A painting by a Johannesburg artist shows a 12-year-old boy who died of Aids performing an autopsy on Nelson Mandela as politicians look on
It is a sweltering 38 degrees Celsius in the packed stadium. Jacob Zuma, president of the African National Congress (ANC)—a poor, uninspiring reader at best—is an hour into a long speech and the wheels are coming off his carefully choreographed party.
It is 8th January 2012, and the ANC is celebrating its birthday in Mangaung, the conservative town where Africa’s oldest and most admired liberation movement was founded by black professionals a hundred years ago. More than 100,000 supporters have turned up.
As Zuma struggles through his text the crowd starts leaving. About 5,000 diehard supporters are left in the stadium when he finishes an hour and a half later. Zuma’s deputy, and most likely his challenger for the presidency when the party holds its elective conference in December, Kgalema Motlanthe, proposes a toast.
“The leaders will now enjoy the champagne, and of course they do so on your behalf through their lips,” he says, raising his glass to the near-empty stadium.
Motlanthe’s Orwellian pronouncement is the most apt description of how former president Nelson Mandela’s iconic party has descended into a corrupt, factional, paranoid and greedy shadow of its former self. The party that promised “a better life for all” in 1994 is now becoming increasingly concerned with the material wealth of some of its members. The ANC itself has a funding vehicle, Chancellor House, which allegedly profits from government contracts and is set to make billions of rand from the building of new power stations.
It has not always been like this. After 27 years in prison, Mandela emerged to lead his party, the ANC, out of a debilitating three decades in exile—during which it became deeply influenced by the Soviet Union—into a social democratic organisation that embraced reconciliation between blacks and whites in South Africa. With his adversary, FW de Klerk of the National Party (which presided over apartheid), he moulded a profoundly divided country, with deep fissures along racial, economic and class lines, into a unitary state and struck a pact to govern together in a coalition arrangement in 1994.
Crucially, they wrote and adopted a constitution which guarantees virtually every liberal freedom and right that is enjoyed in western democracies. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the past’s atrocities was set up and policy priorities were turned around to focus on the delivery of services to the poor.
In the period since, the ANC has in many respects done an incredible job for the poor black population, which has consistently given it a near two-thirds majority at successive polls. More than three million houses have been built since 1994, although there is still a massive backlog. Nearly 16 million people receive social grants (including 9.5 million children and 1.5 million disabled people) whereas in 1994 only 2.5 million grants were available, the majority of them to pensioners.
Yet 18 years into South Africa’s democracy, cracks are emerging in the extraordinary political settlement that Mandela and his party achieved. In recent months the ANC has blamed the constitution for its own failure to make proper inroads into unemployment and poverty. Further, the ANC has become mired in corruption and a “bling” culture, which has led to many of those within its ranks who are not getting access to state largesse to call for changes to the constitution and a rethink of South Africa’s liberal consensus.
In sleepy Mangaung in the week of the ANC’s centenary celebrations, this crass consumerism was evident. The night before Zuma’s speech, many leaders danced the night away at the local Cubana café. Tables sagged under the weight of Moët et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot. To ensure that there was absolutely no doubt that the rest of us could see what they were enjoying, many of the patrons insisted on drinking their champagne from the bottle. The price of reserving a spot in the VIP section was £2,500 per table.
Outside in the street, music blared from Range Rovers, Jaguars, Porsches and other expensive cars driven by party cadres. Most of the money is made through lucrative government contracts awarded to politically connected cronies.
Without access to political power, however, money cannot be made and so the ANC finds itself riven with divisions as various factions jockey for plum leadership positions from which they can dispense patronage. In December there will be an elective conference at which the party’s top positions will be decided. This has intensified rivalries within the party. The effect has been to expose the paranoia and rot at the heart of the ANC. The line between party and state is blurring, independent institutions are being compromised and civil society institutions are seen as enemies of the party’s current leadership under Zuma. All this now threatens to drag the promise of a new South Africa down with it.
