South Africa’s Political Turmoil

South Africa has entered the most difficult political period since the end of apartheid in 1994. At the heart of the crisis is the question of the future direction of the country.

President Thabo Mbeki will be stepping down in 2009, but the battle for succession has already begun. The political coalition that has supported him is on the verge of fracture. South Africa’s political turmoil is a concern not only for South Africans. The country plays a pivotal role on the continent, and Mbeki has carved out a position as a regional peacemaker and global player. Pretoria also figures prominently in U.S. plans for Africa. How South Africa handles this watershed crisis, in other words, will have serious regional and global implications.

After Mbeki?

Left-wing critics portray President Mbeki as having lost his way—of pandering to international capital and the white elite, and of supporting economic policies that benefit them. In June 1996, two years after the African National Congress (ANC) came to power, the new government introduced GEAR (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution), which steered the country toward an open, globalized economy. Critics severely criticized the ANC government for operating within this capitalist framework.

The unlikely champion of the left is Jacob Zuma. Having narrowly escaped charges of rape earlier this year, President Mbeki’s former deputy now stands accused of corruption. The allegations against Zuma stem from an arms deal signed near the end of 1999 for contracts totaling $4.8 billion to modernize the South African defense force. The deal, which followed the lifting of the UN arms embargo against the country during the apartheid years, included the purchase of high-speed boats, submarines, light utility helicopters, trainer aircraft, and advanced light fighter jets. It was the largest arms procurement ever made by South Africa, and critics questioned whether the country needed this kind of equipment. The Cabinet announced the deal in September 1999, when it split the procurements among a number of foreign manufacturers.

A French arms contractor—Thomson CSF, or Thint as it is known in South Africa—allegedly made a number of illegal payments to Zuma to pay off his large debts and provide an annual sum from the company to support his expensive lifestyle, which included maintaining a number of wives and building a sumptuous “traditional” home village in KwaZulu-Natal.

The current case against Zuma has been dismissed. The judge has scathingly described the prosecution’s handling of the case as having “limped from one disaster to another.” He criticized the prosecution for not being ready to present the case after years of investigation, and for its use of documents illegally seized from Zuma’s lawyers. However, the former deputy president’s troubles are not necessarily over, and a fresh prosecution could still be brought against him.

Zuma supporters believe that the whole case is political, with the president’s office orchestrating these legal assaults on the former deputy president. Zuma’s friends believe the Mbeki camp is determined to halt their champion for purely political reasons, and there is no doubt that President Mbeki believes Zuma to be an unsuitable successor.

President Mbeki has to step down in 2009 after serving two terms. His successor will be chosen at a party conference late in 2007, but potential candidates are already readying themselves. Aside from Jacob Zuma, others in the running include: the former mineworkers leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, who is currently among the wealthiest businessmen in the country; Finance Minister Trevor Manual, who is a “Colored” or of mixed race and therefore unlikely to win mass support; and Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka , President Mbeki’s current deputy. Since none of these potential candidates has attracted more than 12% support from ANC supporters, the race is still wide open.

The whole sorry saga has dragged in the other members of the Tripartite Alliance that forms the core support of the ANC government. This alliance includes the party itself as well as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Neither is now backing President Mbeki, leaving him increasingly isolated.

The Tripartite Alliance

Since World War II, the ANC has attempted to bolster its position through an alliance with the trade union movement and the small but influential South African Communist Party. This partnership was undermined, but not destroyed, in the 1950s when the government banned the Communist Party, and it went into exile and underground. After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, the ANC itself and its trade union allies were banned and went into exile. Their supporters continued to operate within the country as best they could. Not until the 1970s did the black trade unions re-emerge. At first the unions were independent, but later they came under the political influence (but not the control) of the ANC. In reality the unions were the key foot soldiers in the fight against the apartheid government. Their skills, energy, and organization helped the ANC become the dominant (not to say hegemonic) political party in the late 1980s and 1990s, and they continue to provide critical electoral support to the party during elections.

In return for their support, the unions and the Communist Party were given a say in government when the ANC took power in 1994. Many key members took leading positions within the government. But the gradual move toward business, and the rejection of more radical policies, led to an erosion of the influence of both organizations. This more conservative economic policy has produced increasing tension within the alliance, but never on the scale witnessed today. It is now possible to begin to speculate whether the alliance will splinter, taking parts of the ANC with it.

The SACP—once a truly Stalinist party aligned to the Soviet Union—is now more social democratic, although they have never fully thrown off the Marxist jargon or the Leninist structures of the party. It claims to have 40,000 members (up from 20,000 in 2002). Although a substantial rise, it is still way behind the ANC, which says it has 440,000 members. The Communist Party has influence, but certainly no control, over the ANC. The Party once thought it could infiltrate and take over the ANC but has ended up being swallowed by the much larger movement.

In the last few months, the SACP has strengthened its criticism of the ANC leadership. A discussion document released by the party devoted half its space to a debate about whether the “mode of functioning of the alliance, inherited from the earlier period [prior to 1990], is still relevant for the current period.” The document said: “Unless the ANC is a mass-based democratic and self-styled disciplined force of the left and begins to assert a real revolutionary authority and discipline over its legislature caucuses, for instance, a petty bourgeoisie cadre focused almost entirely on commercial racketeering will swallow the organization.” At the same time the SACP has shied away from spearheading an alternative left-wing party that would confront the ANC.

