The humbling of the ANC

The party of Nelson Mandela has turned South Africa into a failed, kleptocratic state.

Norman Lewis

Topics Politics World

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The South African elections have delivered a momentous result. For the first time since the end of Apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has fallen below the 50 per cent required for a parliamentary majority.

In many ways, it ought to be a surprise that the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, still managed to pick up 40 per cent of the vote in last week’s polls (down from 58 per cent in 2019), given its track record in government. Under 30 years of ANC rule, the so-called Rainbow Nation has become a basket case. It is not an exaggeration to say that South Africa is close to being a failed state.

The South African economy, once dominant in Africa, is near-enough stagnant. According to the World Bank, South Africa is now the most unequal society in the world. The top 0.1 per cent hold 25 per cent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50 per cent owe more than they own. Over 60 per cent of South Africans live in poverty.

Unemployment levels are now among the highest in the world. Nearly 40 per cent of black South Africans and eight per cent of white South Africans are unemployed. Eight out of 10 young, unemployed people have never had a formal job.

The education system is failing. Less than half of the pupils who started school in 2010 passed their final school exams in 2021. In public schools, four out of five teachers lack the content knowledge to actually teach their subjects. Seventy per cent of schools have no library, and 80 per cent have no laboratories.

South Africa’s infrastructure is also dilapidated. There are chronic electricity shortages. People have to regularly go without power, sometimes for up to 10 hours a day. There are also frequent water shortages and the transport network is on the verge of collapse.

Crime levels have reached unprecedented heights under ANC rule. South Africa now has one of the highest murder rates in the world. In the last three months of 2023, one person was murdered every 20 minutes.

To crown this litany of failure, successive ANC governments have plundered the state. They became a kleptocracy, ruling in the name of a people they have robbed and failed at every turn. The ANC has been embroiled in 32 significant corruption scandals since 1996.

That the ANC still picked up more votes than any other party demonstrates one of the tragedies of post-apartheid South Africa. The ANC has thoroughly depoliticised politics and demoralised the public. After 30 years, many now think there is no alternative to ANC rule and are increasingly cynical about democracy itself. Little wonder turnout for last week’s election fell to a new low of 59 per cent.

This disillusionment is most apparent among the ‘born free’ generation – those, that is, who were born after the first democratic elections in 1994. According to a recent survey, nearly 60 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds reject the idea that democracy is always the best system of governance. One 28-year-old interviewed by the Financial Times dismissed democracy as a ‘pyramid scheme that makes the elected richer and richer’. Unsurprisingly, turnout among ‘born frees’ fell to just 40 per cent last week.

Disillusionment with democracy is not confined to young people, however. In 2016, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation reported that 61 per cent of South Africans said they would be willing to forego elections in favour of a non-elected government that would uphold the rule of law and provide housing and jobs.

The anti-democratic trajectory of South African politics is deeply worrying. One of the ANC’s main rivals, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), won 15 per cent of the vote on a platform pledging to establish a new House of Lords-style upper chamber. This would be filled with ‘traditional leaders’, who would assume custodianship of land for use by black farmers. The elevation of ‘traditional leaders’, in which certain South Africans are deemed superior on ethnic grounds, is all too reminiscent of British colonialism and the Apartheid regime.

There is nothing inevitable about the dire straits in which South Africa now finds itself. A large part of the blame must lie with the South African left, large sections of which have long allied themselves with the ANC. Instead of opposing Mandela’s fundamentally pro-capitalist politics, they endorsed them, depriving the black masses of a genuine alternative. The decadence of the South African left continues to this day, as its backing of ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa’s disgraceful charge of genocide against Israel shows. Many on the left would rather stir up anti-Semitism than challenge the ANC’s appalling misrule.

International NGOs and the global media have also played a key role sustaining the ANC in power. Their sanctification of Nelson Mandela and their perpetuation of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ myth has provided the ANC with a shield against criticism. No government in the democratic world is as unaccountable as South Africa’s.

Yet there is hope. The ANC will no doubt cling to power through horse-trading pacts with other parts of South Africa’s political elite. But the beating the ANC has received in this election is telling. Voters greeted the ANC’s campaign slogan ‘Let’s do more, together’ with the retort, ‘More of what? More looting?’ As it turned out, millions decided they wanted less ANC, not more.

This election is a clarifying moment. Many, especially the young, have clearly recognised that the ANC is less a political party, than a ruling clique. They are now seeing that any connection it once had to left-wing political ideology, let alone to the anti-Apartheid liberation struggle, disappeared long ago. Instead, they rightly regard the ANC as a kleptocracy that uses the state to enrich itself and the new black elite.

They now need to move beyond cynicism to start forging an alternative future, free of the dead hand of the ANC.

Dr Norman Lewis is a writer and visiting research fellow at MCC Brussels. His Substack is What a Piece of Work is Man!. Sign the Brussels Free Speech Declaration here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World


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