President Cyril Ramaphosa, 21/10/2022. Photo: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS. CC BY-ND 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

South African Politics: African National Congress Heading for Watershed Moment

Having governed South Africa for 28 years, the African National Congress (ANC) is gearing up for its elective conference in December 2022. Against a backdrop of internal wrangles and economic woes, it will reveal who will likely lead the party into a hotly contested 2024 national election. Can the party retain its grip on power?

Ever since South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has held sway over the country’s political life. However, as it approaches the end of its third decade in power, the party finds itself at a crossroad. Following years of poor governance, marked by policy inconsistency, maladministration, and industrial scale corruption that was sustained by rent-seeking patronage networks, the party’s electoral dominance is no longer guaranteed.

As a result, its National Elective Conference in December, which convenes every five years to elect the party’s national leadership, could prove a make-or-break moment for the future prospects of Africa’s oldest liberation movement. With voter disillusionment on the rise and some recent polls putting the ANC’s national support at less than 50 percent, it is in dire need of a course correction. In this regard South Africa’s 2021 Local Government Elections provided the first rude awakening, when it ceded control of key municipalities across the country. Opposition coalitions now govern all but three of the country’s eight largest metropolitan areas.

Ramaphosa’s new dawn fails to materialize

During the ANC’s previous elective conference in 2017, a faction supportive of the disastrous administration of former President Jacob Zuma was defeated by current head of state, Cyril Ramaphosa and his supporters on a strong renewal and anti-corruption ticket.

However, little has come of the “new dawn” promised by Ramaphosa. The ANC remains beset by internal struggles that frequently spill over into issues of national governance. The blurring between party and state lines continues and, as a result, factional battles within patronage networks in the civil service distract the government at a time when the country’s faltering economy struggles to rebound from the COVID pandemic. With poverty on the rise, the mounting cost of living and official unemployment in excess of 34 percent, millions of South Africans are struggling to make ends meet.

While Ramaphosa can claim some tentative wins regarding reforms to the troubled energy sector and initial state capture prosecutions, both have been belated and the result of pressure and impending crisis. To add to Ramaphosa‘s woes, he will enter the leadership contest – if he contests at all – under the long shadow of corruption issues. The National Parliament is in the process of setting up a committee to deliberate on his possible impeachment. This follows revelations around the puzzling circumstances pertaining to the theft of US$600,000, hidden in a couch at his game farm, which was not properly reported to authorities. While the timeline of this process is still unclear, it has the potential to derail his reelection campaign.

Waiting in the wings is the Zuma-aligned Radical Economic Transformation (RET) Faction, who will be keen to restore its control of the party in order to halt state capture prosecutions and replenish its patronage network. If the previous Zuma presidency is anything to go by, the resurrection of this faction spells disaster at a time the country can afford it least.

South Africa’s waning democratic credentials

Internal party squabbles have had a destabilizing impact on the quality of democratic governance in South Africa. Since the inception of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) in 2006, the country’s performance on all the BTI’s major metrics has weakened consistently. Its Governance Index score, out of 10 possible points, dropped from 7,01 in 2006 to 6,10 in 2022, meaning it slipped from “very good governance” to the “good governance” category. Its Status Index score, in turn — which combines the state of democracy and the resilience of the market economy — also dropped, resulting in a status change from “advanced” to “limited”.

While it was not the only democracy that has seen a drop in its BTI ratings, its downward trajectory differs from that of other democratic backsliders like India, Brazil, Poland, and Hungary. Whereas their declines were traceable to specific events, such as the ousting of incumbent governments that resulted in altered policy and ideological orientations, this was not the case in South Africa. Rather, its steady decay has been shaped by the party/state conflation over close to three decades.

Successive BTI reports have reported on the extent to which the ANC’s stranglehold on public institutions have rendered the state and, by extension the South African public, vulnerable to party factionalism and individual enrichment agendas. Entrenched and sustained by patronage networks that have metastasized across the public sector and key institutions, the ANC’s state control has given rise to a governance ethic where high-level officials invariably prioritize party interests above the state when they come into conflict. Those who resist are side-lined. Others have suffered worse fates: The persecution of whistleblowers and their families is increasingly common.

The prospect of losing power at the national level in 2024 should focus the party’s attention on internal reform. However, it remains to be seen whether this will happen amid the tug of other interests. The Zuma-aligned faction, for example, is motivated by the survival of the patronage network and redemption from criminal prosecutions. If the law is allowed to take its course in relation to Ramaphosa’s woes, he and his faction may, ironically, find themselves in a similar position. In such a scenario, a compromised winner may emerge either way, potentially damaging the party’s prospects beyond 2024. In the meantime, it will be the South African public that will pick up the tab for the ANC’s power games.

A version of this article was first published by African Arguments

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