Can South Africa's ruling party survive the loss of its global icon?

The African National Congress has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid. But riddled by corruption charges and internal feuding, it looks increasingly vulnerable.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Well-wishers hold a poster of former South African President Nelson Mandela during a prayer meeting outside the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters in Johannesburg July 2, 2013.

•A version of this post first appeared on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

South African politics recently appears to be entering a period of flux. The opportunity for change is signaled by national icon Nelson Mandela’s serious illness. The media is regularly reporting that he is now on life support and South Africans seem to be reconciling themselves to his death.

Increasingly in recent years, he has been an important touchstone for the legitimacy of the governing African National Congress (ANC), especially as scandals involving party leaders have multiplied.

Indeed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, second only to Mandela as an icon of the anti-apartheid movement, compared the ANC to the old National Party that imposed apartheid because the government of President Jacob Zuma was unwilling to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama, likely for fear of offending the Chinese.

Meanwhile, the media reports ANC scandals on an almost daily basis. The archbishop has said specifically that he will not vote for the ANC in the next elections. Furthermore, the Mandela family is feuding publicly even as their patriarch lies ailing, creating such a spectacle that the archbishop has publicly pleaded with them to stop airing their dirty laundry in public.

But, there are also signs of new growth. Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the architects of the 1993-94 transition to non-racial democracy, was widely thought to be hand-picked to be Mandela’s successor as ANC leader and president of the republic. When Thabo Mbeki became the party’s choice instead, Mr. Ramaphosa removed himself from politics and went into business.

He was highly successful and appears to have the confidence of both the domestic and international business communities. Often described as both “brilliant” and “highly competent,” he is now deputy president of the party. That makes him well placed to be Mr. Zuma’s successor. One possibility is that before the next national elections in 2014, Zuma could step down as president but stay on as party leader. Ramaphosa would then be in a strong position to be the ANC’s presidential candidate. Many speculate that an ANC government under Ramaphosa would be very different from the current Zuma government.

The formal opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), dominates a single province, the Western Cape – where Cape Town is located. The provincial premier, Helen Zille, Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille, and the party leadership generally are seeking to expand the party’s electoral base beyond its traditionally white and coloured (or mixed race) constituencies.

Its parliamentary leader is a young black woman, Lindiwe Mazibuko. They are particularly looking to make electoral inroads among the black middle class. They emphasize improved service delivery, clean government, and “constitutionalism.” The DA is looking to increase its total share of the parliamentary vote and, just possibly, to capture the Johannesburg city government and that of Gauteng province where the city is located, which is the heart of South Africa's economy.

What's more, an altogether new party has also been organized by anti-apartheid icon Mamphela Ramphele. A medical doctor, she was one of the founders of the Black Consciousness movement and is the mother of liberation martyr Steve Biko’s children. Subsequently she was the first black vice chancellor (equivalent of president) of the University of Cape Town, and later a World Bank official and a businesswoman.

Her newly formed party, Agang SA, will focus on four areas where many South Africans believe the ANC has failed: the economy, education, health, and security. The DA shares many of her views, and she has been chided by some for not joining forces with them so as not to split the anti-ANC vote. But as veteran journalist Allister Sparks observes, under proportional representation, the percentage of votes that a party receives determines the number of seats it has in parliament. If both the DA and Agang SA do well and cooperate (as they are likely to), the ANC’s dominance in parliament could be eroded in this election and possibly end in the next – scheduled for 2019. The ANC, however, will almost certainly continue to provide the executive.

Finally, Julius Malema, the former ANC Youth League bad boy, is talking about launching a radical, black political party. However, he faces fraud charges and may go to jail. Even if he does not, it is questionable whether he has the finances or organizational skills to launch a viable political party.

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