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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

SAM Calendar[Source: by Judith February.]

2015 has started off on a particularly bad note, with scores killed in suicide bomb attacks in Nigeria, and at least another 35 people dying in Yemen on the same day as the chilling assault on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris.

Around us, we look for leaders to say the right thing and find words that would express some of the confusion and anger we feel upon witnessing these attacks on the innocent and on democratic values. The United Nations seems entirely without a plan to deal with such events as they happen, and global leaders seem uninterested in finding solutions that would take them out of their comfort zones and towards more inclusive policy approaches.

In South Africa 2015 holds promise, but equally it holds the continued concerns about inequality, poverty and exclusion. We were recently reminded of that as the African National Congress (ANC) celebrated 103 years of existence. As Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the ANC can be rightly proud of leading South Africa to its first democratic election in 1994. However, the materialistic brashness with which current birthdays are celebrated makes it is easy to forget the ANC’s proud struggle against racial oppression.

Founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the party was later named the African National Congress. Its first president, John Dube, was a minister and school headmaster, while co-founder Pixley Ka Seme was a lawyer and prime mover in organising the meeting to establish the Congress. The diary of then secretary-general Sol Plaatje is an erudite record of the conditions at the time.

These were individuals who understood the value of education as a tool for liberation, and also the power of engagement. Earlier this month, as the ANC ‘came to Cape Town,’ one got a decidedly different feel with National Executive Committee members living large at the city’s most expensive hotels. It truly felt as if the ANC leadership had swooped in to deliver some cursory goodwill messages to the poor.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was seen paying R100 for chicken feet (which usually cost R5) on the streets of Langa. Meanwhile Jessie Duarte, ANC Deputy Secretary-General was clear in her call to ‘liberate’ the Western Cape – calling it an ‘apartheid’ province. To start interrogating her flippant comments would take a while, but clearly we are in election mode ahead of the 2016 local government elections.

This is not to deny the challenges that the Western Cape faces, or the unique and damaging race politics that play out here every day. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is also facing renewed contestation from within, and the so-called ‘toilet saga’, as well as the increasingly heavy-handed style of city governance, are issues that the ANC should rightly exploit, and call the DA to account on. Yet to suggest that ANC-run provinces don’t have challenges, or to gloss over those, is simply disingenuous.

The Eastern Cape has some of the poorest performing schools in the country, and some departments in ANC-run provinces such as Limpopo were in such disarray due to corruption and maladministration that they were placed under administration. It was also the ANC that formed an alliance with the New National Party to gain power in the Western Cape in 2004. The facts are often inconvenient, but selective memory will not take the ANC further in this province; nor will its largely vacuous, bickering and opportunistic leadership.

Descending on a shopping mall in Mitchell’s Plain is not enough to regain this province, nor will a few flyers and eating chicken feet with ‘the people’ do the trick. That simply feels like a modern-day version of the Roman ‘bread and games’ in the Colosseum: the politics of theatre punctuated with a jolly Mshini Wam.

Zuma’s speech on 8 January also fell far short. We have heard it all before, and given his credibility problem it’s hard to take seriously what he says about fighting corruption specifically. Despite the cheers in the stadium, the Expropriation Bill is old news and was approved by cabinet last year. Talk of the youth wage subsidy or fixing local government is not new, and neither are mutterings about judicial transformation and cohesion within mining communities.

At government level, Zuma has left a great deal to his deputy, Ramaphosa, to fix. Whether he is able to do so almost single-handedly and deal with the crises in state-owned enterprises will be hard to tell, for instance. We wait and see and hope for improvements in relation to Eskom, South African Airways and the South African Post Office. It’s a tall order, but his success will be the country’s, surely?

The president should do more to flesh out issues in his state of the nation address, though his record at the opening of Parliament has been poor. Of course, there is also the ANC National General Council (NGC) meeting in June, which is essentially a mid-term review of ANC policy. In the past some of these gatherings have been catalytic. Who can forget the NGC of 2005 and the tensions surrounding policy and personality, and Zuma’s eventual rise to power as a direct result?

The ANC knows the local government elections will see them face their greatest electoral challenge countrywide. A brief look at the metro results during last year’s elections is a clear indication of the ANC’s loss of support in key areas. The party knows, too, that despite the bluster of this past weekend, its president is deeply flawed and increasingly citizens are asking what the current ANC leadership, sipping on Moët and living it up in five-star hotels, have done with the rich legacy of Pixley Ka Seme, John Dube, OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Chief Luthuli and others? What has it done with its intellectual tradition, and why has divisive rhetoric replaced real engagement.

Despite the weekend’s show, it feels as if the ANC has run out of ideas and steam. South Africa cannot afford a limp, lethargic ANC if it is to face its challenges head on. It is for this reason that the rejuvenation of the ANC is in the country’s best interests. The question is whether that ship can be turned around, and by whom?


Judith February, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria


South Africa at a Glance
58 780 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in June 2019 (CPI) & +5.8 y/y in June 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
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