Revolution in the Rainbow Nation?

Article published on Dec. 14, 2008
Article published on Dec. 14, 2008
On 16 December 2008, disgruntled members of the African National Congress, the party which has guided the most prosperous African nation from apartheid and international isolation to political and economic success, will launch a new political party.
The split comes at the end of a very bitter and public feud between former South African President Thabo Mbeki and his rival and likely successor Jacob Zuma. It is the most serious split in the ANC’s 96-year history. Certainly, the formation of any party capable of seriously challenging the political hegemony of the ANC and moving South Africa closer to a true multi-party democracy must be welcomed as a very good thing. But is there also a chance that the bad blood between the two factions will spill over into violence during the elections, due in April next year?

In speaking recently with South Africans (both expatriate and local), I found plenty of reasons to be optimistic. However, I also found plenty more reasons why the situation should be watched closely. The world cannot afford to lose South Africa, in the same way it has lost Zimbabwe and as it almost lost Kenya.


1) A credible opposition is exactly what the ANC and South Africa need:

One big reason to be optimistic is the incredibly positive change a strong opposition could bring about in South Africa. After 14 years of virtually unchallenged rule, the ANC has become corrupt, nepotic and intolerant of opposition. A significant political rival is needed to prevent South Africa from sliding into yet another post-liberation African autocracy. To quote Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "… democracy flourishes where there is vigorous debate."

The leader of the new party, former Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, has in the past painted himself as a defender of justice and morality. He could be just the right man to lead an opposition capable of forcing the ANC to confront its problems, get rid of its rotten elements, and restore itself to some semblance of the party of Nelson Mandela.

2) The new party’s recent birth

At this point it is impossible to predict how much support the new party will win. More than likely, in the upcoming elections the ANC will lose its majority in a couple of provinces, but it will not lose control of the country. This will be enough to shake the ANC’s confidence and compel it towards some serious introspection without provoking a violent reaction from Zuma’s more aggressive supporters. The party could then become a real threat to ANC power in, say, 10 years from now. Given the timing, this is probably the best we can hope for.

South Africans I spoke with noted that the party seemed to be gathering significant support. However, one expat felt that its success would be dependent upon its ability to attract big ANC names and to appeal to South Africans from across the nation’s many diverse ethnic groups. As for the first point, its members now include Mbhazima Shilowa, former Premier of the area around Johannesburg, and former Deputy Defence Minister Mululeki George. It also has Mbeki’s de-facto (although not formal) support. As for the second, the new party certainly has the potential to appeal to a wide range of South Africans unhappy with the deterioration of the ANC and frightened by the prospect of a Zuma presidency. Let’s hope that it campaigns on this basis rather than just exploiting old tribal fault lines.

3) Race is not such a big deal

The election violence in Kenya which shocked the world in December last year had ethnic as well as political roots. Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent President belonged to Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu. His challenger, Raila Odinga, came from the second largest, the Luo.

Nelson Mandela made racial harmony amongst South Africa’s very large (and growing) number of ethnicities one of the mantelpieces of his presidency. On this score, all things considered, in recent history and given its limited resources, South Africa has been doing relatively well. It seems to me that ethnic differences are simply not as pronounced here, which makes it harder for political parties to gain traction by exploiting prejudices, and less likely that ethnic violence will erupt.

So from the perspective of South Africa’s political development, this is all very positive news. All going to plan, the ANC will soon have its first credible opposition and South Africans will have a real choice at the ballot box. But with the hope of a continent resting on its shoulders, the world cannot afford to take its eye off the ball in South Africa. The following give us reasons to watch the lead up to the elections very closely.


4) The new party’s shaky beginnings

Probably the biggest reason to be fearful that South Africa’s transition to a multi-party democracy will not be smooth is the backdrop against which it is taking place. The new party has its genesis in one of the most bitter and public political feuds in the ANC’s history. The dispute between Mbeki and Zuma began in June 2005 when Mbeki dismissed Zuma as Deputy President of South Africa after the conviction of a close associate of Zuma for fraud and corruption. It ended with Mbeki’s humiliating defeat by Zuma in ANC presidential elections in December 2007. Mbeki was finally forced to resign as President of South Africa on 12 September 2008, leaving a caretaker in place until the next elections. In protest, many of Mbeki’s supporters (including Lekota) have walked out of the ANC and joined the new party.

