Perspective: South Africa and the ANC’s Uncertain Future

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa waves as he leaves after being sworn in on May 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Last month, the sixth parliamentary election since South Africa transitioned to a multiparty democracy in 1994 ended with an uncertain result for the African National Congress (ANC). The election came at a time of widespread criticism of the ANC’s ability to deal effectively with corruption or improve the living standards of the great majority of the black population. The ANC ultimately gained the support of 57.5 percent of the voters, slightly less than the 60 percent which many observers thought it could obtain. While the ANC remains the country’s leading party and Cyril Ramaphosa will retain the presidency for the next five years, the results of the election point to the domestic challenges he faces, and the impact the election could have on South Africa’s engagement in Africa and abroad.

Most importantly, Ramaphosa did not win the large majority that many observers thought would be necessary to enable him to tackle the country’s main domestic challenges, including rooting out corruption within the ranks of the ANC, resolving the dysfunction of the major electricity and transport systems, and altering the perceived impression—and experience of the majority of the population—that it will remain very difficult to transcend grinding poverty in coming years. This outcome in large measure is a reflection of the ANC’s own failure to follow through on policy commitments and in turn to maintain the loyalty of the electorate over the past decade.

The challenges of wealth inequality and poverty also persist, a quarter century after Nelson Mandela won the first truly democratic election in South Africa in 1994 in a euphoric atmosphere of change. The expectation at the time and since is that inequality and poverty would be, at the least, far below the levels witnessed now. But the fact is that, even with a growing black middle class, most of the country’s wealth and corporate power remains overwhelmingly in the hands of the white minority and a small sliver of the black population, who are mostly entrenched ANC senior officials and bureaucrats.

While Ramaphosa has promised to root out corruption within the government and the ANC, and has dismissed a number of ANC officials believed to have engaged in corrupt acts, the pace of redressing this underlying, long term challenge has been slower than the public’s expectation. Moreover, the continued presence of ANC politicians loyal to his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, in the coalition government are an ongoing constraint.

The political beneficiaries of this state of affairs in the recent election were the smaller parties: the Democratic Alliance (DA) won 20 percent of the vote, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won almost 11 percent. The EFF—founded in 2013 by the leftist Julius Malema—has been sharply critical of the ANC for failing to meet the economic needs of its citizens. Malema’s outspoken criticism of the ANC leadership has gained the group significant popularity, especially among the younger generation. The party is not without its critics and has faced backlash in the weeks since the election. One of the EFF’s more radical ideas includes a highly contentious proposal for government confiscation of white owned lands without compensation. A similar program was adopted in Zimbabwe almost two decades ago and precipitated massive white flight to South Africa and elsewhere.

What Lies Ahead?

While enjoying less support than observers expected, Ramaphosa is also dealing with challenges South Africa has had with other countries in Africa and elsewhere. For example, South Africa’s relationship with Rwanda has soured in recent years and took a public and degrading turn toward the end of 2018. Also, Ramaphosa’s rumored disagreements with Lindiwe Sisulu, his outgoing International Relations minister, resulted in him appointing Naledi Pandor to replace her. The changes this could bring about in policy approaches, both in Africa and at the United Nations Security Council, remain to be seen.

As Ramaphosa enters his second term, it is unclear what he will be able to accomplish, especially in relation to taking effective action against those in the government, the ANC, and other parties charged with corruption. He faces the immediate challenge of completing ongoing investigations within the senior ranks of the ANC and that of improving service delivery by the electricity company Eskom and the national rail service. By a slim majority, the ANC has been barely able to hold onto the municipal government in Gauteng, while Cape Town remains in the hands of the DA. Overall, the ANC’s situation will be further weakened if the South African economy, already buffeted by inflation, encounters further headwinds.

John Hirsch is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI).