African National Congress flag and logo.
African National Congress flag and logo.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Liberation Debt in the New South Africa

May 6, 2009

Debt is a powerful force in the new South Africa. "I voted A.N.C. because I owe the party," a young South African told Barry Bearak of the New York Times. "They liberated the country and I am repaying the debt."

Loyalty to the African National Congress remains strong, despite corruption allegations that surrounded presidential candidate Jacob Zuma until recently, and cynicism over what the party has been able to deliver for the country over the past fifteen years. The case can be made that the ANC has neglected its obligations to the people on issues ranging from economic equality to crime and public health. In the UN's 2007/2008 Human Development Report, South Africa ranks 55 out of 108 in the Human Poverty Index, only a few spots ahead of the Republic of the Congo.

None of this is a secret to South Africans. Yet the election demonstrates how the sacred symbolism of the ANC can triumph over even the destitution of its constituents. "I am an A.N.C. man until the day I die," an unemployed South African voter told the New York Times. "I don't care who the candidate is as long as he is A.N.C." This symbolic power was further elevated when party patriarch Nelson Mandela endorsed Jacob Zuma last month.

Playing off the politics of nostalgia can prevent voters from seeing the present clearly and critically. The ongoing transmission of South African history both domestically and abroad through print and other media has no doubt contributed to the ANC mystique. South African youth today is both distanced from their national past yet also submerged in narratives of the apartheid struggle—and this contrast can make them slightly uneasy.

In his recent election campaign, Zuma went beyond print media and evoked ANC nostalgia with song and dance. His signature song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," comes right out of the old ANC military training camps. Through song, Zuma manages to engage the bodies and emotions of a wide-ranging public, and affirm a particularly "African" form of social communication. He asserts himself as anti-establishment, populist, and in touch with a deeper cultural past.

A similar revolutionary nostalgia grips Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe is famous for using old revolutionary songs to stir up ZANU-PF supporters, and for his polarizing rhetoric that insists on Zimbabwe's sovereignty vis-à-vis Western powers. Citizens and leaders alike harbor loyalty to the heroes of independence. The wounds and fears of white domination still linger, cementing the region's commitment to solidarity, perhaps at the expense of more robust political reform.

Despite problems in neighboring Zimbabwe, South Africa has not put serious pressure on Mugabe, bound as they are by historic and filial ties as well as economic ones. The ANC is indebted to Zimbabwe for hosting its nascent rebel movement during the apartheid struggle, and Mugabe still stands as a charismatic role model and "grand old man of liberation" for Thabo Mbeki and many others. Furthermore, South Africa seeks to pursue a non-interventionist multilateral approach and shed its image as a regional appendage of the West.

It is unclear whether Zuma will distance himself from this old-boy network and from Mbeki's "quiet engagement" with Zimbabwe. Zuma once stoked Zimbabwean hopes by issuing harsh criticism of Mugabe and the ZANU-PF. Since then, however, he has endorsed Mbeki's diplomatic policy and the recent power-sharing accord in Zimbabwe, and lambasted the West for refusing to pump in more development aid despite the lack of economic reform.

The tragic consequence of these old loyalties and cross-border politics has been the scapegoating of African immigrants. Refugees are targeted for violence and xenophobia instead of anger being directed at government ineptitude related to unemployment, overcrowding, and crime. The violence reached a climax last year in May when several dozen foreigners were killed and tens of thousands of refugees from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, and other African nations were forced to flee their homes due to brutal attacks.

A narrative of national trauma can lend itself to an almost mechanical belief in justice—the sense that there is a logic to suffering and sacrifice as either deserved or deserving. As long as South Africa upholds this accounting of social debt, the door will remain open to entitlement, abuse of power, and lack of accountability.

Political parties transform over their lifetimes, often changing character with the changing of the guard or becoming a national myth devoid of its original content—thus the social contract between them and the people demands constant reevaluation. The ANC and ZANU-PF are not entirely bereft of their founding principles, but their failure to redress social inequality means they should be seen for what they are and not what they once were. Will Zuma sing "Bring Me My Presidential Daily Planner" with the same gusto?

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