South Africa: Hearts & Minds

Article published on Jan. 21, 2009
community published
Article published on Jan. 21, 2009
Before moving elsewhere on the continent, two recent events make it timely and appropriate for me to update my analysis on the recent shift in South African politics and the formation of a new political party, the Congress of the People ("Cope"), as a counter-weight to domination by the ANC: 1) On 10 January 2009 the ANC celebrated its 97 year anniversary in a stadium in East London, Johannesburg
packed with over 60,000 supporters. The ruling party used the occasion to officially launch its election campaign and endorse its controversial candidate, Jacob Zuma.

2) Two days later a South African appeals court reversed a decision to dismiss corruption charges against Zuma, clearing the way for the National Prosecuting Authority ("NPA") to proceed with charges of racketeering, corruption and money laundering against the would-be President. The NPA has declared that it will continue to prosecute Zuma even if he is elected President, which is almost certain. The ANC has affirmed that Zuma remains their candidate, notwithstanding the charges and the prospect of criminal sanctions against him.

Back in the Ring

To many South Africans, the re-surfacing of the affair is yet another reminder of Zuma’s unfitness as leader of South Africa. What makes this election different is that for the first time they will actually have a credible alternative. Support for Cope appears to be gathering apace, with the party recently reaching 500,000 registered members. It released the results of its inaugural conference yesterday, and plans to launch its election manifesto in February.

To date Cope has defined itself primarily by its opposition to Zuma and his controversial leadership of the ANC. If it is to become a significant force in South African politics, it will need to articulate a policy platform which sufficiently differentiates it from its rival. I recently spoke with Rhodes scholar and South African political analyst Mandisa Mbali and South African blogger Obakeng Mfaladi about the potential impact of Cope. According to Mbali, the differences between the two rivals, at least in terms of substantive policy, may be more imagined than real.

And in the Blue Corner...

Cope’s central policy appears to be reform of the electoral system, including direct election of the President by the people. Such a system would have prevented the ousting of Thabo Mbeki in September 2008, an act many South Africans feel was unjustified and disruptive, which left them with a powerless and unaccountable caretaker government in a time of great economic consequence. Cope President Mosioua Lekota has also frequently criticized the ANC for undermining the independence of the judiciary by seeking to influence the outcome of the corruption charges against Zuma. A Cope government, by implication, would respect and uphold the rule of law.

Finally, Cope’s leaders have made statements suggesting they would end (or at least reform) the government-sponsored policy of Black Economic Empowerment ("BEE"). Originally intended to redress years of discrimination against black South Africans, BEE has more often benefited a small group of wealthy South Africans, usually connected to the ANC. Although as Mfaladi notes, Cope’s position on this is far from clear.

This is where the material differences end. In terms of macroeconomic policy, Mbali felt that the two parties would most likely finish up speaking with one voice. So the struggle essentially becomes one for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the country, based on the relative moral authority of each party (and leader) to govern the nation. Given Zuma’s History (see my post below), this should be an easy contest. However, the ANC still benefits from huge amounts of political goodwill as leader of the anti-apartheid struggle and heir to the Mandela legacy. To many South Africans, a vote against the ANC is akin to heresy.

The Power of Symbolism

But it is heartening to learn that Cope is beginning to make in-roads into the ANC’s dominance in this regard. As Mbali points out, the ANC’s claim to almost exclusive ownership of the victory over apartheid has always been questionable. There were other powerful anti-apartheid political actors at different stages of the nationalist regime's four and a half decades of rule. Many of the ANC’s top leaders were in exile during the crucial years of the struggle, leaving the battle on the ground to trade unions and other civil groups. Additionally, many of Cope’s leaders themselves boast impressive anti-apartheid credentials. Lekota was leader of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of liberation movements, civil society and religious groups. He also served four years in prison for treason, on top of six years in jail on Robben Island a decade earlier. Cope’s ability to challenge the ANC as chief architect of South Africa’s political freedom will distinguish it from other less successful opposition parties.

So it seems as if this time the devil is not in the detail. Rather, the 2009 South African elections will be based broadly on the moral fitness of Zuma and the ANC to govern. Nobody is suggesting that the ANC will be defeated, but the elections will be important to show just how much support it has lost. More importantly, the size of any swing to Cope will give an indication as to whether the party can hope to be a real threat to the ANC in the future. It has demonstrated that it is able to take the fight to the heart of the ANC’s power base and therefore stands a good chance.

Photo credits:

Flickr//Gregor Rohrig

Flickr//Nancy Crisp