Nelson Mandela’s death leaves political South Africa without any living moral compass. Symbolically, but tellingly, President Jacob Zuma was roundly booed when he spoke at Mandela’s memorial service. The country’s vibrant media carry constant stories about the declining popularity of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Mandela’s party and the nation’s historical liberation movement.

Even committed ANC supporters are appalled by the seemingly endless and all-encompassing corruption of their party, their leader, politicians in general and the nation at large. No day goes by without reports in the press of one or another ANC luminary’s attempt to benefit financially from his or her position. Whether it is tenders awarded suspiciously and the rumour of large multimillion-dollar kickbacks, spouses or relatives of high functionaries being discovered on ministerial or other payrolls, or wild expenditures on automobiles, fortified houses (such as Zuma’s new $25-million mansion in a small village in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal), travel perks or other lavish shenanigans, state funds are allegedly being allocated and expended improperly each day.

President Zuma has become the object of mockery at dinner parties, shebeen (unlicensed African saloon) gatherings and conversations among wage-earners and other labourers. His excesses, detailed in the South African press — his house, his implication years ago in the purchase of armaments, frigates and submarines from France and Germany, his multiple (currently four, plus two previous) wives and 21 children and his disdain for HIV/AIDS — have created a massive loss of legitimacy for the South African presidency and the party. Several years ago, Zuma admitted having unprotected sex with a young woman and said he “took a shower afterwards….” to limit the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
Platinum miners, postal workers and others frequently lay down their tools, striking for higher wages, but also for greater respect, and — like so much of the nation in its southern summer of discontent — because the social contract between rulers and the ruled has frayed considerably. There have been serious township protests (34 in January in Gauteng Province alone) about water shortages, bad and dangerous policing, the appalling lack of safety and security in the African townships (16,200 murders nationwide in 2013 — among the 10 highest rates per capita in the world, after Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela), and about the government’s abysmal failure to build roads, houses and infrastructure. The educational system is in shambles, too, with the quality of teachers and schools poor, capacity shortages everywhere and overall accomplishments being underwhelming. There is a shortage of electrical power as well, with no near end to blackouts and load shedding (rolling blackouts to control demand.) Householders and industries both suffer.

With the ANC itself experiencing a loss of legitimacy similar to Zuma’s loss, with the South African economy faltering well behind the rest of Africa (yearly GDP growth is only about 2.7 percent compared to the rest of the continent’s average 5-percent growth) and with the South African rand plummeting against the U.S. dollar, the British pound and the euro, the country is experiencing a great weakening of confidence among all of its constituents. Overseas investors, once supportive of South Africa as a BRICS economic growth prospect, now include South Africa as one of the “fragile five” along with Turkey, India, Brazil and Indonesia.

But all of this dismay and disillusionment does not mean that the ANC will lose the national parliamentary election scheduled for May 7. Observers believe the party’s loss of legitimacy will probably cause a fall in its popularity and its overall vote from 63 percent to 51 or 52 percent of the poll, still ensuring its control of parliament, the presidency (decided by parliament after the election) and nearly all of South Africa’s nine provinces. Africans (80 percent of the country’s electorate) are not likely to abandon Mandela’s liberation party, no matter how disaffected they may be. Nor is the ANC likely to remove Zuma as its standard-bearer. He has a firm control of the party machinery at the local level. Because South Africa uses a pure proportional representation system with only nominal constituencies, he controls its parliamentarians and parliament.

To the ANC’s left, there is a new Economic Freedom Front party led by Julius Malema, described in milder characterizations as loud-mouthed and brash, a 32-year-old populist firebrand who was removed last year as head of the ANC Youth League for verbally abusing his elders (such as Zuma) and behaving disrespectfully to the party as a whole. Malema, however, may soon face a major corruption indictment based on his operations in the Youth League and Limpopo Province. He also confronts serious charges for “negligent, reckless driving.” Some opinion polls suggest that Malema and his party could attract 10 percent of the total vote.

