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Politics in South Africa


HELEN ZILLE, the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s main opposition party, was invited to speak in Johannesburg on October 17th about her party’s chances at elections expected in April or May. Her hosts, the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, both think-tanks, were expecting a speech on “The 2014 Elections: Policy and Prospects”. Instead Ms Zille offered a thorough-going analysis of her opponents in the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Her speech was untitled but it might have been called: “Can the ANC reform?” She made a persuasive case that it cannot.

The question is crucial. The ANC will win next year’s elections. Ms Zille doesn’t pretend otherwise: the DA’s target is to raise its share of the vote from 17% in 2009 to 30% in 2014. Yet the country the ANC has governed for almost two decades is hardly content. Industry is beset by strikes. Violent protests over poor public services are frequent. Unemployment is a depressing 37% of the workforce once those who have given up searching for work are included in the count. GDP growth has been weaker than in other countries at a similar stage of economic development. If the ANC can make necessary reforms, the outlook for South Africa could be much brighter. If it cannot, the country’s present malaise will deepen.

Ms Zille took an analysis by one of her hosts, Frans Cronje of the SAIRR, as her starting point. Plenty of people think the ANC is too far gone (too corrupt; too addled with weird ideologies; too riven with factions) to fix South Africa. But Mr Cronje recalls that people said similar things in the 1980s about the National Party. Yet its progressive wing won the party’s internal battle against conservatives who believed apartheid could be sustained with brute force. Mr Cronje sees a parallel in the battle within the present-day ANC between those who favour market-friendly reforms and those who think more of the same state-led policies will somehow work. There is a scenario, reckons Mr Cronje, in which the ANC can put things right.

Ms Zille agreed there will be a “realignment” of politics in South Africa but disagreed that the ANC could ever be behind it. No faction that can now save the ANC from itself exists, she said. When in 2008 some ANC politicians broke away to form a new party, the Congress of the People (known as COPE), many thought it would replace the DA as the main opposition. It captured a respectable 7% of the votes cast in elections in 2009 but is now beset by internal power struggles and has lost its way. The formation of COPE denuded the reform-minded group within the ANC, said Ms Zille. A lesson to anyone else thinking of launching a challenge is that “it’s cold outside”.

The recent launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party of the populist left, is more bad news for would-be ANC reformers, said Ms Zille. Leftists in the ANC are anxious about leaking support to the EFF and so are even more unwilling to agree to any reforms. Their hackles have already been raised by the removal of Zwelinzima Vavi, a popular figure on the left, as general-secretary of COSATU, a union federation allied to the ANC. What happens to Mr Vavi is a big deal, said Ms Zille. If he is not reinstated, he may break away to form a Labour Party and offer a more credible leftist challenge than the EFF. But if he returns to COSATU, then labour reforms such as the youth wage subsidy will continue to be stymied. Either way serious economic reforms are firmly off the ANC’s agenda.

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