Supporters of the two factions have already faced off at recent public rallies. At a rally for the new party, its supporters ripped up pictures of Zuma and wore t-shirts with Lekota’s face stating ‘Ready to govern and Save South Africa from Tyranny’. Others held placards with the slogan ‘Save us from the ANC warlords’. In response, Zuma supporters chanted angry slogans and tried to stop people joining the rally. Others danced, shouting "Kill Terror [Lekota]". Police units were required to prevent violence breaking out.

With all this built-up antagonism, is a peaceful transition really possible?

5) Zuma

The second biggest reason to fear for South Africa is Jacob Zuma himself. Even if we ignore the conflict with Mbeki, there are many reasons for which his presence alone within the very kernel of South African political power gives cause for concern. First is his possible involvement in a shady $4.8 billion arms deal in 1999. His close associate, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of fraud and corruption in connection with the deal in June 2005. It has followed Zuma around like a bad smell ever since.

Next is his chauvinistic attitude towards women and his appalling comments on HIV/ AIDS. In February 2006 Zuma was tried for the rape of the HIV-positive daughter of a family friend. Although acquitted, South Africans were shocked by Zuma’s remarks during the trial such as: that he knew she wanted to have sex with him because she was wearing a short traditional wrap-around; and that he did not use a condom but took a shower afterwards to prevent HIV infection. As the former head of South Africa’s AIDS Council and the man poised to become president of the nation with the largest number of HIV sufferers in the world, such comments are irresponsible in the extreme.

Finally, he seems to encourage the use of violent tactics by his supporters. ANC members have threatened to "kill" if Zuma is prevented from winning elections in 2009. His theme song is "Umshini wami" (Bring me my machine gun), which he sings at public appearances. Can we really expect a healthy democracy to flourish with this man at the helm?

One expat I spoke to remarked that learning of Zuma’s election as president of the ANC was:

"… the first time I’ve become nervous about the future of South Africa".

Later, he was less restrained: "the man’s morals are f…d."

6) Race, class and power

The final reasons to watch out for problems at the next elections are to do with the prevailing social and economic circumstances in South Africa. For although not all the same ingredients which fuelled the violence in Kenya and Zimbabwe exist in South Africa, some of them certainly do.

There is, for example, an element of tribal divisions in the current dispute. The ANC has been led by members of the Xhosa tribe since its ascension to power in 1994: first Mandela then Mbeki. Zuma on the other hand is Zulu, and his supporters claim that members of the new party are simply Xhosas angry at having lost what they see as their traditional leadership role. Xhosas are therefore more likely to support the new party, and Zulus the ANC, according to this theory.

Whatever the reality, there was definitely the perception amongst the South Africans I spoke with that race is being stoked by politicians and that its profile as an issue is rising. For example, Zuma’s supporters have worn T-shirts proclaiming his "100 percent Zulu" roots. Promoting racial difference for political gain is never a good idea. In Africa it can be lethal.

All this is exacerbated by the fact that the benefits of the economic growth of the past ten years have not been evenly spread, accruing mainly to white and a few middle class black and mixed race South Africans, who usually have connections to the government. Only this select group has been able to obtain an education and win government contracts and tenders. The remainder of ordinary South Africans have actually become poorer. Unemployment ranges between 25 – 40% depending on the definition, one quarter survive on government handouts, and almost half still live in poverty. One expat who regularly visited the township of Sebokeng as part of his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reported that it had become visibly poorer within the last two years.

Zuma has been gaining political capital by blaming these inequalities on the Mbeki government and his supporters, now in the new party. He portrays himself as a ‘man of the people’ who understands the problems of the poor, having come from a very poor family and having received very little formal education. He criticizes the new party as being a rich man’s club.


In summary, the great personal enmity between the two rival factions coupled with a worsening economic situation and a leadership unafraid to exploit tribal divisions gives the world plenty of reasons to watch for flare ups during the elections and be ready to move swiftly and decisively if needed. If South Africa crumbles, it could take the whole of Southern and parts of East Africa with it.

Nevertheless, there remain plenty of reasons to be hopeful. The new party could rise above its inauspicious beginnings to become a force for positive change in South Africa. Remembering the birth of feminism at the end of the second world war, the creator and author of, an excellent and very interesting blog about South African politics and also one of the expats I spoke with for this article, noted that: "sometimes good things can come out of bad things."

Or to quote another expat, now living in the UK: "Hope for Africa lies in South Africa", which underscores the most important reason to be optimistic: we have to be.

Photo credits:

Flag: Flickr/coda

Mandela: Flickr/pantone801

Zuma: Flickr/albertbredenhann