The ANC’s main rival for parliamentary prominence, however, is the Democratic Alliance (DA). In the last election, it won 17 percent of the total vote and thus has 17 percent of the seats in parliament. It gained solid majorities in the Western Cape Province and in the city of Cape Town and thus administers both of those important political jurisdictions. Helen Zille, its charismatic leader, is the Cape premier and Patricia de Lille, another key DA operative, is mayor of Cape Town.

In late January, these two formidable women, each of whom is widely praised for running efficient service administrations in the province and the city (Cape Town has four million residents), were joined by Mamphela Ramphele, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (the best university in Africa) and former World Bank official, as a central figure in the Democratic Alliance as it moves toward the election. Ramphele, whose stark criticisms of the ANC earned her national fame and notoriety, last year formed a new political party — Agang, or “Build” — but after that party had gained very little following, she abandoned it to become the nominal presidential candidate of the DA. Then, a week later, she suddenly reneged on her decision to join the DA, leaving both parties and the public agog at her indecision and political naiveté.

Merging Agang with the DA was meant to help position the DA (the descendant of the party of Helen Suzman and other white progressives, and one led by Zille, a white) as a truly multiracial party. Ramphele and de Lille, and Lindiwe Mazibuko, its young parliamentary leader, are black. Some opinion polls suggest that the DA could obtain 30 percent of the vote in the national election. That would not be enough to displace the ANC, but it would plausibly double the national standing of the DA and position it to provide a strong central opposition to the ANC.

Even without Ramphele and Agang, the DA hopes to win control of another province or two, conceivably the rural Northern Cape Province and Gauteng, the industrial heartland province around Johannesburg. That may be a stretch, but with its new, more thoroughly black leadership, together with Zille’s astute guidance, the DA may just have a chance, given the falling off of ANC popularity almost everywhere.

If the ANC continues to govern South Africa after the election, as is very likely, the country’s slide into illegitimacy may well continue. Discontent will flourish. Corruption will grow. Scandals will multiply. The trade union federation ties to the ANC may wither. Investors will stay away. Even domestic businesses will slow their activities. South Africa may more and more rely on China.

Zuma is unlikely to change his transactional method of governing, or the ANC, to reject opportunities for enrichment. But just conceivably, Zuma’s new deputy president — Cyril Ramaphosa — may be able to reform the ANC from within. Ramaphosa, 61, and Malusi Gigaba, 42, now minister of public enterprises, are younger than Zuma (72 by the time of the election) and other old-guard party stalwarts. Ramaphosa was a young, university-educated trade-union leader in the 1980s when he led the anti-apartheid struggle from within South Africa. He was the key ANC negotiator of the post-apartheid peace settlement that led to Mandela’s election in 1994 and a new national constitution. In 1996, Mandela was persuaded to give the succession to Thabo Mbeki, who became president, not Ramaphosa. The latter went on to become extremely wealthy thanks to successful Black Empowerment Enterprise investments. Now he is back, the ANC and Zuma having elected him ANC deputy president in 2013, and presumptive national deputy president after the national poll in May.

Ramaphosa is well-educated, well-read, sophisticated and accomplished. If anyone has the ability, assisted by Gigaba, to reform the ANC from within, he is that person. However, he is from a disdained minority ethnic group — the Venda — and the Zulu (Zuma’s people) and the Xhosa (Mbeki’s people) comprise much larger ethnic pluralities. Gigaba is a Zulu.

But if Ramaphosa becomes deputy president this year, and if Zuma survives, the next general election will be in 2019. That is a very long time to wait, given South Africa’s current crisis of governance. Whether South Africa can stagger through five more years of deficient leadership, poor education, weak energy and slow economic growth is questionable. Ramaphosa and the ANC may need to find some way of replacing Zuma and turning South Africa back onto the healthy track that Mandela inaugurated.
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