When South Africa’s apartheid regime collapsed in 1994, the world broke into euphoria as it celebrated the addition of yet another democracy to the international community. Media pundits, global political elites and even the cautious academic world, saw the newly-born nation as symbolising a shining example of a democratic project that other nations in the region ought to emulate.
In keeping up with the country’s newfound democratic credentials, the African National Congress (ANC) government did not disappoint. Impressively, a spate of reforms were introduced, most notably the enactment of liberal legislation such as the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act (1996) , and the 2006 Civil Union Act which allowed same sex marriage (the only country in Africa to do so). Such liberal legislation coupled with the policy of reconciliation, led many to conclude that South Africa’s democracy was not only unshakable, but would also inevitably evolve towards perfection. Police brutality, media censorship and state repression that had characterised the apartheid era were things of the past.
However, with the bad news streaming out of South Africa daily, it is not hard to notice that the sense of democratic triumph that gripped the rainbow nation in 1994, is increasingly being supplanted by caution, and in some cases outright pessimism.
Indeed, the 2012 Marikana massacre, which saw scores of miners killed by the state police, and also cases of corruption that have been traced right up to the presidency, have made even the most rigid optimists reconsider their understanding of South Africa, and in particular the country’s ruling party, the ANC.
As the soul-searching begins on what could be going wrong, some political elites and intellectuals have even warned that if the ANC does not change course, the party that brought an end to apartheid might find itself in the shoes of Zimbabwe’s post-Independence ruling party, Zanu PF, which started promisingly before descending into autocratic chaos.
“Zanufication” is the pejorative term used by the independent media to describe the social and political process of adopting authoritarian practices and policies identified with President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF. The most widely canvassed media picture of Zimbabwe is that of “once a bread basket of Africa” nation, reduced to dire poverty through mismanagement.
Though the term Zanufication was first used in 2002 by Jeremy Cronin, the deputy leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP), to describe what he saw as the increasingly authoritarianism of ANC, today the term appears to have entered South Africa’s mainstream political discourse.
For example, in the run-up to the 2009 elections Helen Zille — the former leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s main opposition party — warned voters that the ANC party was undergoing Zanufication. In 2013, the then leader of a new political party, Agang, diplomat Mamphela Ramaphele, used the term to describe ANC’s increasing political intolerance.
But, is the party that is still identified with the towering figure of Nelson Mandela really straying from the democratic course and becoming Zanufied? The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Naturally, the ANC and its supporters would say that it is not the case. Take the example of Gwede Manthashe, ANC secretary-general who outrightly dismissed comparisons of his party with Zanu PF. Even the beleaguered South African President Jacob Zuma, shrugged off such suggestions, insisting that his party will not even contemplate an authoritarian path.
This charge is not only denied by political elites, but also by many ANC grassroots supporters and South Africans in general who become apoplectic when their ruling party is compared with Zanu PF, accusing those making such a comparison of schadenfreude.
Those who are cautious admit that there are some warning signs which South Africans need to pay attention to. But then again, they argue that there seem to be good reasons not to believe that the ANC will not go that route. The “democratic” structure of its organisation is cited as the main reason that makes South Africa’s ruling party a sui generis organisation which is immune to dictatorial tendencies. After all, unlike in Zanu PF, they have changed leadership on three or four occasions within the last two decades. In other words, despite some minor setbacks here and there, the ANC is exceptional and any suggestions that it will eventually become Zanufied are seen as unwarranted apocalyptic visions.
Dream deferred at dawn
Indeed, a closer look suggests that the ANC might have taken the trajectory of Zanu PF, in particular, aversion to criticism as soon as it took power in 1994. Thabo Mbeki’s poor handling of the HIV and Aids crisis, which can be traced directly to his lethargic initiatives to create effective policies to combat the crisis and his failure to address social and economic inequalities were never criticised. Besides being subtle, early tendencies towards Zanufication by the Mandela administration, were also undetectable as they took place against a background of unrestrained optimism on what the future held for the Rainbow Nation.
But, whereas in the early years of the ANC rule, the prominent features that fitted the pattern of Zanu PF political culture and practices were ANC’s deep resentment of criticism, seen here by failure to criticise Mandela’s ineffective policies, today, there are unmistakable developments on several fronts.
