Political parties are indispensable for the smooth functioning of democracy. Besides being vehicles for aggregation of interests and seeking political power, political parties perform the very important function of political communication and education of the citizenry. What is more, a strong party system ensures that the parties moderate contest for power amongst its members. So central is the political party to democracy that the late American Political Scientist, Elmer Schattschneider boldly proclaimed that “democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.” This is more so in a parliamentary system where the lines between the party and government are usually blurred and absolute party discipline and unity is needed for a smooth functioning of the government.
Sadly, in Africa, parties are perhaps the weakest link in the democratic value chain. In many African countries, parties serve only as vehicles for capturing power and nothing more. Politics is often based on personalities and not on parties, making the party virtually redundant. That is why in Kenya, for instance, new parties are formed every election cycle and they all wither away after the elections.
Sadly, the African National Congress (ANC), Africa’s oldest, most cohesive and foremost liberation organization and political organization has been showing signs of decay lately. This is principally because its leaders and operatives are more concerned with primitive accumulation than strengthening the party and democracy in South Africa.
Recently, it emerged that the ANC is broke and unable to pay staff salaries regularly. While the party claims it was due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, workers of the party say it has been so for years. Also, the ANC itself admitted to not remitting the personal income tax of its workers it has been deducting to the South African Revenue Service (SARS), a clear violation of the law. However, the full picture of the disorganization of the party emerged late last month when the party couldn’t register many of its candidates for the local elections due in November with the electoral commission before the deadline. The excuse that it was caused by a glitch in the electoral commission’s system couldn’t fly because other parties registered their candidates without problems. The very independent(?) electoral commission had to extend the deadline of registration before the ANC was able to register all its candidates.
The ANC – the party of the venerable Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid freedom fighters, many of whom gave their lives for the liberation of black South Africans – has completely squandered the opportunity to remake South Africa and has damaged its political and moral authority in so short a time.
Upon vanquishing apartheid and capturing power in 1994, the party was supposed to use the power of the state to improve the fortunes of majority black South Africans who have been under the oppressive yoke of apartheid for so long. But, typical of most African liberation movements and political parties, upon ascending to power, some ANC apparatchiks prioritized accumulation of personal wealth over the welfare of its people. The ANC is now a by-word for monumental corruption, outright theft, cronyism and patronage.
This got to a height during the disastrous nine-year presidency of Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s tenure was marked by many governance and corruption scandals including the Nkandala, state capture by the Gupta family, and political cronyism. According to the Mail & Guardian, an “estimated $35 billion was looted from the state” while “institutions like the state airline, railway and tax agencies were wrecked” during Zuma’s reign alone.
That is why the vote margins of the ANC have been steadily reducing since 1994 when it won the elections with a 62 percent of the vote. Its winning margins are now trending around the lower 50s. At the 2016 regional elections, for instance, the ANC lost Port Elizabeth municipality – renamed Nelson Mandela Bay – to the Democratic Alliance, a previously white dominated party, which is now appealing to a lot of South Africans because of its history of solid governance. The loss of Nelson Mandela Bay – a key ANC stronghold – to the DA came to many as a shock despite the virulent ANC campaign there invoking anti-apartheid messages.
The ANC only marginally increased its vote margin to 57.5% at the 2019 general elections after ousting Zuma as president and following repeated apologies and promises by its new leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, a Mandela protégé, to tackle corruption and return the ANC to the path of good governance.
Sadly, those promises are not being fulfilled as he is being virtually sabotaged by Zuma loyalists in the party who are even threatening to oust him from the leadership of the party – and the presidency eventually. To show the rot at the party, the current secretary general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, a Zuma loyalist, is currently suspended and facing charges of corruption relating to his tenure as premier of the Free State province – the province where the ANC was founded.
I have always argued that the problem of South African democracy and the African National Congress is one of lack of competition. Due to the unique history of the country, black South Africans are so emotionally attached to the ANC because of its over 80 years of dogged fight against racism and apartheid. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, the former White party, is still in denial of its racial past and race as a means of organization. The other party – the Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema, the former youth leader of the ANC – is known more for trouble making, monumental corruption and shady dealings of its leadership. For as long as South Africa remains without a viable alternative to the ANC, so long will the ANC’s gross impunity, abuse of power and privileges continue.