The ANC chose Zuma’s deputy and rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, by a narrow margin, to be the party’s 13th president in December. This choice indicated that South Africa’s majority party is ready to move beyond the embattled Zuma. For many analysts, Ramaphosa represents a new era of clean government and market-friendly reform. The editor of the country’s leading business daily newspaper wrote shortly after Ramaphosa’s election that this is “South Africa’s blessed moment.”
The ANC is in survival mode
Ramaphosa will almost certainly be named South Africa’s next president, but the ANC has seen its support erode sharply. A deeper look at the ANC’s new leadership indicates a desperate pact for the survival of the party that has ruled South Africa since the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela. The party received 54 percent of the vote in the 2016 municipal elections, a drop of eight percentage points compared with parliamentary elections in 2014 and municipal elections in 2011. Here are three things to watch:
1) Will the ANC concentrate on its increasingly rural base? The broader composition of the party’s new leadership under Ramaphosa, as well as its policy resolutions, suggest that the ANC could continue down the road of becoming a party with a rural base. But most South Africans now live in cities. Losing urban voters would spell trouble for the ANC’s political future.
Within the ANC, the top six officials, and not only the president, hold significant authority. Three of the top six are from the ranks of provincial party leaders. Two — Ace Magashule and David Mabuza, the party’s new deputy president — are from the “Premier League” of rural provincial leaders, who have tight control over sub-national party structures that have been aligned to Zuma.
The rise of the “Premier League” has been emblematic of the extent to which the ANC’s rural structures drive the party platform. Mabuza’s province of Mpumalanga had the second-highest number of voting delegates to the ANC’s December conference, which gave him a kingmaker role. He appears to have helped engineer a rough split of positions between Zuma allies and Ramaphosa allies within the party’s top six, as well as in the further 80 seats on the party’s National Executive Committee and 20 seats on the party’s National Working Committee. Though Ramaphosa is now clearly the party leader, he will have to continue navigating a razor-thin advantage across the range of interests that coexist under the ANC’s big tent.
2) Will the party’s “radical” rhetoric be reflected in policy? With Ramaphosa at the ANC helm, Zuma may yet face prosecution for the 783 pending counts of corruption. But Zuma’s presidency also pursued a political and ideological project aimed at “radical economic transformation.” Under this rubric, the ANC focused on using public assets and state-owned enterprises as catalysts for a more redistributive national economy.
The ANC resolved during its elective conference to amend the constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation to landowners. But this reportedly was bitterly contested during the party summit, and it shows that the ANC may be out of touch with the way South Africans live today.
Here’s why: South Africa’s constitution already makes it possible to expropriate land without compensation in cases of historical redress — this makes the purpose of ANC’s push for a constitutional amendment unclear. Furthermore, the ANC’s land resolution says little about the problems of urban land ownership. Current land tenure patterns have made the pace of improving the conditions of informal settlements, home to almost 1 in 8 households across the country, too slow to stop their growth.
These improvements are an urgent necessity for poor people in cities to begin to access decent living standards and a formally recognized home — both key determinants of opportunity and generating wealth. My comparative research in Johannesburg and São Paulo, Brazil, suggests that local governments in urban centers in South Africa have struggled to respond to stark urban inequalities in areas such as housing, sanitation and public transportation. This means that the ANC remains silent on land-related policies for a constituency that is key to ensure the continued political dominance of the ANC at the ballot box.
3) Can the ANC deliver for urban South Africans? It’s somewhat ironic that Ramaphosa could end up leading an increasingly rural-focused party. Ramaphosa is an urban activist who grew up in the township of Soweto, in the southwest periphery of Johannesburg. Trained as a lawyer, he led the National Union of Mineworkers, the largest affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. He was the ANC’s lead negotiator in the transition to democracy in 1994 and the writing of the 1996 constitution. He was also a representative of the Soweto People’s Delegation, which negotiated the unification of historically separate black and white jurisdictions into a single Johannesburg municipality.
The constitutional negotiations should have empowered municipalities to hold a whole range of financial management and service delivery responsibilities. But a delayed transition to a new municipal system in the late 1990s meant that provinces ended up with significant powers for distributing core public goods, especially housing. Provision of urban public goods such as housing, sanitation, and public transportation has been woefully slow and contributed to increasing political conflict.
Urban neighborhoods have been protesting for more than a decade for basic services like water and electricity, particularly in the overwhelmingly black peripheral townships of South Africa’s cities. In the 2016 municipal elections, the ANC lost control of a number of cities, including the metropolitan municipalities of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.
It is in these townships that opposition parties have made their strongest inroads, a trend that has continued in by-elections since last year. Likewise, urban black middle-class voters in wealthier suburbs have begun abandoning the ANC because of frustrations with increasing corruption.
The delicate balance of power within the party that emerged from December’s elective conference ensured that the ANC is unlikely to split. But keeping the party together does not guarantee success in the national and provincial elections coming up in 2019.
Polls prior to the party’s December elective conference show that the ANC has a slim hold on the key province of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg. It is possible the party may not keep its parliamentary majority in the next elections. As president, Ramaphosa, who has spent the past two decades in business and presents an urbane contrast to Zuma, may turn the tide. But the ANC’s recent steps toward becoming a rural party suggests space remains for a party that can present a platform for better lives in cities.
Benjamin H. Bradlow is a PhD candidate in sociology at Brown University. Follow him @bhbradlow.