South Africa: ANC returned to power in landslide

As class polarisation continues, black working class voters vest their hopes in Zuma …for now!

The recently elected South African president Zuma will be formally sworn into office today (9/05/09) in a lavish ceremony attended by heads of state from around Africa and the world. Weizmann Hamilton, from the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI in South Africa), examines the reasons behind Zuma’s victory in the fierce struggle inside the ANC, the class issues behind the recent elections and the prospects for another ANC term of office.

On 22 April, in a record turnout that reversed falls in voter registration and polling in the two previous elections, 17.9 million voters — the highest number since the first democratic elections in 1994 – returned the African National Congress (ANC) to power in a landslide, falling short of a two-thirds majority by a fraction of a percentage. The Democratic Alliance, a predominantly white right wing capitalist party, came a distant second with a little over 16%, followed by the ANC breakaway, Congress of the People, (Cope) led by former Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary and Gauteng ANC chairperson and premier, Mbhazima Shilowa, and former Defence Minister and ANC national chairperson, Mosiuoa Lekota, with just under 7.5%.

The ANC won an absolute majority in the province of Kwa Zulu Natal for the first time. Although the ANC lost its status as the biggest party in the Western Cape province, its main rival, the DA, failed to win an outright majority

Predictably the ANC leadership attributes the victory to the confidence of the masses in its policies, its effective election campaign, history and loyalty to the party of liberation, explaining its policies to the masses who “understood what we were saying.”

ANC leaders relieved

The triumphalism of the leadership is understandable, but it is also tinged with relief. For the last four years, and especially over the past eighteen months, the ANC was torn apart by the deepest divisions since its founding in 1912 as internal conflict shook the oldest liberation movement on the African continent to its foundations.

Mbeki’s resignation after being recalled from the presidency – the culmination of a rebellion by the party rank-and file that began after his dismissal of Zuma as the country’s deputy president in 2005 — detonated the split that gave birth to Cope and with it, a genuine fear within the ANC leadership that the party would suffer a crippling decline in electoral support.

Opinion polls consistently predicted that the ANC was at risk of losing a number of provinces and its two-thirds majority. Internal ANC assessments, open divisions in the provinces, tensions in the ANC Youth League, the SACP and Cosatu all showed an ANC in the grip of a debilitating factional war which threatened the decisive majority it had enjoyed thus far. Following Cope’s launch entire branches defected to it from the ANC. Cope’s membership exploded to a claimed 500,000 with the leadership making confident predictions that over 50 senior ANC members would resign and join it.

The election results appear to confirm the ANC as the unquestioned party of the masses that will rule, in Zuma’s controversial words, “until Jesus comes”. However, the real significance of these elections lie in their confirmation of the ANC’s continued decline.

ANC’s support continues to fall away

Despite the fact that Cope’s performance did not match the hype or the expectation raised by its meteoric growth in membership, its emergence has changed the political landscape. With 1.3 million votes it is represented in the national parliament and in every provincial legislature. That its membership could grow half a million within weeks of its formation last October, is an indication of the desire for an alternative which initially swept not just the middle class but also workers and youth into its ranks. With the class character of the leadership and its programme now clearer, workers would have left just as quickly as they joined. Workers are more interested in jobs, education, housing — the more mundane concerns of everyday life – rather than abstract issues like the ‘rule of law’ which the Cope leadership was pre-occupied with. The membership is now in all likelihood much smaller and mainly middle class. Nevertheless, much more significant than its size is the fact that it came out of the ANC, and cannot so easily be dismissed.

A closer examination of the election results show that although the ANC remains the dominant party by far, in percentage terms its majority has been reduced from 69.2% to 65.9% nationally, losing 33 seats. The fact that the ANC has fallen below two-thirds symbolises a loss of the momentum of history. Its aura of invincibility has been dented.

In the provincial elections held simultaneously, its support declined in eight of the nine provinces, by more than 10% in four of them. In the Western Cape, for the first time, the DA inflicted a decisive defeat on the ANC, coming very close to obtaining an outright majority.

The ANC’s convincing 62% victory in Kwa Zulu Natal had much more to do with the historic demise of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a party that collaborated with the apartheid regime, acting as its instrument in the notorious “black-on-black” violence that claimed over 20,000 lives in the early 1990s. Zuma also unashamedly flaunted his Zulu origins, portraying himself as a loyal adherent of the less progressive features of Zulu culture, appealing particularly to the rural voters – previously a bastion of IFP support.

In absolute numbers, the ANC increased its votes by just over 750,000 compared to 2004. However, amongst the big three parties, its share of the 3 million plus newly registered voters was the smallest. The DA’s increase was 1 million and Cope came from nowhere to take 1.3 million. More importantly, the ANC’s additional 750,000 votes came entirely from Kwa Zulu Natal which, as the Sunday Independent (26/04/09) points out, accounted for nearly a fifth of the ANC’s total vote nationally.

