The African National Congress (ANC) began anniversary celebrations for the 100th time on January 8, 2012. A crowd of 50 000, as well as 46 foreign dignitaries, packed into the Bloemfontein Rugby stadium to watch speeches from President Jacob Zuma and American civil-rights campaigner Jesse Jackson. The self-congratulations will continue throughout the year and will culminate with the ANC national conference held every five years to elect new leaders.
Celebrations are in order. No other African liberation movement is as old as the ANC, and the party can be proud of many of its achievements. It has enshrined a host of civil and social rights in the constitution; guaranteed 12 years of education to every child; reached the 1st Millennium Development goal by halving the number of people who live on $1 a day; and brought housing, electricity, and sanitation to millions of people.
But after 17 years in power the ANC’s leaders have run out of ideas. The end of apartheid created space for a new upper class of black politicians and businessmen to emerge, but the majority of South Africans still live in poverty. 40% of South Africans live on less than $2 a day and 40% of South Africans are unemployed. Before 2010 the government had not acknowledged the link between HIV and AIDS, which limited the availability of treatment programs.
ANC supporters point out that South Africa’s economic growth is forecast at 4.3% for the coming year, and the government’s budget deficit is set to shrink too. The country’s relative political stability compared to the rest of the continent means South Africa remains one of the top African destinations for Foreign Direct Investment, notably from China.
Yet the benefits of this growth have not always been used wisely. Foreign capital is too frequently used to maintain the ANC’s political dominance; corruption is now so commonplace that it barely registers as news.
When the money is used legally either a select few reap the rewards of growth, or the government misuses the funds. Over the last 17 years the wealth and power of the small class of rich South Africans—regardless of race—has increased exponentially compared to the rest of the population.
Investors, however, continue to bemoan the low education levels of the population, insisting that a more educated workforce is necessary to foster continued long-term growth. The ANC, once the anti-establishment party of change, is now the establishment: protecting its own interests in the face of calls for change. When Jackson roared ’Happy Birthday to the New South Africa’ to the gathered ANC crowd in Bloemfontein, the conflation of party and state was all too clear.
Always a broad coalition, the ANC now struggles to present a united front. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), historically an important part of the ANC coalition, is now highly critical of the government. COSATU fears that neo-liberal economic policies have been pursued without adequate checks on the power of foreign capital. For example, the government recently permitted Walmart to buy one of South Africa’s leading monopoly retailers. The government welcomed the capital inflow but COSATU fears the downward push on wages will not be cushioned by increased public sector spending.
Disaffection at the grassroots level has led to the rise of populist politicians such as Julius Malema. Malema, recently removed as the head of the ANC’s youth wing, preached anti-white sentiment so strongly that Genocide Watch upgraded South Africa’s status from level 5 to level 6: the level before the one characterized by mass exterminations.
As long as South Africa remains sub-Saharan Africa’s dominant economy it is unlikely genocide will occur, but Malema’s removal highlights the embarrassing level of division within the ANC. As the government strives to maintain a respectable appearance to the international community and investors, ordinary South Africans feel abandoned by the party.
Regardless, 60% of South Africans would still vote for the ANC, and it will always be the party of freedom for the black 79% of South Africa’s 50 million people. There are also no other viable alternative black parties at the moment. A real problem for budding South African politicians, then, is the ANC’s curtailment of press and judicial freedoms. ANC officials have threatened to leak dossiers containing the private details of journalists who critique the party. In this context, it is difficult for a credible grassroots political movement to gain supporters. The ANC is the party of the establishment, but South Africa needs viable political alternatives if the wishes of the general population are to be taken into account along with the need for economic development.
Some are tired of waiting. In January 2011, the first conference of the Democratic Left was held. Activists at the conference determined to forge a new, post-national liberation, democratic movement among impoverished South Africans. The activists are committed to using grassroots action to pressurize South African politicians; the Democratic Left supported South Africa’s first factory occupation at Mine-Line Engineering. The desire for comprehensive change of the current political status-quo exists, but in order for widespread reform to be achieved, the ANC will have to begin fostering a culture of democratic involvement. It remains to be seen whether the political will exists within the party for such reform.
President Zuma dedicated most of his anniversary speech to praising past ANC accomplishments, and with good reason. The party can be proud of what it has achieved, but the party must now start listening to the wishes of its population if it is to have a future it can be proud of too.