The ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa promises change for South Africa, but with a history of favoring neoliberal policy and entrenched with the old guard and its ties to the former apartheid regime, many South Africans are holding out hope.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — If ever there was a pivotal moment for South Africa’s young democracy, it was likely two years after voters of all races went to the polls for the first time, when President Nelson Mandela’s ruling party, the African National Congress, decided to proceed with construction of a mammoth, $8 billion dam project in neighboring Lesotho.
This was part of a larger plan by the ANC to repay nearly $18 billion in public debts borrowed by the apartheid government during 46 years of white-settler rule. The plan was a bid to woo Wall Street and persuade international financiers that the black-majority government had curbed its communist impulses and was now willing to play ball.
With the material needs of South African blacks so exhaustive, and given his own exalted stature on the world stage, Madiba, as the iconic Mandela is often referred to, could have easily repudiated the debts, which are considered “odious” under international law. Moreover, the dam project was impractical, to say the least, leaving thousands of acres of arable land buried underwater and forcing thousands of sheepherders and farmers to relocate — merely to water the lawns, wash the cars, and fill the swimming pools of the very people responsible for apartheid.
The ANC’s turn towards neoliberalism was not taken lightly, however, and the resulting fractious debates coincided with internecine power struggles to succeed Mandela as president. Leading the charge to access global finance was Thabo Mbeki, a British-trained economist and expatriate. Mbeki outlasted one rival, Chris Hani — the wildly popular head of South Africa’s Communist Party and chief-of-staff of the ANC’s armed wing, who was assassinated by white supremacists in 1993 — and outmaneuvered another, Cyril Ramaphosa, an attorney and head of the largest mineworkers’ union, who went on to become one of the country’s wealthiest men.
Ramaphosa rises to top of a sinking ANC
South Africa’s Parliament last week elected Ramaphosa to replace Mbeki’s disgraced successor, Jacob Zuma, a former political prisoner who resigned amid a deepening corruption scandal. But this is no longer Madiba’s South Africa, and the ANC that Ramaphosa will lead into its fifth presidential elections next year is a spent political force.
“It’s still a ways to go but I expect the ANC will win a slim majority of votes cast,” University of Johannesburg sociology professor Peter Alexander told MintPress. “That’ll be less than a third of the voting age population so that’s hardly a vote of confidence.”
It is also a far cry from just a decade ago when the ANC controlled two-thirds of all seats in Parliament, authorizing the party to unilaterally rewrite the constitution if it chose to.
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The main beneficiaries of the ANC’s decline will almost certainly be the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — a socialist-oriented party founded in 2013 that has long been critical of the ANC’s unpopular market-based land reform program grounded in an arrangement between a “willing-seller” and “willing-buyer” — and the Democratic Alliance (DA), a party founded in large measure by high-ranking politicians in the apartheid government.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Only Orwell, and perhaps the assassinated anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, could’ve predicted the ANC’s stunning loss of momentum, which is principally the black majority’s response to a generation of neoliberal policies that have robbed the Rainbow nation of manufacturing jobs; raised the price of electricity, water, rents, and tuition; and produced the worst public-health crises in the nation’s history.
In a material sense, black South Africans have never been poorer.
Richard Pithouse, an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, wrote in a February 9 newspaper editorial entitled “Cyril Cannot Save South Africa:”
The ANC has lost its hold over organised workers and the organised urban “precariat” — those without predictability or security — as well as students and intellectuals. This is not entirely surprising. No political project sustains its credibility indefinitely, and the arc of national liberation movements always descends into some kind of disgrace. . .
Cyril Ramaphosa has already won, and may sustain, significant support from business, the middle classes and people sickened by the scale of the looting and obfuscation under Zuma. But the redemptive sense that the ANC carries the destiny of the nation, that it is permanently sanctioned by history, will not be restored. The political field is open to contestation.”
Wealth and order reassert themselves
Some of the ANC’s political atrophy can be attributed to the mere passage of time. Madiba died nearly five years ago, surrendered the presidency in 1999, and helped write the ANC’s famous Freedom Charter (asserting that the “people shall share in the nation’s wealth”) in 1955. Fewer than one-fourth of the country’s population of 56 million people were adults in 1994 when the country held its first democratic election.
Older black voters in particular remain loyal to the ANC, according to Professor Alexander, and remain suspicious both of the DA and the EFF’s leader, the charismatic but tactless 36-year-old Julius Malema, who was president of the ANC’s Youth League for four years before his expulsion for a racial tirade aimed at whites in 2012.
But far more polarizing is the class divide between black South Africans, which has widened dramatically since apartheid was repealed, precisely as African intellectuals, such as Biko and the Bissau-Guinean poet and revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, predicted would occur absent a change in political and economic systems post-independence. While racial inequality persists, and fewer than 1 percent of white South Africans are poor, the wealth and income gap between the black majority and a tiny black elite has widened exponentially since the end of apartheid’s ban on black ownership of most property.
Ramaphosa’s evolving point of view
No one in the country embodies this contradiction more than Ramaphosa, who once organized one of the largest labor strikes in the country’s history and today sits on the corporate board of a mining concern. A favorite of the famously spartan Mandela, he is today worth an estimated $450 million, breeds an exotic Ugandan cow that costs nearly triple the average annual wage of black South Africans, and owns the country’s McDonald’s franchise.
And then there is the matter of Marikana.
Ramaphosa was a board member for a British-owned mining concern, Lonmin, in 2012, when a wildcat strike at a platinum mine in the town of Marikana ended in the massacre of 34 striking workers, all black. In emails revealed later, Ramaphosa had urged aggressive, “concomitant action” by law-enforcement authorities.
An inquiry cleared Ramaphosa of any wrongdoing, but that did little to assuage protesters who heckled the former labor leader with chants of “blood on his hands” and “Ramaphosa must go.”
The massacre also provided a springboard for Malema, who supported the miners both during and after the work stoppage.
“Marikana,” Professor Alexander told MintPress, “will continue to haunt Ramaphosa.”
An easy act to follow, more empty promises?
Whatever his baggage, however, Ramaphosa will almost certainly be an improvement over Zuma, who was once jailed at Robben Island with Mandela, but whom both blacks and whites speak of with derision. He could face as many as 783 counts of corruption, fraud, racketeering and money-laundering charges in connection to a 1999 arms deal, in which prosecutors allege he accepted kickbacks for the purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and other weapons. And although he was acquitted, many South Africans were embarrassed by his testimony at a 2006 rape trial in which he acknowledged having sex with a woman he knew was infected with HIV, but said it was okay because he showered immediately afterward.
Still, Ramaphosa seems cognizant of his own reputation as a race and class traitor. As the corruption scandal surrounding Zuma escalated, Ramaphosa last year gave a speech apologizing for the “type of language I used at the time” to negotiate a resolution to the Marikana conflict. And in his state of the nation address delivered last week, he spoke of “revitalizing” the mining sector, “reindustrializing” the manufacturing sector, and creating “millions of jobs.” He said that he was open to reconsidering the ANC’s agrarian reform program, which has not significantly changed a sector in which a white minority owns 87 percent of the country’s fertile land.
But his address was vague, and widely panned by the opposition as insincere.
“People are sick and tired of the ANC’s empty promises of the past and I hope we are not going back to the same thing,” said Bantu Holomisa, leader of the main opposition party, the United Democratic Movement.
Top Photo | People walk past a mural of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Katlehong, south of Johannesburg, South Africa, May 11, 2015. (AP/Themba Hadebe)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”