The judiciary and South Africa’s constitutional court are being “reviewed” on Zuma’s orders after judges were called “counter-revolutionaries”; a draconian new secrecy bill threatens to jail reporters for up to 25 years; corruption by party leaders is rife. A cabinet member fired by Zuma for using state funds to visit a girlfriend in jail in Switzerland was given a state funeral in May.
State institutions are being politicised and packed with party employees; intelligence chiefs who wouldn’t kowtow to Zuma have been fired. A new intelligence chief, hand-picked by Zuma was investigated after it was alleged he had appointed relatives—and a girlfriend—to the secret service within a year of his appointment. Charges of murder and fraud against him were controversially withdrawn and his prosecutors suspended.
“Things are serious, and they are even more serious than we thought they were. They are more serious because the people that are employed by the government to do the work are least prepared and equipped to do it. The situation is dire,” the auditor-general, Terence Nombembe, said in May.
The assault on the country’s liberal constitution has now spilled out onto the streets. In May, Zuma applied to the courts for the removal of a painting by a former anti-apartheid activist. In the painting, Zuma is portrayed as a Lenin figure, but with his genitals exposed. Zuma’s supporters vandalised the portrait and demonstrated outside the Goodman gallery in Johannesburg where the painting, entitled “The Spear,” was displayed, leading to the gallery’s closure.
With four wives and 21 children, Zuma is ready fodder for cartoonists and satirists alike. Yet in the case of “The Spear,” Zuma sought to curtail freedom of expression, including the right to creativity, on the basis that the painting was “disrespectful” and amounted to an assault on his dignity.
So what went wrong with the country dubbed “the Rainbow Nation of God” by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu? Corruption has become endemic, with 83 per cent of urban adults saying in a survey in January that corruption is a way of life in the country. So, too, it is in the ANC.
“The flow of cash is so much that money has more power than political ideology and political consciousness—that is the biggest threat,” says Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary-general. The head of the Special Investigative Unit set up to probe high-level corruption told parliament that £3bn to £4bn is lost every year to corruption and negligence in the public service.
The greatest danger, to South African democracy however, comes from within the ANC itself. Zuma succeeded Thabo Mbeki after controversially deflecting corruption charges related to allegations of bribe-taking in a £3bn arms deal; since then he has systematically attacked the country’s constitution, the judiciary and the media. Attacks on the judiciary prompted the Black Lawyers Association, usually a firm supporter of the president, to say he lacks appreciation of the “basic tenets underlying the doctrine of the separation of powers.”
Through tight control of the intelligence services, where he has installed loyal party cadres and former apartheid spies, Zuma has begun to sideline and weed out those from his party who may want to challenge him for the party presidency in December this year. The head of news and current affairs at the South African Broadcasting Corporation has been suspended, allegedly because he gave too much airtime to Zuma’s detractors.
So what’s next? The party’s greatest asset is its rich history, hence the massive centenary celebrations. That will not last. Repeatedly pilloried by the ANC as a party that represents white minority interests, the centre-right opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) now boasts a young, dynamic, articulate black parliamentary leader named Lindiwe Mazibuko. It attracted a mere 1.7 per cent of the votes in 1994, which swelled to 16.7 per cent in the 2009 general elections. Its tally jumped to 23.8 per cent in the local elections in May last year, prompting Mazibuko to declare: “We can govern South Africa in 2019.”
As the ANC steadily loses support with the waning of the prestige gained during the anti-apartheid struggle, the question for South Africa is whether the party will allow a hated opposition to take over peacefully after a win at the polls. By most accounts the ANC will hold power in the forthcoming 2014 election—but the election following that will be a much closer call.
Moeletsi Mbeki, the respected political analyst and brother to former president Thabo, says that this will be the great test for South Africa. Given the fact that internal ANC democracy is waning, could the party tolerate and respect democracy in greater society? The signs are worrying. When in May the opposition DA staged a peaceful march on the ANC’s trade union ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), it was met by union members armed with bricks, tasers and rocks. Violence broke out. Four people were injured.
“The enemy is in the open… Defend Cosatu,” the union said. It does not augur well for electoral change, or for the Rainbow Nation.
Read more: The ANC has forgotten its principles