Whereas its 10.8 million in 2004 proved sufficient for a near 70% parliamentary majority in 2004, 11.6 million was not enough for even a two-thirds majority in 2009. As in 2004 its parliamentary majority masked its decline in support in the eligible voting population, as a whole. The ANC’s massive 2004 majority resulted from a decline in participation in the elections by disillusioned voters across all social classes but particularly the minorities, the middle class, youth and sections of the most marginalised of the working class who either did not vote or did not even bother to register. The ANC had merely received the biggest share of a smaller cake.

The ANC’s 11.6 million votes constitute only 34.8% of the 30 million eligible voters thus continuing the descent revealed in 2004 when its 0.8 million votes translated into 38% of the eligible voting population. As in the previous election, in 2009, the number of people who did not vote, 12.4 million (7 million unregistered plus 5.4 million registered) was greater than the number who voted ANC – 11.6 million. In percentage terms, as well as relative to the eligible voting population, the ANC’s vote was lower than at any time since the defeat of apartheid in 1994, despite the R200 million it spent in the most expensive election campaign ever.

Its overwhelming majority reflects its position in parliament vs. the opposition parties — not within the population as a whole.

Social polarisation – the basis of the ANC split

The political stage in the drama of the ANC split may have been overshadowed by the two dominant political actors of the last decade – Mbeki and Zuma. But the material basis for the split in the ANC was the class polarisation in society accelerated by the ANC’s neo-liberal capitalist policies of which the conflict between the Mbeki and Zuma factions was an indirect expression. The spectacular profits of the still predominant white capitalist class and the enrichment of their apprentices – the BEE mafikizolo black capitalists – while millions of working class people have to make do with welfare grants to stave off absolute poverty, have sharpened the antagonisms between the classes.

In his first address to the nation as ANC president, Zuma took the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the “longest period of economic growth in SA history” generally associated with and attributed to Mbeki’s allegedly astute leadership in economic policies. Ironically, it is this very boom – for 40 consecutive quarters during the late part of which (2004 -2007) economic growth averaged more than 5% – that laid the basis for the split in the ANC forcing the Zuma-led faction to oust Mbeki – the alleged architect of SA’s economic growth.

But claims of economic policy success disregard both the impact of the growth on SA’s economy and its social effects. Apart from the increased neo-colonial dependency of the SA economy on imperialist countries, the deepening poverty of the masses, persistent mass unemployment, homelessness, exclusion from education, lack of access to decent health care, the HIV/Aids pandemic (claiming 1,000 lives a day), a dismal record in the delivery of basic services, rampant corruption, the horrifying escalation in crime and the worst inequalities in the distribution of wealth in the world – these are the “achievements” of the golden age of economic growth whose virtues Zuma extolled in his first address as president of the ANC in January 2008.

Although competition for access to state resources, opportunities for self-enrichment and the prestige of senior positions in government and state institutions is an important ingredient in the factional conflict, this is a secondary factor in the split. The ANC split came about because of conflicting reactions of the two factions to the growing discontent of the masses and the escalation in the class struggle: the service delivery protests and the increase in strikes in the workplace struggles, most spectacularly in the 2007 public sector strike – the biggest, longest and most highly politicised strike against the ANC government since it came to power.

Buoyed by the support of Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the SACP (South African Communist Party), Zuma has portrayed himself as a champion of the poor and the marginalised. Cope, on the other hand, represents that faction of the pro-capitalist ANC elite which, recognising the sharpening class antagonisms, concluded that the ANC cannot continue to portray itself as the party representing the interests of all classes when it is in fact a capitalist party. Cope leaders wanted the ANC to have the courage of its class convictions – to come out of the closet and portray itself as unashamedly capitalist. In that sense, Cope is the ANC shorn of its revolutionary pretensions – a more honest version of itself.

According to former deputy defence minister (now Cope leader) Mluleki George: “The Alliance used to work but now the South African Communist Party wants to control it…We have to drop the language of Stalinism and the national democratic revolution and move beyond the constraints of an outdated alliance. People from the left, including the Communist Party, are welcome but if they want to take the revolution onto its second [‘fully Marxist’] stage, they need to go elsewhere.” (Mail & Guardian Online 17.10.09)

Zuma government cannot deliver

The Sunday Times’ correspondent, Fred Khumalo, explained (12.04.09) that Zuma’s second name, Gedleyihlekisa, is the shortened form of a Zulu sentence meaning “I won’t keep quiet when someone deceives me with a beautiful smile while he is doing damage to me”. As he accedes to the presidency, while his chief tormentor wanders around in the political wilderness, Zuma has good reason to feel the gods are smiling on him after all his travails.

Zuma was acquitted in a rape trial that his supporters claimed had been a “honey trap”. Just weeks before the elections, the corruption charges, so spitefully reinstated shortly after his victory over Mbeki for the presidency of the ANC, were dropped, this time finally. The revelations of political manipulation of the prosecution vindicated Zuma’s claim of a political conspiracy. But there is a Xhosa expression: “be careful what you wish for. You may just get it”.

Zuma is taking over as president at the worst possible time. The world economy is facing the most serious crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The boom that Zuma claimed credit for is over. The SA economy, integrated into and dependent even more on the world economy over the past 15 years, is described by the Economist as the most risky of all emerging markets, as it nose-dives towards its first recession in 17 years. The government is forecasting a budget deficit of 3.8% for the year through March 2010. In February it cut the tax revenue target by R50 billion because of falling profits in the miming industry, which accounts for 30% of exports. Unemployment is expected to swell by half-a-million by the end of the year.

