South Africa's Jacob Zuma. Photo by <br><a href="">Albert Bredenhann</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
South Africa's Jacob Zuma. Photo by
Albert Bredenhann (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Testing Democracy in South Africa

Dec 1, 2008

Upcoming municipal elections may test South Africa's young democracy for the first time since the end of all-white rule in 1994. The Congress of the People (COPE), a new political party formed by dissident senior members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), could win control of key posts in the Western Cape province's December by-elections. Some worry that this sudden political realignment, could ignite a civil war.

To many, South Africa represents the last best hope for democracy and development in sub-Saharan Africa. A modern, increasingly prosperous state boasting a progressive constitution and a diverse population, South Africa has become the continent's indispensable nation, mediating conflicts in Congo, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, and providing an example of sound management in a region with a woeful economic record. Beyond Africa, the "rainbow nation" is admired for its successful political reconciliation following 52 years of officially sanctioned racial apartheid.

The ANC has sat alone atop South African politics for 15 years, wielding power and patronage in equal measures. Its supermajority in the National Assembly—279 out of 400 seats—allows it to dictate policy. Most agree it has done so with benevolence. Living standards in South Africa have increased significantly since the end of apartheid. Rates of access to education and services are among the highest in Africa. But the great promise of democratic reform has shown signs of an all-too-familiar pattern—the African continent, emotionally wounded by its colonial past, often rewards its liberation heroes with long tenures in power. And long tenures in power tend to corrupt even the most heroic politicians.

Despite its ubiquity, the ANC is far from homogeneous. Since 1990, the ANC has maintained a fragile "tripartite alliance" with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a coalition of 22 unions boasting nearly 2 million members. Under Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, the ANC governed from the center, occasionally angering these alliance partners with its pragmatic approach to economic and social issues. Critics have accused the ANC of a policy bias in favor of economic growth at the expense of poverty reduction.

These internal tensions have concentrated around the relationship between Mbeki, who recently resigned as president, and his one-time deputy, Jacob Zuma. The political rivalry between them reflects deep tribal, ideological, and class-based fault lines within the ANC. Mbeki, like Mandela, is Xhosa, an ethnic group whose dominance of the ANC and other key elements of South African public life has led some to posit the existence of a "Xhosa Nostra." The son of legendary ANC leader Govan Mbeki, Thabo was groomed for power from a young age. He spent the bulk of the apartheid years in exile, studying economics at the University of Essex in England. He is considered an able manager, intellectually gifted yet personally remote.

As charismatic as Mbeki is aloof, Zuma was born into poverty and received no formal education. An ethnic Zulu, he spent 10 years at the notorious political prison camp on Robben Island, convicted of attempting to overthrow the government and for membership in the outlawed ANC. Upon release in 1973, he too went into exile, managing the ANC's underground intelligence and military campaigns from his base in Lusaka, Zambia. His signature campaign song, "Umshini Wami," translates as "Bring Me My Machine Gun." Zuma is closely allied to the trade union movement, drawing the bulk of his support from residents of South Africa's poorest townships.

Zuma was fired by Mbeki as deputy president in 2005, ostensibly for a bribery conviction stemming from his relationship with a corrupt businessman. It is likelier that the motivation was political, with Mbeki seeking to block Zuma's ascent to the presidency. Zuma's disgrace, however, was short-lived—he successfully outmaneuvered Mbeki in 2007 for control of the ANC. A judge recently nullified Zuma's corruption conviction on grounds that the government had pursued a "vindictive prosecution." Shortly after the judge's ruling, Mbeki stepped down as president.

The ANC has allegedly discussed the possibility of calling early national elections in March 2009 as a ploy to catch the COPE unprepared. A recent poll found the ANC winning any ballot handily, but many COPE supporters report having been intimidated into declaring allegiance to the ANC.

Both sides have indulged in flamboyant rhetoric. Julius Malema, leader of the ANC Youth League, spurred controversy when he told supporters in June that he was ready to "kill for Zuma," a sentiment echoed by COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. COPE recently apologized to Zuma for remarks made by its youth leader Anele Mda, who had suggested that under a Zuma presidency "rape will no longer be a criminal offense." In 2006, Zuma was cleared of charges that he had raped a woman at his home in Johannesburg.

If recent developments are any indication, the political battle between the ANC and COPE has the potential to sow mass chaos in South Africa—a legitimate challenge to the ANC's hold on power would be the true test of South Africa's unconsolidated democracy.

Quiet please. Testing in progress.

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