South Africa: enter the stormy petrel

Anver Versi

As the ANC freezes out its rebels, could a heroine from the past provide a rallying point for dissent?

The entry of Dr Mamphela Ramphele, a heroine of the fight against apartheid and lover of the legendary Steve Biko, into South Africa’s political arena has suddenly injected new life in the country’s moribund party politics. While the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has publicly dismissed her new party, Agang (‘to build’ in Sotho), as little more than a passing irritation, in private it seems sufficiently worried to try to snuff out whatever threat she may pose to the ANC juggernaut in next year’s general elections.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu, referring to reports that the party was raising funds in foreign countries, warned: “We just hope that the pumping of foreign funds into South Africa will not undermine the further democratisation and transformation of our country.” He was suggesting that Dr Ramphele, once a director of the World Bank and now regarded as something of a westernised academic, is out of touch with the common person in South Africa – unlike the ANC. “We will meet her where it matters most, in the hearts and minds of our people.”

But that is precisely the problem for the ANC today. The party, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, is being accused of having turned its back on its grassroots supporters, of becoming self-obsessed, of tolerating widespread corruption and of excessive largesse in handing out ‘favours’ to its chosen party faithful.

Ramphele rubbed it in. “Corruption, nepotism and patronage have become the hallmarks of the conduct of many in public service,” she said. As to Mthembu’s accusations that she was “grievance-driven”, the party responded by saying that she was indeed grievance-driven, not for herself but for “the disaffected millions who do not vote. I can reach voters from poor, rural regions. I come from there,” she says.

“It is woeful, shameful that we should have such low expectations of young South Africans that we are prepared to accept 30 percent as a pass mark for school leavers,” she says, alluding to the government’s catastrophic failure to fulfil its promise of “opening the doors of education to all”.

According to the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index, South Africa ranks 132nd out of 144 countries for its primary education and 143rd in science and maths. This is completely out of step with the rest of Africa where primary school enrolment is around 70 percent and literacy and numeracy levels are rising. South Africa’s Department of Education’s literacy and numeracy test discovered that only 15 percent of children had achieved the minimum basic literacy level. For maths, the figure is only 12 percent. There is a shortfall of 15,000 teachers per year and absenteeism within the profession is rampant. While 75 percent of white students complete their higher education, the figure for black students is only 25 percent.

The social and economic implications of this disastrous situation are grim. The majority of students leave school with few, if any, skills to find worthwhile jobs. Almost half of nursing jobs, for example, remain vacant because applicants do not meet minimum educational qualifications. The real unemployment rate is closer to 40 percent than the official figure of 25 percent and it is estimated that almost half of the under 24s, who should be the most productive segment of society, have no work.

South Africa’s economy is struggling to grow at 2.5 percent in stark contrast to the rest of Africa, which is clipping along at a healthy six to seven percent. Wildcat strikes have been a feature of the past three years and the contagion effect of the shooting of miners by the police at Marikana last year has devastated the mining industry. Mining output declined by an average of 7.8 percent in 2012.

Foreign investment has been drying up – not least as a result of the strident campaign to nationalise mines led by the firebrand ANC Youth leader, Julius Malema. Although Malema has been slapped down by the ANC and the nationalisation issue has been put to rest – Public Services Minister Malusi Gigaba said “the issue of nationalisation, across the industrial board, is off the table” – the damage has been done.

The days when foreign investors automatically looked at South Africa as a destination before considering other African countries are gone. Yet South Africa needs vast new injections of capital into its infrastructure upgrade, in power generation, in rehabilitating its mining industry and in clearing transport backlogs if its industrial and agricultural sectors are to grow sufficiently rapidly to provide decent jobs to the growing army of increasingly restive youth.

For this to happen, the country’s political leadership will have to make a dramatic turn and reconnect with the aspirations of the majority. Rhetoric alone will no longer suffice; the people want delivery of the services they were promised and they want it now.

So, does Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang stand a realistic chance of embarrassing, or even upsetting the ANC in the elections next year? At this point, that prospect looks highly unrealistic. The ANC is still the most popular party among the black majority but that support has been decreasing. The ANC won 69 percent of the vote in 2004; it fell to 65 percent in 2009 and dropped to 62 percent in last year’s municipal elections – a loss of 7.69 percent of the national vote in seven years. In the meantime, the opposition Democratic Alliance’s share of the vote grew from 12.3 percent in 2004 to 16.6 percent in 2009 and to 23.9 percent last year, a total gain of 11.6 percent.

Alistair Sparks, the former editor of South Africa’s Sunday Times, says the tipping point in the country’s political system would be for the ANC majority to drop to 55 percent. To achieve this, the combined opposition would only need to take an extra 7 percent of the vote from the ANC during the elections in 2014.

“And suddenly,” says South African journalist Tom Nevin, “the unthinkable is possible: that the ANC, at 100 years, Africa’s oldest political party and the people’s legendary stalwart, might find itself in the opposition after next year’s election.”

And just as suddenly, Ramphela’s new party no longer looks like the innocent waif it first appeared. It could grab whatever swing votes are going and put paid to the balance of power that is now being taken for granted.

It also makes sense of her response when asked if she would join the Democratic Alliance: “We are not here to occupy a space that is already occupied.” She has also said that joining another party was “passive” whereas what the country now needed was an active challenge to the ANC’s dominance.

But pundits point out that she has neither the organisation nor the type of heavyweight political support that is essential if Agang is to make more than a dent in the ANC’s bulwark. In this respect, help may be on the way from within the ANC’s own ranks.

The ANC’s policy conference, held once every four years, is where leaders are made and unmade. During the previous conference, former President Thabo Mbeki was “stabbed in the back” and dethroned from the party leadership and hence from standing at the 2009 elections. It saw the rise of Jacob Zuma who duly won the presidential elections because “whoever rules the ANC” rules South Africa.

The latest party conference, held at Mangaung, the metropolitan area of Bloemfontein, turned into a night of the long knives. There was some speculation over the degree of support that Zuma enjoyed within the party, especially after he had gone head-to-head against the fire-breathing Julius Malema, the popular leader of the ANC youth wing.

Sensing that Zuma had been weakened by the government’s failure to deliver services and that support for the party was weakening, vice-president Kgalema Motlanthe and some of his supporters challenged Zuma for the party leadership. Zuma steamrollered Motlanthe and the ‘dissenters’ were excluded from all important party positions. Instead, the former mining trade union boss and veteran of the struggle against apartheid, but now one of the richest men in South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa was elevated to vice-president.

He thus becomes heir apparent (when Zuma leaves office at the end of his second term) for the national presidency.

This wholesale sweeping out of many of the party’s stalwarts has left them with nowhere to go. The Democratic Alliance, which is mainly white, coloured and Indian, is not an attractive alternative. Will Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang prove to be the sanctuary they need in order to mount a fresh challenge against the party that rejected them?

Over the next year at least, expect South Africa’s party politics to turn nasty. It could be just what the country needs to stop the slide.


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