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Economics

The African National Congress at 100

5 January 2012

The African National Congress at 100

By Gwynne Dyer

“It’s a bittersweet victory,” said William Gumede, a distinguished South African academic, about the hundredth anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC), which opens with a enormous party in Bloemfontein on Sunday. “This is our tipping point. From here things will go downhill. No liberation movement has moved upwards from this point.”

It’s a grim prognosis, but Gumede, author of “Thabo Mbeke and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC,” insists that South Africa is no exception to the rule. “Every African country thought it was exceptional. If you look at the archives of Nigerian papers at the time they got independence (1960), everyone in Nigeria, in Africa and indeed the world over thought they were exceptional. No one wanted to criticise them.” But then it all fell apart.

It has not fallen apart yet in South Africa. Eighteen years after Nigeria got its independence, there had been a terrible civil war, the generals were already ruling the country, and the average income was lower than it had been in late colonial times. Whereas eighteen years after the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, it is still a more or less peaceful democracy, and the living standards of the poor have at least not declined.

But maybe that was just because South Africa was fortunate to have an extraordinary generation of leaders: men like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo who were intelligent, incorruptible and dedicated to democracy. Without them at its head, can the ANC be trusted? A lot of people doubt it.

Mandela chose Thabo Mbeki as his successor because he trusted him to keep the government clean and democratic, but there was already something wrong there. However saintly Mandela was, the way he imposed Mbeki as leader of the ANC, and therefore president of the country, was considerably less than democratic.

Mbeki turned out to be more autocratic than Mandela had hoped, but his overthrow in an internal ANC coup in 2008 was hardly a triumph for democracy either. Of the two men who played the biggest roles in organising that coup, one, Jacob Zuma, is now president of the ANC and the country, while the other, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, spends all his days plotting to take his place.

Zuma, a man who has faced multiple charges of corruption and rape, miraculously emerges unscathed from the courts each time, and his co-conspirator in the main corruption case, Shabir Shaik, has just been released from prison for “medical reasons.” Malema, an accomplished demagogue, has built his popularity among the poor black majority on barely disguised racial incitement against whites, mixed-race people and other minorities.

Politics is a tough old game in every country, but there is a systemic problem here: the ANC doesn’t do democracy well. Gumede put his finger on it when he pointed out that the ANC, like other African parties that fought liberation wars, had a military structure. “They tended to centralise; there was not much internal democracy. When they came to power they couldn’t break away from this culture, which undermined internal democratic processes.”

Dozens of heads of state and an estimated 100,000 ordinary South Africans are flocking to Bloemfontein to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the ANC. They honour it because it brought freedom to the black majority in South Africa without destroying the country’s democratic institutions in the process. South Africa still has free elections, free media and a justice system that is free from government influence (most of the time).

But that has been relatively easy up to now. The ANC still enjoys mass support because of its heroic past, so it has won every national election so far without having to break the democratic rules. The question is: what will it do when it can no longer win without breaking the rules?

That day is probably not very many years off. The ANC’s share of the vote has been falling steadily, partly because of its perceived corruption but largely because almost two decades in power will erode the popularity of any political party. The election in 2014 will probably be the last in which it can hope to win a parliamentary majority honestly.

The most important crisis in South Africa’s history will occur when it loses the election after that. Only if the ANC then goes meekly into opposition can we conclude that South Africa really is an exception to the rule that liberation movements don’t do democracy.

The rule doesn’t mean that Africa is doomed eternally to political oppression and corruption. A number of African countries have passed through that long tunnel and emerged on the other end as flawed but generally law-abiding democracies: Kenya, Zambia, and Mozambique, for example. But it would be much better not to go into the tunnel at all.

The ANC will really deserve the admiration of the world if it can leave power without a fight. At the moment, the odds on that happening are no better than even.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“The rule…even”)