December 05, 2015

Politics in South Africa is likely to remain dominated by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the near future; however, growing frustration over the lack of economic opportunities and widespread corruption is expected to encourage increased support for opposition groups. Efforts to attract supporters, both between and within political parties, are likely to exacerbate the use of populist and xenophobic rhetoric, thereby polarizing political competition in South Africa. President Jacob Zuma is likely to retain significant political power even after the end of his presidency in 2019, possibly enough to influence the future governance of the country.

Increasing Challenge From Post-Apartheid Generation

The ANC came to power through South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections in 1994, and the relatively peaceful transition to democracy was held up as the example to the whole continent. Notably, the merger of previously opposed armed groups formed the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), and the apartheid era security apparatus accepted black-majority civilian rule. ANC leaders have since consistently been re-elected as president, though the party’s share of parliamentary seats has steadily declined since its peak in 2004. Zuma has denied any desire to alter the national Constitution to allow him to run for a third term, and the ANC currently lacks the two-thirds majority required to pass such an amendment.

Nevertheless, the ANC has an almost unchallenged hold over governance across much of the country, and has attempted to manage a free market economy in partnership with powerful trade unions. South Africa has been hit hard by falling demand for commodities, unemployment is rising and currently stands at 25 percent, and there is perception among many black South Africans that they remain trapped in poverty. As the party’s tenure lengthens, its historic attempts to present itself as a radical revolutionary movement are increasingly out of sync with its responsibility for its 21 years in power. A “born-free” generation of South Africans, born since the end of apartheid, is increasingly aware of this contradiction and does not share previous generations’ sense of political obligation to the ANC. A more confrontational form of politics, which exploits social and economic divisions, is likely to emerge from this shift in political loyalties, resulting in an increase in the frequency and scale of political protests and disruptions to economic activity.

The ANC’s dominance is likely to diminish due to the growth of organized political opposition following the stagnation of South Africa’s economy and perceptions of corruption. The Democratic Alliance (DA), which traces its roots to the Progressive Party that opposed the apartheid regime, is the primary political opposition in South Africa. While the DA has steadily increased its share of parliamentary seats, it remains predominantly supported by the white minority, and its ideological distinction limits its attraction as an alternative to the socialist ANC. The DA demands increased economic liberalization, pointing to alleged corruption and nepotism in state-run enterprises dominated by ANC loyalists. The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party was formed in 2013 and promotes a radical Africanist-Marxist ideology, often using large-scale political demonstrations to disrupt economic activity. The EFF attracts support through public accusations that the ANC has failed to address economic inequality and poverty among black South Africans. As such, the EFF poses the most significant threat to the ANC’s hold on power.

Competion wtih EFF for Supporters Likely to Polarize Attitudes

Competitive elections are almost certain to continue in South Africa, though the ANC is likely to lose further votes to the DA and EFF. While neither opposition party is likely to challenge the ANC’s hold on power in the short-to-medium term, the ANC may attempt to duplicate EFF ideology in an attempt win back former supporters. In turn, this could further radicalize the EFF’s rhetoric and activities as it attempts to distance itself from the ruling party. The ANC’s response to growing opposition is likely to lead to a more confrontational and antagonistic political environment, increasing the likelihood of disruptive protests and political direct action.

The ANC could also attempt to co-opt the EFF’s radical economic agenda it continues to feel threatened at the polls. While a limited number of them have become prosperous, there is a perception among many black South Africans that they remain systematically marginalized. Such frustrations have resulted in growing racial and emerging xenophobic animosities, which are occasionally exploited by the political elite. The EFF’s firebrand leader, Julius Malema, has been criticized for using rhetoric that could be understood as endorsing violence against non-black property owners. In February 2015, Zuma himself outlined a plan for land reform, which included a ban on foreign ownership and limits on the size of farms. Such a policy would likely result in the appropriation of white-owned properties, and could be a first attempt by Zuma to co-opt the EFF's radical economic platform.

Zuma has been criticized for failing to condemn xenophobic violence in South Africa, and may exploit the factors behind such incidents for political gain and to create a nationalist point of distinction from the EFF. Racial divides that reflect the segregation of the apartheid era are merging with contemporary concerns over trans-African immigration and socioeconomic inequalities. Low-income and unemployed South Africans often accuse foreign Africans of being in the country illegally, accepting lower wages than domestic workers, and committing crimes. At times, this has escalated into semi-organized violence, which particularly targets Ethiopians, Malawians, Mozambicans, Nigerians, and Somalis. In addition, business owners of Asian origin often face resentment for their relatively greater wealth. Further political competition could therefore increase racial tensions, leading to a greater potential for xenophobic violence.

