"The Strongest Opponent of the ANC is the ANC itself"
February 27, 2006 21:27 | by Ronald Kennedy
Plagued by corruption scandals, internal squabbling and mass discontent amongst the population, the African National Congress now faces local elections. The lack of any strong opposition party means that the most serious opposition will come from within South Africa's governing party itself. Ronald Kennedy looks ahead to March 1st.
Burning tyres, dancing demonstrators and riot police shooting rubber bullets: this is South Africa, right now, as pictured on South African TV news. The protests are not directed at a government which oppresses the people, but against one which - according to the demonstrators - is falling hopelessly short of fulfilling its duties. The biggest issues in the coming local elections are, therefore, also the most elementary: electricity and running water.
Discontent seems well-placed. According to South Africa's official statistical service, 35% of the twelve million households lack fresh drinking water, 66% are not connected to the electricity grid and 48% have to get by without mains sewerage. A large proportion of slum dwellers have only a bucket by way of sanitary provision.
This is grist to the opposition's mill. The biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has made 'service delivery' the spearhead of its campaign - drinking water, electricity, sewerage. "Everywhere that the ANC is in power, a mess has been made of housing, the delivery of clean water and electricity," says DA campaign leader Eric Marais. "Once they have power, their supporters are forgotten. Vote for the ANC and you'll be paying for it for the next five years."
Another campaign issue for the opposition in corruption. A large number of prominent ANC members have already been found guilty of corrupt practices, including anti-Apartheid hero and intellectual Allan Boesak, as well as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Last year President Mbeki sacked Vice-President Jacob Zuma after accusations of fraud. His dismissal, however, brought counter-accusations of empire building on the part of the President, charges backed by mass demonstrations in which effigies of Mbeki were burnt. The majority of the millions of South African slum dwellers care little for the Zuma scandal, however, being more concerned with water and electricity.
President Mbeki has promised improvements. The government plans to spend R400bn (around €50bn/£35bn) on combating poverty. At the start of the ANC campaign in Cape Town he presented the government's deadlines: an end to the 'bucket system' by 2007, clean water for every South African by 2010 and electricity for all by 2012.
According to John Daniel, author of the book State of the Nation: South Africa, 2003-2004 (Standard Books, 2005), this is a tough but achievable target. "The criticism is to a large extent unfair. The ANC has achieved a great deal," he argues. The government has, in the face of the the legacy of the apartheid regime, already built almost two million houses or apartments for former slum dwellers, opened hundreds of clinics and brought clean drinking water to millions of people. "Don't forget that the ANC is operating in difficult circumstances," Daniel adds. "South Africa is relatively poor. Benefits need to be set against costs." The ANC must contend, moreover, with a lack of education and training at the levels of society where policies must be carried out.
ANC spokesman Steyn Sneed expresses himself in plain terms: "The protests speak for themselves. More than ever it's important that we get a dialogue between local authorities and the people. And to achieve this we need more capable local councillors." On average service delivery is going well, Speed says.
In the course of the elections, the ANC has thoroughly 'cleaned up' its list of candidates. Under the country's list system, which places favoured candidates highest, around 60% of sitting local councillors have no realistic chance of re-election. Speed says that incompetence is not the only reason for this."We are striving in the party - from the top, the cabinet, to the local level - for 50% female representation. During the last elections hardly a third of the candidates were women. That also explains a number of changes."
While the ANC may be looking back on a disastrous year, the opposition is unlikely to profit very much from this, especially as opposition as such is almost non-existent. Nationally, the ANC can count on 70% of the votes. The DA holds only fifty of the four hundred seats in the national parliament, while the remaining parties have for the most part been absorbed into the ANC. The Minister for Internal Affairs, for example, is a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party while the Communist Party is a faithful partner of the ANC.
According to John Daniel there exists no real mouthpiece for the discontented citizen. "In particular the black South African is hardly represented in opposition parties. Burning tyres on the streets - that's the only way in which they can show their dissatisfaction." The DA has a major problem: the party is led by a white. "Tony Leon doesn't do badly, but he has an electorate limited by history. As long as the DA has no credible black leader, it will never do really well in an election."
DA campaign leader Marais recognises the problem. "It has to date not been possible for us to close the gulf with the black voter. The loyalty of ANC voters is firm and often goes all the way back to the '40s. '50s and '60s. Their role in the struggle against apartheid has taken on legendary proportions. As a new party it's difficult to break through that."
He is nevertheless convinced that a great deal of electoral progress can be made, pointing to the problems within the ANC leadership. "Excellent," he says, enthusiastically. "A break between the leadership and the black population would be even better." 'Coloureds' and Muslims are already breaking en masse their link with the ANC, he believes, disappointed with their position within the party. The Inkatha Freedom Party, which competes with the ANC primarily in KwaZulu-Natal, calls the unrest within the ruling party "manna from heaven."
Professor Roger Southall, a political analyst, believes that the damage to the ANC on March 1st will be limited. "The disappointed ANC electorate would rather stay at home than vote, for example, for the DA... going over to another party is too big a step. Disappointment will show itself primarily through the turn-out." There are predictions that as few as 41% of the electorate will vote, a low-point in the brief history of democratic South Africa. Although such a turnout would scarcely be welcome to the ANC, the opposition is too small to profit from it. Professor Southall concedes that in the "opposition bulwark of Cape Town", the DA might prove an exception. However, he adds, "The strongest opponent of the ANC is and remains the ANC itself. There is a greater chance that they will shoot themselves in the foot than that the opposition parties will do it."
Ronald Kennedy is a member of the editorial staff of De Tribune, monthly magazine of the Netherlands' radical left Socialist Party (SP). This article first appeared in De Tribune's February issue and was translated from the Dutch and adapted by Steve McGiffen. To find out more about the SP, go to http://international.sp.nl/