What South Africa’s ANC Can Learn from the Demise of India’s Congress Party

Image by the South African Government

Feeble economic growth, allegations of kleptocracy, and the controversial sacking of not one, but two Finance Ministers, headline South Africa President Jacob Zuma’s second term. In its most recent forecast, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the country’s economy to grow at 0.8 percent this year. While the IMF’s report expects poor growth across the continent, Zuma’s questionable cabinet reshuffle has exacerbated conditions by instigating a currency slump and hindering the country’s credit rating, now relegated to “junk” status.

Once the darling of foreign investors, South Africa has seen a surge in capital flight. Zuma has been pivoting toward populist rhetoric in a bid to placate the country’s less fortunate. Impoverished communities have been and will continue to be critical voting blocs for the African National Congress (ANC). Zuma’s newest initiative, branded both as “radical economic transformation” and “inclusive growth,” depending on the crowd, is not designed to boost the economy. Rather, the vague policies underpinning the campaign are more likely to disturb recovery by deterring Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). This cuts off capital for businesses that need it to compete with other emerging markets.

To ensure the party’s long-term viability, the ANC would do well to instill some preventive measures and learn from the mistakes of comparative parties, such as the Indian National Congress (INC), which experienced declining levels of popularity.

The ANC and INC share numerous parallels, many of which represent warning signs for Zuma and his party. Both congressional bodies held on to power and enjoyed epochal dominance in elections following significant changes in their nation’s history. The INC, which suffered its biggest election defeat in 2014, was seen by voters as increasingly irrelevant and was smeared by a well-deserved reputation of intensive corruption.

The second alarming parallel is reflected by the eternal elitism knitted into the structures of both parties. The INC has been unwise to allow the scions of Jawaharlal Nehru to lead the party for over 50 years after his passing, as this nepotism has bred resentment among voters. Zuma’s hints toward appointing his ex-wife as party president implies that his influence will not wane. Should he be successful in this endeavor, the ANC opens itself up to allegations that it has become an establishment party for the elites, rather than the robust, broad-appeal party image it has carefully cultivated for years.

The INC enjoyed decades of power, relying on the numbers game. Though its marketing portrayed a centre-left party for the people, scandals ranging from the impropriety of land deals amongst the INC family tree to the coal allocation scam seem to have alienated numerous voters. Many former supporters of the INC concerned with corruption have found a new home in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), while those concerned with economic reform have sided with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A similar three-front war is brewing against Zuma. It includes dissenting ANC members, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The ANC is likely to face the toughest challenge to its absolute majority in the 2019 elections. The DA and EFF have seen a perfunctory, yet promising glimpse into voter sentiments through public protest aimed at Zuma, and could easily capitalize on the ANC’s impending schisms.

Economic populism remains a curious choice of weapon for Zuma to employ. Populist movements, which have recently afflicted even the most stable democracies, are likely to be the source of Zuma’s downfall. Therefore, the logic is to co-opt the same strategy, as the opposition appears rooted in the hopes that the populist narrative will become watered-down and ineffective if used by each party. The young, black male population, who remain debilitated by unemployment, have been particularly vulnerable to populist rhetoric. The EFF has courted this demographic by touting the policies of Marxists such as Thomas Sankara and Frantz Fanon, who were both revered for their contempt of capitalism and the ruling elite.

The ANC’s monopolistic dominance has waned, as voters become increasingly weary and apathetic toward the party. Since Zuma’s ascension to the Presidency in 2009, the DA has gradually flipped seats in subsequent elections. Furthermore, the emergence of the EFF presents underprivileged, black, male voters with another alternative, and its manifesto appeals to the same voter demographics that Zuma seems determined to appease.

The selection of the ANC’s new president at the 54th National Conference in December will be the next barometer of the party’s relative harmony. Cyril Ramaphosa, while an incisive businessman and accomplished leader, is marred by blame for a massacre in Marikana. Nevertheless, he remains the most viable candidate for the party presidency.

The incipient stages of the ANC’s disintegration are underway. While Ramaphosa has been brazen enough to validate the faulty logic of his boss, it is unclear whether he will prosecute Zuma for corruption charges, as doing so would anger Zuma’s supporters and undermine Ramaphosa’s chances of winning the presidency in 2019. However, this will surely be an unavoidable topic during the campaign and will require Ramaphosa to choose his words carefully.

It seems that the best move for the ANC in the long-term is to sever ties with Zuma. To ensure stable leadership, Ramaphosa ought to reverse Zuma’s policies and install progressive leaders like Gordhan, whose only fault was a mission to weed out corruption and revitalize an economy at risk of prolonged stagnation. Prosecuting Zuma, while politically costly, gives the ANC a chance to prove its intolerance toward corruption, achievements that may go a long way in voters’ minds. This remains especially paramount for younger voters, who perceive their diminished economic prospects as a result of the cronyism of Zuma’s administration.

Image courtesy of the South African Government


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About Arman Sidhu

Arman Sidhu is a freelance political writer. He graduated from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ, USA). His work has previously been published in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy Journal, and the International Policy Digest, among several others.

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