Perceived Partiality Mars Military's Image

The military has remained subordinate to civilian political authorities, and has only rarely ventured into the civic domain; notable exceptions being assisting police in responding to organized, xenophobic violence. Nevertheless, although individuals in the armed forces publicly observe political neutrality, there are growing concerns that promotions and appointments to key positions are reserved for ANC members. The attendance of senior officers at ANC rallies has intensified perceptions that a political glass ceiling exists for non-ANC supporters in the military hierarchy. Two cases relating to the alleged use of military airfields at the request of the ANC have also undermined perceptions of its political neutrality.

Public perceptions of the SANDF’s impartiality will likely continue to be undermined if military commanders continue to be associated with the ANC; however, there are no expectations that the armed forces will intervene in civic life in the foreseeable future. South Africa’s defense institutions have at times also been linked to corrupt government procurement projects, such as the 1999 Strategic Defence Acquisition (SDA), which was intended to upgrade all functions of the military. In 2005, Zuma’s financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of corruption relating to the purchase of equipment for the South African Navy and Air Force. Zuma himself stepped down as deputy president after he was charged with receiving kickbacks related to the procurement; the allegations were eventually dropped, though the scandal later led to the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki.

Growing Popular Dissent to Corruption Allegations 

Corruption in South Africa is a growing concern but less so compared with many countries in the region. South Africa was placed 67th in a 2014 a global transparency index of 175 countries; however, the country topped a 2015 continent-wide survey on perceived corruption, with 83 percent of respondents stating that corruption had increased in the past 12 months. Corruption allegations have been made at all levels of government, and include the misappropriation of funds, bribery, and embezzlement. Judicial bodies designated with investigating corruption appear increasingly unwilling or unable to confront allegations leveled at senior political figures. The corruption charges against Zuma relating to the SDA were dropped on the grounds that they were politically motivated, despite the successful prosecution of Shaik over the same project. A Commission of Inquiry, appointed in 2011 to investigate the SDA, did not call on Zuma to provide testimony when it held hearings in 2015.

In 2011, the first of several allegations, which continue to resurface, were made against Zuma for inappropriately using public funds to furnish his Nklanda private residence. Furthermore, political supporters are often posted to positions within the civil service and state-owned enterprises, and such appointments are therefore seen as being based on political loyalty rather than merit. Persistent allegations of corruption and incompetence among appointed political officials are becoming an increasingly important political issue in the country, and have resulted in large-scale protests by civil society groups and trade unions. Perceptions of entrenched corruption within the government, and ANC by association, will likely continue until judicial authorities can successfully prosecute a high-profile corruption case.

Loyalist Successor Likely to Sharpen Political Divisions

Zuma will likely seek to ensure that his successor will be dependent on his powerbase to wield influence, and can therefore be relied on to protect him from prosecution. Currently, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, head of the African Union and Zuma’s ex-wife, is slowly building the political support required to successfully contest Deputy President Cyril Ramaposa for leadership of the party in 2017, and its candidacy for president in 2019. Dlamini-Zuma is understood to have the backing of ANC provincial leaders in Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, and North West. Members from KwaZulu-Natal are the largest voting bloc in the ANC, and their support will be critical in selecting the party’s presidential candidate at its 2017 national elective conference. Zuma and Dlamini-Zuma remain allies, and it is broadly understood that the latter owes her career to Zuma. As such, Zuma is likely to retain significant political power, possibly sufficient to influence Dlamini-Zuma were she to become president.

The succession battle is expected to become bitter, with Dlamini-Zuma likely to use xenophobic and economically populist rhetoric to draw contrast with Ramaposa, who is often described as the business-friendly face of the ANC. This would likely be repeated, and intensified, during the 2019 elections if the ANC attempts to co-opt EFF supporters. However, given that Zuma has yet to be legally exonerated in relation to many of the corruption charges he has faced, future prosecutions would not face double jeopardy restrictions. As opposition groups gain influence, calls for further corruption investigations will likely increase. Should these allegations become a threat to the ANC party as a whole, Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters may abandon her, and Jacob Zuma by association.

This article, by Africa Regional Analyst Tom Richardson, is Part 3 in iJET’s Pan-African Leadership Study (PALS) project, which seeks to assess the security threat posed by contests over national-level political leadership in sub-Saharan Africa. PALS uses a comparative case study methodology, based on a closed answer questionnaire that examines dictatorial leadership; ethnic and religious polarization; corruption; and the role of the military.

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