First, the quashing of debate in the ANC has been extending to the broader society. In addition, attempts at enactments such as ANC Secrecy Bill are seen as having nothing to do with protecting state secrets, but a lot to do with how the party wants to control commercial media in South Africa.
Second, the main opposition party, which 10 years ago was more of an irritant rather than having real prospects of getting into power, has been growing. The question, as power slowly begins to slip from the ANC’s hands is whether they will allow free and fair elections and step down if they lose. It is unlikely, as liberation parties have an indelible ability to hang on to power for long. ANC will be no exception.
One of the ways in which the ANC has been preparing to counter a possible legitimate loss of power has been the stacking of the elections policing body, Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), with ANC trustees. In 2013, Bantu Holomisa, the leader of the opposition United Democratic Movement, warned supporters of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters at a rally in Marikana, North West province, that the IEC was biased against the opposition. On October 21 of that year, in light of these concerns, Ramaphele’s Agang was expected to hand over a memorandum at the offices of the IEC in Gauteng province detailing “concerns regarding the prospects of a free and fair elections in 2014”.
Optimists argue that fear of flight of international capital will force the ANC to relinquish power, while others contend that an alliance of the civil society, strong opposition in South Africa and international community will pressure the liberation movement to step down in the event of losing power. These arguments underestimate the resolve with which liberation movements are prepared to stay in power.
Indeed, eternally staying in power appears to be the ANC’s greatest fantasy. Nothing gives better clues than the current leader’s rhetoric. For example, speaking in a closed door campaign meeting, Zuma remarkably informed supporters in 2008 that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes back.
In politics, stupid and insensitive remarks do not matter if uttered only once. They matter when such remarks become regular utterances. Though known for astonishing moments of political miscalculations, this was not the first time that the South African President had made such a statement. In January 2013, Zuma told supporters that “even God expects us to rule this country because we are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed”.
He added: “This is why we will rule until Jesus comes back.”
Unfortunately, the media still naively portray these statements as either gaffes by a political wacko bird or as the President’s quaint private opinions. It is neither the case. These statements reflects a sense of entitlement that also characterises Zanu PF; that since it brought independence to the country, the party should rule forever.
In other words, much of Zuma’s remarks should not only be regarded as ominous, but also as work which is already in progress. As we have seen in Zimbabwe, liberation movements are always far ahead of their game when it comes to staying in power.
Third and related, the ANC has an absolutist conception of politics, just like its counterpart Zanu PF, notably the blurring of distinction between ANC as an organisation and ANC as government. Recently, ANC has been deploying its personnel to senior positions in the state bureaucracy, security sector and the judiciary, in order to counter the influence of former ruling class “that still” predominate in the civil service, economic sector, and in the media.
Fourth, the attacks on farms in South Africa is well-documented but widely ignored. Since 1994, it is estimated that over 3 000 white farmers have been killed in South Africa.
How is it then that despite this path towards Zanufication, ANC’s reputation within the international community appears to be untarnished as compared to that of Zanu PF. One could argue that ANC is a canny and shrewd organisation that understands that there is a reward for close ties with the West. Unlike Zanu PF, ANC knows that its strongest card is its friendship with the United States and the European Union (EU) and at least for now, international capital.
However, the complete Zanufication of the ANC, which today is haphazard and unconsolidated, is inevitable for a number of reasons:
The structure of South African society: International discourse on Zanu PF is about Mugabe and his thuggish policies and ignores the conditions that made it possible for his party to successfully use those policies as a political device to hang on to power; inequality of land and income distribution between whites and blacks in Zimbabwe.
Zanu PF’s behaviour is partly a product of these historical conditions; a phenomenon which is characteristically South African too. Because the structure of societies in which the two liberation movements operate are similar, Zimbabwe seem to be an unfailing prognosis of what is likely to happen to South Africa.
Just like Zanu PF’s view of Ian Smith’s shortlived government and colonialism, ANC sees apartheid as having entrenched economic and social inequalities that need to be redressed at some point. In a speech given on June 26 2012, Zuma told thousands of delegates at an ANC’s policy conference that “the structure of the apartheid economy has remained largely intact”. He added that “the ownership of the economy is still in the hands of white males, as it has always been”.
