Behind the ANC’s election setback: Was the writing on the wall?

BY:Mark Waller| June 3, 2024
Behind the ANC’s election setback: Was the writing on the wall?


Big question marks hang over South African politics following last week’s national elections.

Despite a spirited campaign involving tens of thousands of volunteers from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partners – the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the Independent South African National Civics Organisation (ISANCO) – turnout was 58% of registered voters, well below the 66% of the last election in 2019. For the first time, the ANC won just over 40% of the vote, down from 58% in 2019, meaning it will probably be forced to form a coalition government.

What will this mean for South Africa’s long-running transformation process, known as the national democratic revolution? What will the ANC and its alliance do to regain majority support in the country? Will populist politics, feeding on the grievances of millions of mainly black South Africans forced to endure growing inequality, poverty, unemployment and violent crime, further undermine the country’s fragile stability?

This last question relates to the biggest surprise of the recent elections: the strong performance, with over 14% of the vote, of a sudden newcomer to the political scene – the MK Party, led by former ANC leader and president Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s party performed strongly in South Africa’s most populous provinces, winning outright in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), coming second in Mpumalanga and leading in a number of Zulu-majority townships in Gauteng that were formerly ANC strongholds.

The right-wing Democratic Alliance (DA) retained its position as the country’s second largest party with just under 22% of the vote. The DA and a host of new centre-right parties – Action SA, Rise Mzanzi and BuildOne SA – were pumped with tens of millions of rands in foreign donations to boost their campaigns to unseat the ANC.

These were the most hotly contested and scrutinized elections in the country’s young democracy, and they attracted a lot of attention outside the country. South Africa’s case against Israel’s genocide in Gaza at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), its efforts to build a multipolar trading system through BRICS, essentially to counterbalance US-EU trading hegemony, and its neutral position on the Ukraine war have hardened imperialist attitudes towards the ruling ANC and whetted appetites for regime change.

But the main challenge now to the ANC and its alliance, and to the chances of reviving and accelerating the national democratic revolution, comes from closer to home. Together with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Zuma’s MK party represents a wedge of right-wing-posing-as-left-wing populism that together account for a large share of the national vote and seats in parliament. The EFF failed to increase its share of the vote this time, winning 9.5%, down from nearly 11% five years ago.

Zuma has long been popular with the majority Zulu population in KZN. He has also been adept at portraying himself as a champion of the left, which led to his election as ANC president in 2007 and as state president in 2009 with the support of the ANC alliance. Zuma’s relations with the alliance deteriorated despite initially resulting in progressive reforms. Embroiled in allegations of corruption and state capture, Zuma was recalled as president by the ANC in 2018. In the same year, a judicial commission of inquiry was set up to investigate the issue of state capture. Zuma initially appeared before the commission, but then refused to do so. He was convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to 15 months in prison, most of which he spent at home on medical parole.

The MK Party is the name of the former armed wing of the ANC, uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which was formed in 1961 by the ANC and the SACP to supplement the underground struggle against the apartheid regime with armed struggle. Umkhonto we Sizwe was formally disbanded in 1993, although the armed struggle had been suspended two years earlier when the ANC, SACP and others were unbanned and negotiations for a transition to democracy began.

Zuma’s MK Party has its origins in part in the military veterans’ organisation of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the MKMVA. The ANC dissolved MKMVA in 2021 and replaced it with a new, less factionalised organisation. Zuma had long had a support base within the MKMVA, which constantly defended his dubious record as president. One of his key gambits in countering the mountain of graft and racketeering allegations that eventually brought him down was that he was simply standing up for workers and the poor and fighting white monopoly capital.

This populism has resonated with his supporters and attracted others to the MK Party since its launch last December. At first glance, the MK Party website presents the organization as a mirror image of the ANC, but it advocates an aggressive form of black nationalism that is far removed from the ANC’s commitment to multiracial pluralism and democracy. It calls for the abrogation of the 1996 Constitution, mass nationalization and the elimination of the “alien culture” of “a minority group,” presumably whites, even though there are countless minorities from diverse cultural backgrounds in South Africa. Bizarrely, while Zuma is the ubiquitous face of the MK Party, he was ineligible to stand in the elections and will not enter parliament because of his criminal conviction.

The ANC has scorned the Zuma party’s “opportunistic use of military symbolism” in hijacking the uMkhonto we Sizwe name and motif, its “attempt to use the proud history of armed struggle against the apartheid regime to lend credibility to what is a blatantly counter-revolutionary agenda,” and its effort “to cast doubt on our entire constitutional democracy.” More to the point, Zuma’s “actions reinforce the work of the primarily right-wing opponents of the national democratic revolution. In this regard, in assuming this reactionary public posture, former President Zuma is actively asserting himself as the figurehead of counterrevolution in South Africa today.”

