THE mighty African National Congress (ANC), which has held sway since South Africa held its first democratic elections two decades ago, is a wounded giant. A realignment of post-apartheid politics, long predicted but always delayed, now seems plausible as the ANC faces the prospect of splits within and erosion from without. The process is being hastened by the faltering president, Jacob Zuma, who is threatened with yet another round of scrutiny over allegations of corruption going back to an arms deal in 1997.
With the economy stalled, the ANC is being squeezed on the populist left and the liberal right. To the left, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), founded last year by Julius Malema, a firebrand who used to head the ANC’s Youth League, is gaining ground after winning 6% of the votes in a general election in May; its 25 members of parliament, often clad in red overalls and berets intended to signify their solidarity with workers, seem to hog the headlines. The EFF appeals, too, to young middle-class nationalists fed up with the ANC. Splinter groups in South Africa have often risen and then faded. But Frans Cronje, who runs the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank, says: “There’s huge sympathy for the EFF within the ANC.”
Tough, but bowing
At the same time, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the country’s biggest labour union, which told its voters to dump the ANC at the last election, may set up its own party of the left, which could emerge as the labour arm of the EFF, though so far its leaders have derided such an idea. The umbrella Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), led by Zwelinzima Vavi, who is another thorn in the side of the ANC, is split down the middle, weakening the so-called “tripartite alliance”—the ANC, the unions and the South African Communist Party (SACP)—which has run the country since 1994. Mr Malema, Mr Vavi and NUMSA’s Irvin Jim would pose a tough opposition on the left, should they join forces.
Meanwhile the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition, led by a white woman, Helen Zille, rose to 22% from 17% at the last election and is eyeing the no longer outlandish prospect of winning several of the country’s biggest cities, or at least running them in coalition, when their councils are next elected in 2016. They include Johannesburg, Pretoria and the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, which embraces Port Elizabeth. The DA already runs Cape Town and most of the municipalities in the Western Cape, the second richest of the country’s nine provinces. In the general election in May the ANC vote tumbled to 55% in Gauteng, the wealthiest province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Mr Malema rubbishes the DA as “racist”. But in a future parliament and in various municipalities the EFF and the DA could undermine the ANC in a twin assault, whether or not in a tactical alliance. The DA is now backed by most Coloureds (people of mixed race) and South Africans of Indian descent, as well as most whites. Though it reckons it got 750,000 black votes at the last election and has black leaders in several provinces, it is still viewed by many blacks as “too white”.
In any event, the ANC is in a bind. If it tacks to the left, to fend off trade-union militancy and the populism of the EFF, which wants to nationalise mines, banks and white-owned farms, the ANC will lose more of its support among the growing black middle class. But if it sticks to a more market-friendly path, albeit with rampant corruption and patronage causing increasing outrage across the board, it will continue to lose the backing of the urban poor.
Both Mr Malema and Mr Zuma face legal entanglements. Earlier this month Mr Malema’s trial on charges of fraud and racketeering, among other things, was postponed until next August on the peculiar ground that not all the lawyers involved in the case were available. The ANC would love to see Mr Malema behind bars, deeming the EFF to be a one-man show.
But Mr Zuma, who looks haggard, may be more immediately embarrassed by fresh legal tangles, thanks to South Africa’s Sunday Times, if allegations by a lawyer called Ajay Sooklal are taken up by the authorities. Described as a “fixer” for Thales, a multinational French electronics and arms firm, Mr Sooklal has revived old allegations of bribery against him.
Mr Zuma, aged 72, denies them all—and may well again fend them off before his constitutionally limited term ends in 2019. But there is renewed talk of an early presidential succession. If so, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former miners’ leader who is one of the country’s greatest magnates, would take the job, at least temporarily, since he is the deputy president. He would seek to lead South Africa on a constitutional and free-market road. But in a fresh election he might fail to win the ANC’s nomination, as he lacks a base within the party and is reviled on the left.
Mr Zuma would prefer a successor who could be relied on to back him in his retirement. One of his former wives, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former foreign minister now chairing the African Union’s commission in Ethiopia, is often mentioned. It would be nice, from Mr Zuma’s point of view, to keep things more or less in the family. But that could make it harder still to restore the good name of the ANC.