It is these inherent flaws in the structure of South African society that make Zanufication inevitable as the liberation party will be compelled to re-organise society in line with its self-ordained mission to uplift blacks from poverty. As black supporters run out of patience with the slow pace of change and continued deterioration in their living standards, the ANC can be expected to draw a line against those it regards as a threat to its political capital — business interests and white farmers — with grave consequences for the South African economy.
The structure of the ANC: The ANC rules through an alliance with SACP and Cosatu, a coalition that is two-thirds communist. While in exile, SACP dominated the liberation movement, supporting the Soviets’ policies. Today’s communists influence is seen through the ANC’s warm relations with countries such as Cuba and Iran.
There is a strong underlying conviction among SACP and Cosatu officials that socialist policies must be pursued. For example, Ronnie Kasrils, an old communist who was until recently a government minister, in 2013 lamented that the ANC pulled off course between 1994 and 1996 by compromising with corporate capitalism. SACP senior leader, Blade Nzimande, who is also a government minister, has demanded that the government break through into full-blown socialism. And Cosatu has called for the banks to be nationalised.
Birds of the same feather: It could be argued that Zanu PF is an ideological and strategic partner of the ANC of the first order despite not being allies during the struggle. Some of the most senior ANC officials such as South Africa’s former foreign minister and current head of the African Union (AU), who is touted as a potential first female president of South Africa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, are on record for having said that condemnation of Harare’s actions “will never happen so long as this (ANC) government is in power”.
It is these close ties with the northern neighbour that explain why the ANC has no problem with assimilation of Zanu PF narrative. ANC officials see Zanu PF as a powerful manager of events and praise its accomplishments as evidenced by former South African labour minister, Membathisi Mdladlana, who in 2003 told reporters after touring Zimbabwe that his country had a lot to learn from Zanu PF’s land reform programme. In 2013, SACP’s deputy chairman Thulasi Nxesi repeated the same sentiments that South Africa can learn from Zanu PF’s land reform programme. This shows that under the surface, ANC political class identifies itself as a victim of entrenched interests from the apartheid era and with the warrior Zanu PF.
This explains why Namibia’s Swapo, Angola’s MPLA, Mozambique’s Frelimo, Zimbabwe’s Zanu PF are still in power and it is a fatal flaw to think that the ANC is an exception.
How then should South Africa respond given these challenges?
First, by recognising that the ANC is already Zanufied, though the Zanufication at this stage is less advanced and unconsolidated. Understanding ANC correctly is meant to dismantle the romantic view that has dominated the South African society and the international discourse that the ANC is an exception on the African political landscape. It also immediately suggests that complacency is inappropriate.
Second, by recognising that the intensification or consolidation of the Zanufication of ANC is inevitable and will one day be complete. Also, though it will not last forever, a Zanufied ANC is likely to be there for a long time. As any other liberation movement, ANC will prove adept at countering opposition and any internal systemic weaknesses long enough to see a radical transformation of society and economy.
And third, based on the experience of Zanu PF, South Africa must be prepared to accept that a fully Zanufied ANC will not be shunned or seen as a problem by its neighbouring countries. This means those interested in democracy must be looking at strengthening civil society and the opposition in order to counter an increasingly undemocratic ANC rather than reliance on the regional bodies such as the AU and Sadc.
A serious warning
The status of democracy in South Africa is very a delicate one. That ANC has so far managed to hold back malign symptoms of Zanufication should not be a hopeful signal that democratic ideals will be entrenched.
Indeed, so far, many indications cast doubt on the belief that post-apartheid South Africa’s short history has been one of steady progress. ANC of today resembles Zanu PF in the early 1990s. It is the media’s still somewhat optimistic coverage of South Africa that veil the unpleasant impulses of the ANC, just like it portrayed Mugabe as the champion of democracy at a time that his party was killing thousands in the southern part of his country.
It is for this reason why, in the case of South Africa, we need to maintain a sense of tragic however unnecessary it might seem. As that ancient philosopher, Plato, warned us so many years ago “democracy is not an end process, it can degenerate into tyranny”.
Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political analyst based in London.