Friday, November 7, 2008

South Africa: unstable?

There is change in the air in South Africa, and I'm not sure it's the kind of change we can believe in.

The African National Congress (ANC) was united for decades in its fight against the whites that were in charge of the country. Following the transition to full democracy in 1994, the ANC emerged as the dominant party in South Africa and the source of all patronage. But like all coalitions fighting for a higher cause, it was a bizarre mixture united only in their opposition to the ruling power. It appears that this cohesion is slowly eroding.

The way Mandela and his successor Mbeki chose for the country was more business-friendly than some would have liked. It managed to create a relatively stable economy. It also established a modest black middle-class through patronage and affirmative action. But a majority of the population hasn't seen any improvement in their situation in the past 14 years. This has led to frustration among the communist/union/left wing of the ANC who has been trying to take control over the government. Needless to say, this has lead to some intra-party frictions.

In 2005, Jacob Zuma, a powerful ANC politician associated with the left wing of the party and one of the favorite to replace Mbeki, was accused of corruption and rape charges. This was widely seen abroad as a righteous move by the government to root out corruption within its rank. But at home, it was perceived by the left wing of the ANC and Zuma's fellow Zulu (SA most populous ethnic group) as a hit-job on Zuma. He was subsequently cleared of most of the charges (for the rape case because it was judged the woman was willing and the corruption charges were dropped due to procedural errors in September of this year), which is important because if indicted he would have been barred per the constitution from running for President.

On September 20th, President Mbeki stepped down before the end of his turn in. Once again the international media, never one to become obsessed with an African country backdoor politics, interpreted the move as a simple change of government. The reality is that it was "mavericks" from the left wing in the ANC National Executive Committee who kicked him out (after Zuma was cleared of corruption charges). Now Zuma is the frontrunner in 2009 and is widely expected to win.

However a split has appeared in the ANC with the formation of a new party (yet unnamed) that appears to be lead by Mbeki loyalist that held its first convention last weekend. The identity of the new party and whom it will attract isn't entirely clear, although the middle class that favored from the last 14 years is probably going to support them. There are two ways to interpret the changes and predict how things will turn out. The first scenario is that this split is healthy in a liberal democracy. It will lead to a stronger multi-party system, hopefully weakening the ANC hegemony over SA politics. The other way to look at it is that we're seeing a major split within competing elite groups which both want power, all in a context of a dangerous rise in violence and militaristic behavior.

Here's an excerpt from an interesting article by Johan Rossouw from the Guardian & Mail (bold mine):
It is unlikely that a "Lekota party" will threaten the ANC's hegemony, since the constituency of the politicians mentioned in connection with such a party is the same constituency that was defeated at Polokwane last December -- the black middle-class. It is also unlikely that the ANC will rupture further soon, as too much economic interest for a new generation of patronage seekers in the current ANC leadership depends on the illusion of party unity.

The fact is that the ANC is a party in disarray, where internal division and violence is on the rise. The clash between the big capitalists and the socialists in the ANC is an explosion waiting to happen, as both sides know all too well that there is simply no serious vision in the ANC unifying them anymore. This lack of vision is all too graphically illustrated by the increasing violence and violent rhetoric in the ANC, as well as the tendency to use quasi-religious revolutionary purity as a political yardstick.

All this is taking place against the backdrop of serious instability in South Africa. This includes: the fact that the government's commodity bonanza-financed grant system could not prevent May's xenophobic attacks; the fact that Thabo Mbeki twice in the last four weeks of his term saw fit to remind the security forces to act professionally and maintain the Constitution; representatives of the South African Security Forces Union during August said that they would not intervene if the crowd outside a Zuma court appearance got out of hand, as they themselves support Jacob Zuma; increasing militarisation of ANC gatherings, where MK veterans in military outfits are more visible; and that South Africa's security forces may be unionised, whereas South Africa's biggest labour federation is now a serious player in the ANC's faction fighting.
This article seems to point in the second direction. But maybe it's simply a transition period toward a new faction of the ANC and that once they're in power the old elite will resign itself to their fate. Maybe once Zuma is in power, he can reign in the more militaristic factions. But this (from the same article) makes me doubt that he'll be able to do so:
Those who think that Zuma will provide the necessary leadership to ensure stability must perhaps think again. If there was one issue on which Zuma was consistent since Polokwane last December, it was his preference for Mbeki to finish his full term. Precisely on this issue Zuma failed his first big political test when the mavericks in his party succeeded in toppling Mbeki.
It would appear he is not in total control.

So in the next few months and years it will be essential to watch South Africa to answer several questions. How peacefully will the "Mbeki loyalist" accept loss of power? Who will the new party attract? Will they fall along classes lines or ethnic group? Will the violence increase and will it become more politically targeted? Will Zuma be a strong enough leader to take power and control everyone in his coalition or will it fragment in a number of semi-independant factions? Are South Africa's civic institutions strong enough to withstand the instability?

I'm seriously hoping that South Africa is only passing through a "phase". The idea of civil strife in sub-saharan Africa's most prosperous country is too depressing to think about

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