South Africa: A hundred years after its birth, what has happened to the ANC? – By Richard Dowden

It produced one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. It fought a violent race-based dictatorship and replaced it with the most liberal constitution the world has ever known. Its song, a poignant Christian hymn, became South Africa’s national anthem. Since it came to power in 1994, about two thirds of South Africans vote for it. So whatever happened to South Africa’s African National Congress?

The success or failure of the new South Africa has been a race between the expectations and aspirations of a young and growing population and the ability of the government to deliver jobs and services. South Africans have been patient but their ANC government is losing that race. The population, now estimated at about 50 million, has grown by 10 percent since 1994 when the ANC came to power. The median age in the country is now 25. That is too young to have known apartheid directly, so blaming the past no longer works. Unemployment is officially 25 percent but it could be nearer to twice that. Economic growth is sluggish. For the first time, a well-organised opposition party has gained ground in elections. After the departure of the old guard led by Mandela, the ANC has a growing reputation for corruption as well as incompetence.

A hundred years old on January 8th, the ANC is South Africa’s oldest political organisation, beating the National Party (which instigated apartheid) by two years. It was formed as the Native National Congress by urban middle class Africans and chiefs to protect and promote African interests in the aftermath of the Boer War, where peace between Boers and the British came at the price of African rights to own property and vote. At this stage ANC leaders were more concerned with protecting their own rights than representing the masses.

Quite soon the ANC had to face the dilemma that has divided it ever since. Was it to simply fight for black representation within the existing political system or should it fight for a more just political and economic system for all? After forging an alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953, it chose the latter course, and became a protege of Russia and the Communist bloc, its language borrowed from Moscow’s Marxist rhetoric. The ANC began to talk about smashing the apartheid state and capitalism. Banned in 1960, its leadership was imprisoned or fled abroad though it subsisted in the minds of black South Africans as a symbol of hope and resistance.

The fall of the Berlin Wall came as a shock to the ANC. Many believed their own rhetoric and saw it as a victory for apartheid’s allies. In fact it was the opposite. Britain and the US, now freed from the Communist threat, could end their protection of apartheid South Africa. Release Nelson Mandela and negotiate was Mrs Thatcher’s message to F.W. De Klerk, the new president, in 1989. The ANC hardliners in exile did not believe it. This was not in their script which said that Umkonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing, would bring down the apartheid state. (In fact it had been the least effective guerrilla movement in southern Africa).

Meanwhile an internal leadership had grown up in the real world of strikes and street battles. These leaders were more adept at negotiation and politics and understood how South Africa worked. It is no surprise that Cyril Ramaphosa, the former mineworkers leader, became the chief strategist in negotiations with the government. But while they might have a greater connection to the people, the internal leaders were gradually pushed out by returning ANC exiles who had mastered the small print of the ANC’s constitution.

Thabo Mbeki who had been the ANC’s foreign minister in exile, squeezed out Ramaphosa, Mandela’s first choice in the battle to succeed him. An intellectual who did not connect easily with ordinary people, Mbeki’s big idea was to give Africans an economic stake in the new South Africa by giving them equity in all South African companies and give jobs to black people.

As it was implemented, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) as the policy was called, did not engender participation through jobs and productive entrepreneurship for ordinary people but gave free shares in big business to ANC bosses. The ANC’s mass support base was rewarded with welfare programmes indifferently delivered. South Africa’s corporate sector went along with BEE, giving some of their less vital assets to a small elite connected to the ANC. Even the Communist Party went along with it. That gave big business political cover and opened the door to corruption on a national scale. It ensured that a small clique of senior ANC ministers and officials became multi millionaires overnight, some of them flaunting their new wealth in ways that appalled their former comrades. South Africa is now an archipelago of fortified islands of luxury in a sea of poverty. The mass of people are sustained by life rafts of welfare but have no stake in the dynamic economy.

The ANC itself has fragmented into cliques. All major decisions are taken in secret including the decision in 1999 to spend £3bn on sophisticated weaponry which enriched the ANC and several of its senior members but was utterly unnecessary. Many of the multi-million dollar aircraft purchased have never flown. Andrew Feinstein, an MP who tried to investigate the corruption in the arms deal, says that was the moment the ANC lost its moral compass. Perhaps it has returned to its original roots, a narrow class of haves, protecting their own interests.

It is unlikely to recover any time soon. Last November parliament was told by Willie Hofmeyr, head of the Special Investigative Unit, that between £3bn to £4bn a year was lost to corruption, negligence and incompetence in the public service with very few consequences. “South Africa’s law and regulations are good but it appears there are virtually no consequences when they are broken,” he said. He was sacked shortly afterwards. And fearful of further press exposure and comment the government drew up the Protection of State Information Bill which treats media investigation of government activities as spying with a possible 25 year jail sentence.

Eighteen years after the ANC came to power South Africa has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world and the gap appears to be widening. 10% of the population are still without clean water and 20% without electricity. And who is paying the £8m bill for the ANC’s 100th birthday party this week? The South African tax payers.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa, Altered States, Ordinary Miracles published by Portobello Books

A version of this article was published in The Spectator magazine

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8 thoughts on “South Africa: A hundred years after its birth, what has happened to the ANC? – By Richard Dowden

  1. Thanks for this article. NIce and concise.

    In the fourth paragraph to last, you jump right into the crony capitalism that stemmed from the BEE program and now pervades the state.

    How was the vision of the country’s leaders so quickly corrupted? Was it simply the introduction of Thabo Mbeki that set things off? How could any of these once-exiled leaders simply return and fail to make any effort to implement their admirable vision?


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  3. Not one single mention of the inimitable Mr. Jacob Zuma, incumbent president, who managed to get himself elected president despite multiple charges of fraud for which his “financial advisor” was convicted. That’s when the rot began to set in.

  4. This actually should have been expected for several reasons. The first is that the ANC, with the exception of being involved in a rather stark racial conflict*, was a somewhat standard revolutionary party (albeit not as extremist as some). Mandela did an admirable job in avoiding the worst of revolution by keeping some of the old government in power and so kept many capable leaders but it doesn’t change the fact that the current (and presumably future) South African government under the ANC has serious corruption and incompetence to deal with. Revolutionaries just aren’t good at governing, they haven’t had much experience in it and are accustomed to seeing the opposition as existential threats.

    Following that is the lack of a strong opposition party to force the parties in government to remain relatively clean. The Democratic Alliance seems to be making gains but it still is just an opposition party and not yet capable of seriously threatening the ANC’s hold on national power. Depending on circumstances this could change in the future, something which will either frighten the ANC into making some reform or frighten the ANC into authoritarianism depending on personalities and circumstances.

    Lastly we’ve got the sudden increase in national wealth. There’s a lot of money being thrown around by sudden elites and laws and cultural norms don’t seem to be that effective at restraining it or promoting improvements for the middle class.

    Those three are not the only factors and there are many others to look at, but those three are more than enough to cause a massive increase in corruption, government inefficiency and the erosion of a strong state into one focused on the survival of the current leaders.

    * I’m still irate that this was the nation that got the world’s attention even though many other African nations had the exact same problem of ethnic/racial prejudice and repression, just without white oppressors to attract attention. What about D.R. Congo or Uganda?

  5. Yes the median age in South Africa is now 25. But I don’t agree that the population is too young to have known apartheid directly (the only thing I agree with is that blaming the past no longer works because in fact it has never worked anywhere). This and the next generation will continue to feel the effects of repression, poverty and abuse of all sorts. Perhaps even in a more painful way if their aspirations are not fulfilled, and their dreams hijacked by unscrupulous politicians…


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