ANC pays the price for decades of pro-capitalist rule

10 June 2024
Tom Bramble
The National Results Operations Center in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2 June PHOTO: Jerome Delay / AP

Thirty years after taking office in South Africa’s first democratic election, the African National Congress (ANC) has suffered a dramatic loss in support, registering a vote of just 40 percent at the 29 May national poll, down from 57 percent in 2019.

The ANC’s electoral fortunes have been in decline since their peak in the 2000s and early 2010s, when the party notched up 65-70 percent of the vote, but this result marks a sharp acceleration in its declining popularity.

The big drop in the ANC vote marks an end to its political hegemony among those it once led. This is most obvious in the townships where the ANC regularly recorded a vote of 90 percent or more. In Soweto and Tembisa, outside Johannesburg, and Khayelitsha on the dusty and impoverished Cape Flats, the party’s share of the vote dropped to 50 percent. In Umlazi, a township of 400,000 on the outskirts of Durban, the ANC vote plummeted to just 13 percent.

The falling vote share does not fully capture the drubbing, since millions of registered voters stayed away from the polling booths, and millions more, particularly young South Africans disillusioned with what was on offer, did not register to vote. Just 6.5 million out of an eligible voting age population of 42 million voted for the ANC at this election, down from 10 million in 2019, despite the population having grown by 3 million.

The main explanation for the ANC’s dwindling support over the past two decades is its failure to substantially confront the injustices of apartheid, the system of white supremacy that prevailed for most of the twentieth century.

Living standards for most of the oppressed Black and Coloured population (“Coloured” in South Africa refers to multiracial ethnic communities) rose modestly in the first decade or two after the fall of apartheid, the new government funding programs to deliver water and electricity to poor communities. But living standards are now going backwards. The mass of Black South Africans live in substandard housing with poor sanitation and have inadequate health care, transportation and schools.

Unemployment runs well over 30 percent, and above 50 percent for young South Africans. Even when the unemployed find work, wages are low. The government has introduced meagre grants, but these are equivalent to just half the income needed to meet the minimal poverty line, and millions of people do not get the grant each month. For tens of millions of Blacks and Coloureds, life has become a desperate struggle for survival.

Not all Black South Africans have suffered the same fate. Black politicians now dominate legislatures at every level except in the Western Cape. Black professors lead the country’s top universities. The chief justice is Black, as are the chiefs of the defence forces. Big business remains white dominated, but thousands of Black figures—including President Cyril Ramaphosa, a one-time trade union leader, later a millionaire mining executive—have become stupendously rich. Such figures use their political connections to win government contracts to enrich themselves, something the government prettifies as “Black economic empowerment”.

Beneath this growing layer, a large Black professional middle class has also emerged and moved into previously all-white suburbs in the big cities. Inequality in South Africa is among the highest in the world: the top 0.1 percent of the population, 35,000 individuals, own one-third of the country’s wealth.

Corruption was a feature of the apartheid regime but has, if anything, become even more endemic today. ANC politicians at the national and provincial levels have looted the public purse. Jacob Zuma, president from 2009 to 2018, became particularly notorious for his corrupt relationships with the wealthy Gupta family, but he was only the most high-profile case. Grand corruption, in the form of a liberal democracy systematically favouring capitalist interests, has been a feature of all ANC governments.

The grinding poverty experienced by most Black South Africans has fuelled decades of protest. Shack dwellers have fought forced evictions. Township residents have demonstrated against electricity and water cut-offs. University students have occupied their campuses to oppose increased fees. Public sector workers regularly go on strike. The response of the ANC has often been brutal. Dozens of protesters have been killed, most notoriously at the Marikana platinum mine, where 34 striking miners were murdered by police in 2012. For many who still held out hope that the ANC would deliver for the working class and poor communities, the Marikana massacre ended that chapter and confirmed that the ANC was no friend of the common people.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have given the ANC government left cover. This “liberation alliance” led the struggle to bring down apartheid in the 1980s and early 1990s. But because the alliance partners were committed to a capitalist outcome, they sabotaged the potential for this struggle to go forward to socialism, the vision for a future for South Africa that animated millions of participants.

The 1994 “settlement”, which secured the continued domination of the country’s big business houses while giving state structures a new coat of paint, is responsible for the inequality and oppression experienced by much of the Black population today. SACP and COSATU leaders sometimes huff and puff about attacks on workers and the poor, but for the most part, they apologise for the government. They have been rewarded for their services by senior appointments in government and the public service. In the meantime, their organisations have been hollowed out.

In the absence of any fighting lead from these organisations, the main beneficiaries of the ANC’s loss of support at this election have been the Economic Freedom Fighters and the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Party, which won 9.5 percent and 14.6 percent of the vote respectively.

The EFF, led by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, was formed in 2013 in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre and quickly won a following among young Black voters who had no loyalty to the ANC’s elders and believed the government was offering them nothing. The MK Party, founded just last December, pitched itself as a voice for the Zulu population and only narrowly fell short of winning a majority of votes in KwaZulu Natal, the country’s second-largest province.

Neither offers any solution to the pain and suffering of the mass of the working class. The EFF describes itself as socialist, but its main objective is to expand the number of Black capitalists running private corporations and state enterprises. The MK Party is a right-wing populist organisation encouraging tribal chauvinism, more powers for traditional chiefs and attacks on immigrants from South Asia and elsewhere in Africa. It is little more than a vehicle for former President Jacob Zuma to attempt to return to power on the back of a reactionary program.

Even though the two parties compete for the votes of Black Africans frustrated with the ANC, they have much in common. The EFF’s Malema regards MK as “relatives” of the EFF and described its big vote at this election as “commendable”.

The strong vote for the MK indicates the dangers facing the South African working class in a situation where there is no large left-wing political alternative prepared to fight for working-class interests. In recent years, there have been horrific incidents of Black South African mobs assaulting African and South Asian immigrants on the streets, in their homes and at their businesses to drive them out of the communities.

Such reactionary sentiments are also reflected in this election in the 16 percent vote recorded by the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu Natal, on top of the MK’s 46 percent, and the 18 percent vote chalked up by the far-right Patriotic Alliance in voting districts dominated by Coloured voters. The ANC’s deportation of immigrants creates the context for this racist groundswell. Social dysfunction and the breakdown of economic life suggest that racist hatred will only get worse unless it is confronted head on.

The dawn of democracy in 1994 gave hope to millions of South Africans that the misery of the apartheid years would pass. Thirty years on, the rotten deal engineered by the ANC and its allies at the time has ensured that those hopes are now extinguished. The situation is bleak and set to get worse under the current line-up of political forces. The task today is the same as in the 1980s: to fight those who have betrayed the working class and poor and build a revolutionary socialist alternative.

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