Qunu, a humble farming village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, has little reason on its own to enter the consciousness of those more than a few miles away, but on December 15, 2013, it held the attention of the world. On this date, iconic anti-apartheid activist and national patriarch Nelson Mandela was laid to rest in the village where he spent his childhood. High-ranking dignitaries from around the world attended the ceremony, at which Jacob Zuma, current president of South Africa and member of Mandela’s own African National Congress party (ANC), delivered a stirring eulogy, promising the deceased “will remain our guiding light, illuminating the path as we continue the long journey to build the South Africa of [his] dreams.”
The moment was a poignant one, but to many South Africans outside the ceremony in Qunu, these words are beginning to ring hollow. In the years since 1994, when the ANC took over the country’s government after the fall of the apartheid regime, the party has slowly abandoned the strength of ideas that girded its founding. More than a year since the death of its talismanic standard-bearer, the ANC faces existential questions. It must eliminate the complacency and corruption of its recent years, or else the party of Mandela will cede the reigns of the country it built, and worse, tarnish its proud legacy.
When the African National Congress was founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress, its aims were the continuance of black voting rights in Cape Provence and the general condemnation of discriminatory practices. In 1923, the group changed its name to the one we see today. When the Afrikaner-dominated National Party took control of the government in 1948, a harsh system of racial policies, known as apartheid, was put into action. From here on, the ANC’s mission was to oppose apartheid in all its forms. When the ANC was banned in 1960, its resistance began to take on a militant character. After several decades of protracted struggle combining civil disobedience, international pressure, and violent resistance, the ban on the ANC was removed in 1990, and talks to eliminate apartheid began. Since its sweeping victory in the 1994 general election, in which Mandela became the nation’s first black president, the ANC has dominated South African politics at all levels, a reality that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of its 1912 founders.
On the surface, the ANC years have brought rapid economic and social improvements. Gross National Income (GNI) per capita has nearly doubled since 1994, with many of the most robust growth years coming since 2008, while much of the rest of the world was in the throes of recession. Most significantly, a primary locus of this growth has been the native African population. According to the South African Institute for Race Relations, the number of Africans earning university degrees increased from 8,514 to 36,970 between 2001 and 2008, a 334 percent increase. In 2010, the nation was invited to become the S in the prestigious BRICS network (the other members being Brazil, Russia, India, and China), indicative of its status as a rising star in the global economy. That same summer, South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup, and fans from all over the world filed into world-class stadiums while banners proclaimed, “It’s time for Africa.”
However, many of these achievements are not as monumental as they appear, and others had little to do with ANC guidance. The late 1990s and early 2000s were good years for most countries, especially resource-rich developing nations. South Africa’s membership in the BRICS is regarded by many to be undue; the Economist even claims its chief qualifications were its Africanness (the original set of BRIC nations were criticized for ignoring Africa), and its beginning with the letter S, so as to keep the acronym intact for aesthetic purposes (believe it or not). Its bid to join the network is believed by some to have been backed by China, which has significant stakes in South Africa’s resource and energy sectors, as a strategic move, not a merited honor. Additionally, despite its economic strides, South Africa still struggles with high degrees of inequality and unemployment and has failed to bring HIV/AIDS under control; almost one in five citizens between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV positive. Most of the World Cup stadiums built in 2010 now stand unused, gathering dust, symbols of the nation’s hollow rise.
Worse still, the ANC is showing signs of institutional decay. In March 2014, South Africa’s anti-corruption watchdog published a damning report detailing US$23 million worth of “security improvements” to President Jacob Zuma’s rural estate, which included an amphitheater, a visitor center, and a swimming pool, paid for out of the public coffers. The party has also received criticism for abuse of “cadre employment,” the practice of appointing party loyalists to high level positions in state bodies, which some claim has amounted to cronyism. As the ANC’s ethical center begins to rot, so too does the broad political consensus it has maintained. The fierce rhetorical lambasting the party received during last year’s general elections from Julius Malema of the breakaway Economic Freedom Fighters party, erstwhile leader of the ANC Youth League and once considered a “future leader” of South Africa by ANC dayan Zuma, exposed deep fault lines in the party. Additionally, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the nation’s largest labor union and important bellwether of working-class political opinion, announced in October 2014 that it would break rank with the ANC and form a new socialist political party. For two decades, the ANC held the unquestioned mandate of its people and retained the moral direction to justify it, but alas, the center cannot hold.
As the ANC’s ethical center begins to rot, so too does the broad political consensus it has maintained.
On May 7, 2014, South Africa held general elections, and the ANC retained control of the government with 62.1 percent of the vote. For now, the party’s internal cracks have not sunk it, but have begun to allow water to seep in. The Democratic Alliance, long the most serious opposition of the ANC, had its best ever year, securing 22.2 percent of the total vote, and various other parties, such as Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, had strong showings as well. As the apartheid years fade further into history, the unquestioned loyalty many South Africans feel toward the ANC may fade. 2014 marked the first year that “born frees,” those born after 1994, played a voting role in an election; their influence will only increase, and they will demand more from the party they have inherited. If the ANC hopes to continue to lead “the long journey to build the South Africa of [Mandela’s] dreams,” it must recapture the idealism, boldness, and fervor that liberated a country, and cast off the malaise that has consumed it. Its past must be a pillar, not a crutch. At rallies this past spring, ANC supporters chanted, “Do it for Madiba,” an affectionate nickname for their late hero. Next time, if it hopes to survive, the party will need to find a new refrain.