CAPE TOWN, South Africa — With the death of Nelson Mandela, the political party and broad coalition he helped to bind together are coming apart at the seams.
The African National Congress remains in power, holding nearly two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, but it is losing popularity even among its staunchest supporters. To many South Africans, the ANC looks less and less like a party of legendary anti-apartheid leaders and more like a grouping of crony capitalists and dispensers of patronage.
The list of complaints against the ANC is long. Crime is rampant in South Africa, and HIV/AIDS, drug dealing and violence against women are widespread. Many businesses are unhappy with the premium the government places on “black economic empowerment,” while the powerful unions want higher wages. The economy remains sluggish; about half of young adults cannot find jobs.
Above all, people are angry at President Jacob Zuma, who is embroiled in a controversy over the spending of $20 million on his personal home in Nkandla to add security upgrades, a swimming pool and room for his four wives and the 20 children he has fathered with six women.
“Should we not ask that President Zuma resign in the interest of the poorest of the poor of our people?” asked Andrew Chirwa, who heads the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, at a recent labor conference. After Mandela’s burial, Chirwa declared that his union, with about 338,000 members, would no longer back the ANC.
With national elections scheduled for this year, the ANC is still likely to hang on to a diminished majority, most analysts say. But the awkward evolution of the ANC from liberation movement into governing party is entering a new phase. Even though Mandela did not play a political role in his final years, his death served as a reminder of the distance between his reputation and the diminished stature of the party’s leaders.
“We are going to see a drastic change,” said Vusi Mathodlana, 56, an official at an Anglican church in the town of Alexandra who was involved in anti-apartheid uprisings in the 1970s. “Within the black elite, there have been people sitting on the fence, thinking you can’t jump the fence because you owe your allegiance to ‘the old man.’ Now the old man is gone, and you see things in a different light.”
“I have been ANC at heart since the 1970s,” said Logan Naidu, a financial consultant who was chairman of a local anti-apartheid group in the mid-1980s, and who arranged six months of rent-free office space for the ANC after a ban on the group was lifted. But, he said, “if President Zuma does not resign or be recalled, my conscience will not allow me to vote for the ANC in the 2014 elections.”
The ANC’s problems could grow more acute if the economy falters. If benchmark U.S. Treasury interest rates rise, as is likely, so will South Africa’s borrowing costs. The price of commodities, which make up more than half of the nation’s exports, could also drop. Gold has already slipped from its historic highs.
If Zuma stepped down, his most likely successor would be ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is widely respected for his experience as general secretary of the mineworkers’ union in the 1980s. But Ramaphosa’s business activities, which turned him into a wealthy man during a 10-year hiatus from ANC duties, could complicate his political future.
In particular, Ramaphosa was a member of the board of Lonmin, which owns a platinum mine called Marikana where 34 striking workers were killed by police in August 2012. A letter Ramaphosa wrote to the company’s managers before the massacre encouraged a tough stance.
“There are many on the left who feel, even if Ramaphosa was not complicit, that it is not good to have a billionaire run a party that claims to represent the poor,” said Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.
The left wing of the ANC coalition is already splintering. Former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who backed Zuma in the last election and was later expelled from the party over corruption charges, is rallying followers to his new Economic Freedom Fighters party.
He hopes to attract poor and alienated ANC supporters by aligning himself with the ANC’s more radical 1956 Freedom Charter. Malema’s own party manifesto advocates the nationalization of mines and banks and the expropriation of land without compensation. Claiming inspiration from the “broad Marxist-Leninist tradition,” it says that “political power without economic emancipation is meaningless.”
“The ANC by its nature is a broad church. It has always been able to maintain its right and left wings and the center,” said Dali Mpofu, a prominent lawyer who quit the ANC to join Malema’s party. He said the ANC “has now shifted so far to the right that those of us on the left have been left homeless.” Mpofu is representing the families of the miners killed at Marikana.
The ANC is also losing ground among the mainstream young voters known as “born frees.”
“I honestly feel no loyalty for the ANC,” said Deyendran Lalaram, 20. “When you hear about all the allegations of corruption, you wonder if they [ANC officials] are somebody that Mandela wanted to look after his people. For that’s what we are. We are Mandela’s people.”
Lalaram said she might vote for the moderate Democratic Alliance, the nation’s second-largest party, which dominates the Western Cape. The group is led by Helen Zille, the popular white premier of the Western Cape, who speaks English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, one of the major South African languages. The party is hoping to win local elections in Johannesburg and capture the populous Eastern Cape, a former ANC stronghold. Its slate there features the former ANC premier of the province.
“The next election will be fought over jobs,” said Jonathan Moakes, the party’s campaign manager.
Still, there probably won’t be enough young voters to oust the ANC until the 2019 elections, he says. “A lot of people are looking for a new political home, but it is very difficult to break away,” Moakes said.
Despite the furor over his lavish spending, Zuma might hang on. He is popular in the KwaZulu- Natal province, where he doled out patronage jobs and brought peace to warring black factions. Delegates from that region hold about a quarter of the votes in the ANC’s National Executive Committee. Zuma’s opponents would have to marshal two of every three remaining votes to oust him.
“People underestimate Zuma,” said one South African political veteran, who asked for anonymity to protect his government relationships. “He can count.” Even if Zuma steps aside, his strength might give him veto power within the ANC. That has demoralized many of the ANC faithful.
“I’m born and grew up in ANC. The traditions of the ANC are gone with Mandela,” said Mavi Panyane, a founder of the Soweto Civic Association, who added that after hearing the news about Mandela’s death, he went to bed and woke up crying.
“The ANC is now a conveyor belt for elections. You get a message from the head of the ANC, and it is conveyed to us. But when we raise our issues, they do not even listen to us,” he said.
One wild card in South Africa is political spending. There are no limits on campaign contributions and no disclosure requirements. That suits both the ANC and the Democratic Alliance, whose backers don’t want to risk antagonizing the governing ANC. “If we were to publish who was supporting us, our funding would dry up,” said Moakes.
During the last election, the ANC spent more on T-shirts than the Democratic Alliance did altogether, one opposition official said. The party hopes to triple its campaign spending this time.
As with earlier campaigns, the ANC is planning to send people door to door, and church to church, to rally its supporters. But one figure it won’t be able to put on display this time around: Nelson Mandela.