In 1994, South African apartheid ended and the nation’s Black community was finally granted suffrage. With that momentous change, Nelson Mandela and the long-outlawed African National Congress swept into power, winning 252 of the 400 seats in the nation’s national assembly. Beginning here, the ANC established a political dynasty which has lasted ever since — in every election, the ANC has maintained their majority and won at least 230 seats. As the de facto party of liberation, the ANC has maintained a godlike reputation within the majority-Black nation for decades. However, 25 years after the ANC’s political ascension, their dominance is endangered. Largely thanks to self-inflicted problems (namely corruption), a series of political failures and an inability to carry on Mandela’s legacy, the ANC has slowly begun to lose its grip on power, and risks losing the adulation it first earned as the party of Black liberation.
The ANC’s values were first officially codified in the Freedom Charter, a document written in 1955, with the party’s most important priority being that “The People Shall Govern.” When the party gained legitimate political power under Mandela, it styled itself as a center-left social democratic party with a focus on African Nationalism, anti-imperialism and social consciousness. Unfortunately for South Africans, the party now appears to care about those values in name only.
The ANC’s history of corruption stretches back to its original rise to power under Mandela, beginning in 1994. In order to ensure the nation’s transition to full-fledged democracy was peaceful, Mandela struck a deal with the leaders of the old apartheid regime: While Black South Africans would be given political power, white South Africans would maintain their control over the vast majority of the country’s economic resources. Beginning with Mandela himself, many ANC leaders and party elites — most of whom had little individual wealth — were essentially bribed by white elites to protect their business interests, creating a culture of corruption and exploitation which has persisted ever since.
In tandem with this, a second, even more prevalent form of corruption emerged within the hegemonic ANC: the usage of government contracts and funds for personal enrichment. Since the installment of the ANC-led government, well-connected party members have utilized government contracts as a way to make money, often funneling funds away from legitimate projects and into their own bank accounts. One of the most pertinent examples of this corruption was unearthed last year, when it was revealed that Jacob Zuma, former ANC leader and South African president, had helped the Gupta family, a wealthy business conglomerate, pilfer billions of dollars. For two decades, the Guptas maintained close relationships with political leaders within the ANC, a move which allowed them to win inflated industry contracts and enriched both the family and South Africa’s elites — all at the expense of the greater South African populace.
Even more egregious than skimming off of government infrastructure contracts is ANC leaders’ long history of personally taking funds intended for poverty relief, even while South Africa maintains its status as the most unequal country in the world. Throughout South Africa, politicians taking money intended for welfare programs is ubiquitous; an easy way to judge an area’s level of corruption is to simply look at how run-down its affordable housing units are. Unfortunately, this broken system is at least partly due to how the government itself divides up responsibility: While the national government is primarily responsible for collecting taxes, provincial governments are in charge of most spending and receive relatively little oversight, allowing corruption of this variety to run rampant.
Beyond numerous corruption scandals, the party’s ability to govern has also been called into question in recent years, especially as the legacy of apartheid fades and a new generation of South Africans reach voting age. Under Zuma, who served as President from 2009 until 2018, unemployment rose dramatically, economic growth slowed and South Africa’s rankings in a bevy of social and governmental issues dropped precipitously. Furthermore, the ANC has continually struggled to come up with a plan for effectively bridging the massive wealth divide which still exists between Black and white South Africans (and attempts to do so have led to the popularization of a far-right party composed primarily of wealthy, white Afrikaners).
Faced with these challenges, the party has been unable to create a cohesive identity and appeal to increasingly frustrated voters. After Zuma stepped down last year, the ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected president. Although Ramaphosa is viewed as a breath of fresh air for the ANC, he is largely surrounded by corrupt figures who remain allied with Zuma, leading to the perception that the party lacks a clear direction. Even worse, Zuma is alleged to have political ammunition on many of these senior figures, which creates further gridlock and incentivizes them to do his bidding. Although Ramaphosa promised a number of economic reforms to try and revitalize the nation’s lagging economy, he has faced criticism from every direction: The left is frustrated his ideas are too favorable to business, while many businesses believe his reforms don’t go far enough. More important than any particular detail, Ramaphosa has frustrated everyone with his inability to get any of these reforms passed in the first place.
Due to these factors the decline in the ANC’s popularity is understandable; it is losing traction in national elections and its majority in some city councils, including both Pretoria and Johannesburg. Within the party, there are many different groups pushing for alterations, and there is a particularly strong generational divide. Young voters, particularly “born-frees” (voters born after apartheid), have even begun to renounce the party altogether, with some joining the rapidly-growing Economic Freedom Fighters. This party, which stands to the political left of the ANC, claims that the ANC has sold out, and that the EFF now better represents the values which Mandela and other South African liberators once stood for.
For foreigners, it may be easy to presume that the ANC, as the party of Mandela and Black liberation, maintains an infallible position in South African politics. However, this is far from true. Since gaining power, the party has failed to live up to its own values, and its legacy is slowly decaying. Going forward, the ANC must undertake some serious reforms or risk losing its legendary status, particularly as the memory of apartheid fades, and young South Africans begin to associate the party with corruption, a lack of direction and incompetent governance.
Zack Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.