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Posters depicting the ANC in happier times. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Can the ANC survive the end of South Africa’s heroic epoch?

South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) has gone through episodic crises in its century of existence. Right now, the media and commentariat are seized with debate about whether or not it is in a crisis and whether it is as serious as any other.

The party has survived tumultuous times, including a major split that resulted in the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959 as well as friction in the post-democratic era. The present crisis differs because the party has governed the country for more than 20 years and faces different threats such as clientelism and patronage.

History should serve as a sombre warning to the ANC of what might happen if it does not manage leadership rivalries within its ranks. Though the party has won between 62% and 68% of votes cast in every election since 1994, history does not guarantee any party predestination to govern for ever.

The tumultuous 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s

During the 1920s, ANC members were demoralised and dropped out when their delegations to the British government and Conference of Versailles elicited no support for their opposition to the Natives Land Act and other racist laws. So big was the loss in numbers that the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union overtook it as the largest black organisation in the country.

But by the end of the 1920s the ANC had again became the largest as administrative incompetence and corruption, as much as repression, saw the union collapse.

The publication of the draft Native Trust and Land bill in the mid-1930s saw the ANC’s fortunes again take a turn for the worse. The All-African Convention (AAC) swiftly grew in size to outnumber the ANC. The rump of the AAC constituted itself in the 1940s as the Non-European Unity Movement. But it alienated and expelled many in repeated dogmatic schisms.

During the 1940s the ANC rejuvenated itself organisationally when it founded its Youth League. It also got a new lease on life ideologically with its African Claims manifesto. It peaked with 100,000 members during the Defiance Campaign of 1952. After that, state repression started to gradually grind it down, though it remained the largest black political party.

A split over ideology and tactics saw the formation of the PAC in 1959. This split was perhaps the most serious in ANC history; the PAC attracted crowds perhaps one-third the size of those attending ANC meetings, until both parties suffered banning and repression in the 1960 State of Emergency.

During the harrowing decades of underground and exile only a few small cells of ANC and PAC veterans managed to evade and survive within South Africa. In exile, the ANC maintained pre-eminence, with solidarity support from communist parties, western socialists, trade unions and liberals, plus the Soviet-led bloc of communist governments, and many African governments.

By contrast, the banned PAC enjoyed US support for only four years, then Chinese support on a small scale. It also won some support from a minority of black power activists abroad, some tiny western Trotskyist circles, and only Libya and Iran.

Exile is usually a harsh environment for political parties, few of whom can remain viable longer than a decade or two. The ANC however remained organisationally intact.

By contrast the PAC was torn asunder in exile by perpetual splits and schisms until it lost any organisational coherence. The Black Consciousness Movement of Azania in exile remained marginal in number.

Democracy heralds a sea change

Democracy resulted in a sea change in the ANC. Before its unbanning in 1990 no-one could expect any personal gain from joining the ANC. To the contrary, members could only expect victimisation at work, harassment from the municipal authorities, and banning orders, house arrest, detention without trial, torture or assassination. As a result only highly committed idealists joined the ANC.

Today the heroic epoch is over. Many idealists remain, but they sit alongside careerists, floor crossers and tenderpreneurs – businesspeople who enrich themselves through government tenders, often dubiously. In short, the ANC has become a normal political party. One consequence is that splits and factions are today less connected with policy ideals than with the system of patronage and clientelism.

Mobilisation is usually aimed not at any policy, but at getting a patron elected who will try to divert tenders to political donors. This is at its bloodiest in municipal politics, where assassinations number in the dozens, especially in the KwaZulu-Natal province. The stakes are indeed high. A ward councillor is paid ten times the average wage in a township.

For example, policy divergence was an escalating symptom, rather than the cause, of the expulsion of Julius Malema from the ANC Youth League and his subsequent launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters. The mutual accusations of corruption between Zuma and the pre-expulsion Malema underscore the stark facts of their political patronage networks.

The current media debate on the probability of Zuma not lasting out his term of office as ANC leader until 2017 and as South African president until 2019 is flawed by one methodological failing. South Africans and their media are prone to either canonise a politician as a saint, such as Nelson Mandela, or demonise him as a monster, as Zuma. Leadership counts big-time, but such over-personalisation of politics fails to spot the system of patronage and clientelism.

Removing Zuma and replacing him with another is unlikely to replace the spoils system of inappropriate cadre deployment, nor tenderpreneurship. Replacing Thabo Mbeki with Zuma did not end these problems. Zuma’s successor as president will be hard pressed to face down those demanding payback.

Patronage and corruption have become rampant under President Jacob Zuma. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

What now?

So far Zuma’s supporters have outvoted his rivals in the ANC, and often purged them from executive structures. One consequence could be larger numbers of abstentions from former ANC voters in the coming municipal elections.

ANC membership numbers tend to peak during election campaigns (up to one million) and slump between elections. Whether this pattern will hold remains to be seen. The ANC nevertheless remains by far the largest political party in the country. There is not yet any sign of a seismic shift in this balance of power.

On the other hand, there are flashing red lights that the ANC party bureaucracy has deteriorated to the level where it battles to perform even the simplest of everyday tasks, such as issuing membership cards. And there is growing anger at appointments driven by cronyism that lead to dysfunctional schools and sewage treatment plants.

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