The ‘Polokwane revolution’ was more than simply in opposition to Zuma’s persecution by Mbeki. It was a rebellion against the ANC’s neo-liberal capitalist policies that had wreaked havoc on the lives of the masses for more than a decade. Both factions, Mbeki’s and Zuma’s, bear equal political responsibility for these policies. Contrary to what many may believe, Polokwane did not reinvent the ANC. “The Zuma ANC succeeded through a shrewd election strategy in portraying itself more as an opposition party intent on righting the wrongs of the Mbeki era than as the party in whose name the abuses took place.” (Business Day 04.05.09) The party that was created historically to fulfil the class aspirations of the emerging black capitalist class remains committed to the preservation of capitalism. The capitalist ANC leopard has not changed its spots.

The assurances given to big business at home and imperialism abroad that there will be no fundamental changes in economic policy are a recipe for social conflict. The capitalists’ answer to the economic crisis is to make the working class pay. Zuma will continue to come under enormous pressure from big business to maintain the anti-working class policies of the last fifteen years. If it was not possible to address even the most basic needs of the working class majority during a boom, how is it going to be possible to do so in a recession?

As the overwhelmingly dominant party voted in by the working class majority, the ANC was bound to reflect within itself the class polarisation within society as a whole. The 2009 elections were a continuation on the broader electoral plane, of the anti-neo-liberal capitalist Polokwane rebellion that took place within the ANC. The pressure on the Zuma government from the capitalist right will be matched by the working class pressures from the left. The Cosatu leadership, in particular, which has invested enormous political energy, political capital and material resources into the Zuma campaign, will be required to show a return on that investment or face the wrath of their members.

Already, even before the new government has taken office, there are tensions initially over secondary matters, such as appointments to government posts within the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. In an early indication of the contradictory class pressures bearing down on the ANC, national treasurer Matthews Phosa made it clear that “the ANC’s good economic policies would be entrenched by the new government and the SACP would not alter their course. Nobody will change these policies because they are members of the communist party in the cabinet. I don’t see how Nzimande (can) come and dictate SACP policy on the ANC.” (Star Business Report 16.04.09)

Sdumo Dlamini, the Cosatu president, told The Sunday Independent (19.04.09) that the ANC was “regressing to a Thabo Mbeki-style marginalisation of the alliance.” Complaining about a pattern of deliberate exclusion of alliance partners in the selection of provincial premiers, Sdumo Dlamini spoke of the presence in the ANC of anti-communist and anti-worker sentiment. “We can’t accept that. The ANC was rescued by the workers. This is why I say it is a declaration of war.”

Political turning point in post-apartheid SA

The 2009 elections represent a political turning point in post-apartheid SA. The idea that the ANC can be challenged has been legitimised. The overwhelming support it has been given from those who voted is not unconditional. Many workers voted on the basis that they want to give the party of liberation one more chance. The Zuma government’s honeymoon will be short. If it fails to address workers’ needs, a split within the Tripartite Alliance will be posed.

The factional tensions that came to a head at Polokwane continued beyond the conference and only subsided as the election campaign took off. But they have not gone away. Suspicions remain and will resurface as the incapacity of the Polokwane resolutions to resolve the problems of the working class become clear ripping apart what is more a ceasefire than unity.

The Cope split is only a precursor of future splits. Whereas Cope’s exit from the ANC was to the right, future splits will be to the left. They will not necessarily occur neatly along the fault-lines of Cosatu/SACP ANC class divide. The objective conditions for an alternative on the left are present.

Unfortunately, the creation of a mass anti-capitalist alternative is being blocked by the “official” left – the Cosatu and the SACP leadership. The number of Cosatu members who want the federation to break from the Tripartite Alliance and form a mass workers’ party has grown from 30% (in the September 1998 Naledi survey on workers’ political attitudes) to over 90% in 2008. Standing in the path of the workers is their own leadership, which is determined to reform capitalism instead of mobilising to abolish it.

Precisely at a time when the scale and depth of the worldwide capitalist crisis provides the opportunity to make the case forcefully for socialism, the SACP leadership’s nails its colours to the mast of the capitalist market. Its Freedom Day statement, like the analysis of the world economic crisis by Nzimande and SACP deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, makes no reference to socialism whatsoever. In a Sunday Times debate with the DA’s Ryan Coetzee, Cronin makes it clear not only that the communist party is not opposed to the capitalist market, but describes it as more efficient than Soviet-style central planning! The SACP declares its confidence in capitalism at a time when capitalist governments the world over are engaging in the biggest nationalisations in capitalist history.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) campaigns for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. We believe that the social raw material for a mass anti-capitalist movement is already present in working class communities involved in service delivery protests; in the now regular student protests against financial and academic exclusions from tertiary education institutions and in workplace struggles. What is needed is for these tributaries of protest to flow together into one mighty anti-capitalist river.

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May 2009