchy and future uncertain

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, center, and his deputy, Paul Mashatile, right, help cut the cake at the party’s 112th anniversary celebration at Mbombela Stadium, Mpumalanga. Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images via Getty Images

by Sandy Africa, University of Pretoria

The speech President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered at the 112th birthday celebration of South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), on 13 January can be seen as the party’s opening election gambit: a stadium packed to capacity, the display of a united leadership, and an invocation of three decades of success, delivered by a leader firmly in control of his party.

The annual January 8 statement, unsurprisingly, was a 30 year self-assessment and is self-congratulatory. It was silent on the many failings under ANC rule: sluggish economic growth; crime and lack of security; failure to deliver essential services and maintain public infrastructure.

Ramaphosa said the anniversary occasion was an opportunity to focus members of the party on the tasks ahead of the 2024 general elections – expected between May and August. He pointed out that the ANC had, over its 30 years in power, put in place the building blocks of a social democratic state. These include:

  • a constitution that guarantees human rights to all South Africans and is much admired around the world
  • protecting workers’ rights, promoting investment and economic development and providing a legal framework for black economic empowerment
  • an active role for South Africa on the international stage, and solidarity with people struggling for their rights and striving for a just world order.

Assuming the moral high ground by supporting the cause of Palestine was a reminder of the ANC that once won the hearts of many South Africans and international supporters: principled and standing up for justice, as it had done in the struggle against apartheid.

Ramaphosa highlighted the oft-repeated statistics reflecting “delivery” by the ANC-led government since 1994:

Along the way, mistakes had been made, Ramaphosa said. But the ANC stood resolute in addressing the stubborn legacy of colonialism, apartheid and patriarchy.

Not much was said about these mistakes. The ANC is nursing its fragile unity ahead of a general election later this year. Tactically, it might have been wiser for the party to own up to some of its shortcomings, as this could have denied its opponents and critics the chance to ridicule some of its claims.

As a political scientist, I am interested in the ingredients of durable democracies in post-conflict societies, including South Africa, Mauritania and Libya. Thirty years after its first democratic elections, the stakes are high for the ANC as the party that took the lead in ushering in a new era.

Despair and frustration

It is an open secret that the party has been riven by factions. And the state it runs has been racked by corruption for which few have been held accountable.

The perception that South Africa has been unsuccessful in the fight against corruption has dented the country’s image, and lessened its international leverage and stature.

This, in spite of the ANC government having an anti-corruption strategy. And, to the chagrin of some members, the party has insisted that those facing allegations of corruption must relinquish state and party positions.

A bespectacled young man wearing a keffiyeh and a T-shirt showing support for Palestine.

A young man shows support for Palestine at the ANC 112th anniversary celebration. Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images via Getty Images

There is disappointment that the reversal of the perception of a party mired in corruption has been slow in the making.

There is a mood of despair over high levels of crime and violence. There is also widespread frustration over crumbling infrastructure and poor service delivery.

Lashing out at detractors, a confident Ramaphosa said that South Africa was markedly different to that of 30 years ago – and that this was an achievement of the ANC.

He urged members and supporters to campaign for a decisive victory and avoid a coalition with other political parties. Coalitions, he argued, did not benefit the people but the deal-makers who came from the smaller parties. This argument is not without merit – the coalitions have rendered some municipalities dysfunctional.

Yet, in spite of the public pronouncements, the ANC may be bracing itself for a coalition government. Several surveys say the party will garner less than 50% of the vote needed to form a government.

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has struck a deal with like-minded parties in the hope of unseating the ANC.

Wooing young voters

Ramaphosa’s speech reflected the party’s comfort zone, one in which it does not have to appease multiple factions. But this may be a short-lived luxury.

In addition to having to contend with a record number of splinter formations in the upcoming general elections, the ANC is also facing a generational change.

The 2024 general election may become the battle for the soul of the young voter. If that is the case, then the ANC needs a fresh image, one less reliant on its history as a liberation movement. It must reflect the interests and aspirations of potential supporters more: unemployed youth, women under constant threat of gender-based violence; the financially squeezed middle class, and those living in crowded, uninhabitable circumstances.

Ramaphosa called on supporters to stand up against gender-based violence, and to resist the exclusion of marginalized people, such as the LGBTQI community and disabled persons. He acknowledged the positive role of the youth in society, and commended the ANC Youth League for their inputs in shaping the statement. He promised that the party would attend to their concerns and recommendations:

  • beneficiation of raw materials
  • reindustrialization of the economy
  • the energy crisis
  • the climate crisis
  • the quality of public services.

These items are already on the ANC’s policy programme being implemented in government. So if the party had been more astute, the January 8 statement could have indicated, especially to its younger constituency, what would be done differently this time round. As it is, these items also feature high on the list of priorities of other political parties, including those formed in recent months.

Bravado amid disillusionment

The ANC, through its January 8 statement, put on a show of bravado. However, it would be foolhardy of it to ignore the fact that the political terrain has shifted.

Even long-serving members within its ranks have become disillusioned with the party, as evidenced by the recent resignation of ANC veteran Mavuso Msimang, who later retracted his decision. Not all of these can be labelled rogue ex-members. In any case it is just posturing for the ANC to claim that it is and has been the only vehicle through which citizens can express their political agency.

The ANC leans heavily on its liberation movement brand. But this will not necessarily be a determining factor in who will sway voters later this year. Many see the ANC as having brought the country to the brink of failure. Others see its policies as centrist and not radical enough.

The governing party has only a few months in which to persuade voters to give it yet another chance to govern South Africa It won’t be easy.The Conversation

Sandy Africa, Associate Professor, Political Sciences, and Deputy Dean Teaching and Learning (Humanities), University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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