The posturing of the Zuma party is similar to the chauvinism of the EFF, led by former ANC Youth League Leader Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC. Significantly, both outfits are headed by figures who were disciplined and suspended by the ANC, and so have long had an axe to grind. Both are solely based on the idiosyncratic personalities of their leaders. And both offer left-sounding but right-oriented agendas that aim to appeal to the working class and poor based on the ethno-nationalist promise of a South Africa for indigenous South Africans. Though they talk left, neither attempts to offer a class analysis of the problems plaguing South Africa.

The MK Party and, earlier, the EFF have also been feted and applauded by much of the liberal rightwing commercial media, which takes the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” approach to any formation that opposes the ANC and any notion of a national democratic revolution. The SACP views the national democratic revolution as the surest route to socialism, and partly because of this, though the process has been impeded by an array of setbacks since the 1994 transition to democracy, it remains the bugbear of the political right.

The space for faux-left populism has widened as the post-1994 transformation has faltered. Despite major achievements in eradicating the social and economic injustices of the racist apartheid system, there has been a steady decline in popular support for the ANC.

Mass unemployment, rolling power outages, rocketing cost of living, faltering or non-existent municipal services, particularly in rural areas and in the spreading peri-urban shanty towns – known euphemistically as “informal settlements” – and spiraling levels of crime, particularly gender-based violence, are all to blame, ruinously compounded by the aftershocks of the COVID pandemic. Despite progress in tackling public sector corruption and chains of patronage within the ANC, there is a widespread perception that the organization remains unreformed.

Against this background, the hard sell of the election campaign run by the ANC and its alliance partners tended to overemphasise all the good that has been done in transforming South Africa over the last 30 years. As an article in the SACP’s newsletter, Umsebenzi Online, pointed out a few weeks before the elections, while it’s important to highlight what’s been achieved, “we need to ask a simple question: to what extent is the good story accepted by millions of working-class and marginalised poor in our country? How does it stack up against their daily lived experience?”

More rigorous work on this, through an active, long-term, high-visibility grassroots presence by the SACP and other alliance partners in working-class communities, could have done much to ensure that, come election time, voters felt that the ANC had a definite grip on their concerns. Instead, a common perception is that the ANC and its allies are only out and about in communities during election campaigns.

The SACP has been trying hard to change the situation, including by running community development and food security projects. Its leadership has stressed that the work of the groups of volunteers, known as Red Brigades, that in recent months fanned out across the country to campaign for the ANC must remain a constant presence. Such community engagement takes a long time to build up and will need to persist, regardless of what happens in the wake of the elections. The national democratic revolution needs to be rooted in people’s everyday lives.

But why do mainstream left organizations – the SACP, COSATU, ISANCO – that make up the ANC’s alliance partners bother with the ANC at all, given that there seem to be so many downsides to the ruling party? Part of the answer lies in the history of the ANC, which was the main liberation movement that fought against apartheid and within which the SACP and trade unions were a leading force.

But the main reason today is that the SACP and the other alliance partners still view the ANC as presenting the best terrain for fighting working-class struggles and unpicking the stranglehold on South Africa of monopoly capital. Most members of the alliance organizations are also ANC members, and in that sense the ANC is both a political party and a mass movement.

The recent signing into law of a bill to replace the mismatched public and private systems of healthcare with a single system of universal health insurance is a result of sustained campaigning by the alliance and other progressive organizations. So are many tangible election manifesto commitments on which the ANC and the alliance campaigned in the recent elections, including the introduction of a basic income grant, public employment programmes and investment in re-industrialization.

For now, all eyes are on the makeup of the next government and what will happen next in the country. Will there be a government of national unity, and if so, who will the ANC be prepared to work with? Will there be pressure from within the alliance, as some have suggested, for the ANC to go into opposition in order to reconfigure itself? Will Zuma and the EFF provoke instability and unrest? There’s a lot at stake and still a long way to go before the crises afflicting South Africa can be properly tackled. Predictions are pointless.


Images: An African National Congress (ANC) supporter holds a poster of former President Nelson Mandela during the ANC Election Manifesto launch at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa, in a Feb. 24, 2024 by RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty (Creative Commons); SACP graffiti in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, South Africa. The round sticker in the window on the right reads “Votela iANC (Vote ANC)” by HelenOnline (CC BY-SA 4.0); #SACP National Treasure, Comrade Joyce Moloi-Moropa cast her vote today 29 May 2024, at Word Praise Christian Centre International, Gauteng from (X/twitter); 2024 General Elections by GovernmentZA (CC BY-ND 2.0 Deed); YCL of South Africa Event (Facebook); YCL of S. Africa (Facebook)


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