COSATU has echoed the stand taken by the SACP. Citing the example of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the unions argue that the ANC could lose the credibility it won during the years of the anti-apartheid struggle. On May 25, COSATU made the ominous prediction that South Africa and the ANC were drifting toward a dictatorship. “Dictatorship never announces its arrival,” COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told the press. “It won’t, like drum majorettes, beat drums and parade down the street to announce it has arrived. The main concern of the (National Executive) Committee centers on signs that we may be drifting toward dictatorship. This appears in the use of state institutions … in narrow factional fights. We see it in the use of sections of the media to assassinate the character of individuals through off-the-record briefings and the leaking of sensitive information in the hands of those charged to investigate crimes.”

In summary, Vavi said the ANC was “facing its worst crisis in years, with the Jacob Zuma matter as a symptom, not a cause.” The party and the country, he concluded, are at a “decisive moment.”

The ANC

President Mbeki has faced sustained criticism of his style of leadership from within his own party as well. His opponents accuse the president of seeking to control every aspect of the state and the party. Political debate is stifled, and power is retained in the hands of the few. Even senior ANC members now acknowledge the distance between the leadership and the membership base. The national executive committee (NEC) is composed almost entirely of regional leaders, including ministers, premiers, and business people, a move toward elite control that Nelson Mandela argued against during his tenure as president. The party’s highest decision-making body now seems to operate only as a vehicle for the personal interests of each of its members.

Yet, the ANC and the government as a whole continue to retain the support of the vast majority of South Africans. According to a May 2006 poll from Markinor, the country’s most respected pollsters, most South Africans (seven out of 10) feel the country is moving in the right direction. The provision of water and electricity to the rural areas, and the building of homes in towns and cities have won enduring popular support. And, of course, the ANC is still credited with having led almost a century of resistance to apartheid.

The difficulties facing the government, and President Mbeki in particular, are those of internal factionalism coupled with a gradual loss of credibility with the majority of the population. President Mbeki is a diminished figure, but still far from a spent force. While public faith in government institutions is on the decline, Mbeki is today as popular as Nelson Mandela was during his presidency, with the support of over 70% of the population.

South Africa’s International Role

The internal difficulties facing the ruling party come at a time when South Africa’s role in Africa has never been more central. President Mbeki is continually flying around the continent, attempting to end conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, and Burundi, to name but three. The major blot on his international record is Zimbabwe, where he has been unwilling to take on the aging, authoritarian Robert Mugabe.

Mbeki is also the driving force behind a number of continent-wide initiatives (such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development or NEPAD) and is much appreciated by the international community for his efforts. Once a pariah during the apartheid years, South Africa is now a valued and trusted African partner, and not just by the West.

President Mbeki has just played host to Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which they signed a wide range of economic, scientific, and cultural deals. China and India are also taking Africa far more seriously, with a constant stream of visitors to the continent. As a recent World Bank study showed, Asia now accounts for 27% of Africa’s exports, triple the amount in 1990, with China and India leading the way.

For the United States too, Africa is becoming an increasing focus of interest. African oil is now an important source of energy that balances supplies from the chronically unstable Arabian Gulf.

Two other factors should be borne in mind. The United States is currently re-assessing its military relationship with the continent. Traditionally the Pentagon divided its efforts on the continent into the Central Command (CENTCOM), which concentrates on Egypt, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa, and the European Command (EUCOM), which tackles the rest of the continent. There is now talk of centralizing these two into a single African command (AFCOM). The main role of AFCOM would be to maintain long-term, low-visibility U.S. security operations in Africa. Although there has been no major terrorist attack since the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Washington is keenly aware of threats on the continent and of the spread of terrorism from the Arabian Peninsula. Somalia is a major current preoccupation. The Pentagon views South Africa as a reliable, stable partner on a crisis-ridden, complex continent. Demands on President Mbeki’s time and attention are likely to increase, given Washington’s growing interest in Africa.

Such demands come at a time when South Africa’s military is finding growing difficulty in meeting the political demands placed upon it by President Mbeki’s Africa policies. Nearly a quarter (23%) of the armed forces is HIV positive. At the same time, its soldiers are getting older (the average age of its infantry is 31), and the military structure is top-heavy. The concentration on recruiting black personnel has left the military short of skills, and some of its armor, artillery, and anti-aircraft units are inoperable. There are critical shortages of pilots, instructors, and technicians in the air force. As a result, the South African Defense Force cannot meet all the roles demanded of it. The decision to buy advanced fighter aircraft and submarines in 1999 is now coming back to haunt the government. To fulfill an African peacekeeping role, the country’s defense force needs modern, long-range transport aircraft, which it currently lacks.

The internal difficulties faced by President Mbeki come at an awkward time. His time and energy are being sapped, just when the international community would like to see him fulfilling his role as “Africa’s fireman.” The president will continue to place a high priority on his African commitments, but his authority is eroding, and the tools at his disposal are becoming blunter.

Martin Plaut was born in South Africa and participated in the re-emergence of the trade union movement in the 1970s. He has lived in the UK since 1977, working on Africa for the Labor Party and the BBC. He has written widely on the continent, most recently on the Ethiopia