For the African National Congress 2012 was an annus horribilis. Despite what should have been a year of celebration for South Africa’s now 101-year-old premier liberation movement, 2012 turned out to be the most politically damaging year for the party since 1994 – and possibly ever. Following the ANC’s “January 8 statement” (delivered on 12 January, marking the party’s 101st anniversary), the party set out its goals for 2013. Let's count down the 10 public relations crises that befell the ANC in 2012. Avoiding a similar series of disasters in 2013 will be essential if the party is to retain its political dominance.
The Marikana Massacre
Police, under the direction of a police commissioner with no experience in the field, opened fire on 16 August 2012 on a crowd of protesting mineworkers at Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana (North West), killing 34. Television images of the shooting were beamed around the world and it featured on the front pages of many of the world’s leading newspapers. Parallels were drawn with Apartheid-era atrocities. The ANC’s image as a defender of human rights was seriously undermined in the eyes of both domestic and international observers.
Journalists broke the story that more than R250 million had been approved by the government to upgrade President Jacob Zuma’s home at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal. The scandal featured in South African and international news media for months despite efforts by some party and government officials to justify the expenditure. This gave the impression of an arrogant and corrupt party that is out of touch with the poverty and inequality experienced by many South Africans.
Julius Malema’s axing
An internal disciplinary process saw the then ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, booted out of the party. Malema had positioned himself as the voice of the unemployed, poor, and marginalised youth. No senior ANC leader, including those accused and even convicted of corruption, was treated as harshly by the party leadership. The expulsion created the impression in the minds of many that the party devoted more energy to settling internal battles than to resolving the very legitimate social and economic issues raised by Malema.
‘Shoot the Boer’ (Dubul’ iBhunu)
The ANC defended, in court, the singing of this inflammatory song despite the significant number of murders on farms. This gave the impression, to minorities and external observers, of a party callous and indifferent to the suffering of minority groups in South Africa.
The ‘secrecy’ bill
Party legislators pushed through the unpopular Protection of State Information Bill of 2010 that promises jail terms among other punishments for people, including journalists, who obtain, possess, or circulate classified government information. Introduced amid a slew of corruption and other allegations against senior government and party leaders, the proposed legislation came across as an effort to stifle criticism and possible exposure of corruption. Many in the media, civil society, and the diplomatic community were so alarmed by the bill that they changed their long-held views about the ANC’s commitment to democratic governance.
Violence ahead of Mangaung
The run-up to the ANC’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung (Bloemfontein) in December 2012 was preceded by months of violence, infighting, and allegations of corruption by, and against, party leaders. The violence extended to intra-party assassinations. The media reported on events as extreme as party branch meetings being attacked by gun-wielding thugs seeking to force certain electoral outcomes. These incidents further reinforced the narrative that the ANC had moved away from its democratic processes and that increasing numbers of its members were prepared to use force to retain or gain power or influence.
Tlokwe mayoral crisis
In November 2012 ANC councillors brought a motion of no confidence against the ANC mayor of the Tlokwe municipality (Potchefstroom) in the North West, Maphetle Maphetle, citing allegations of corruption against him. After the motion was carried, supporters of the ousted mayor left the meeting. This allowed the minority Democratic Alliance to vote in its candidate as mayor. The ANC provincial leadership then ordered the ANC councillors to vote the DA mayor out and the allegedly corrupt ANC mayor back in. The local ANC councillors refused to do so. Even though the ANC provincial leadership was thus unsuccessful in its attempt to squash a stand in its own party against corruption, the very fact that it tried to do so supported the notion that the ANC has lost its moral compass.
Lenasia housing demolitions
The ANC-led government in Gauteng bulldozed, in front of television cameras, close on 50 houses alleged to have been built illegally on government land outside Lenasia. Evidence later suggested that the homeowners may have been defrauded by people working with government officials who sold the land illegally. The image of President Zuma upgrading his house with R250m of taxpayers’ money while his government bulldozed the homes of some of those same taxpayers, could not have been starker to ANC supporters and critics alike.
Limpopo textbook crisis
When the Limpopo government failed to deliver textbooks to its schools at the beginning of 2012 it triggered a national outcry. Even when the national government and the Zuma got involved, textbooks were still not delivered to some schools and evidence of dumping and destroying of textbooks emerged. It was a public example of the extent to which the ANC’s cadre deployment policies, and possibly corruption, have undermined the capacity of the civil service. The consequences of such mismanagement would have resonated in poor communities around the country.
Ratings downgrades and The Economist article
Ratings agencies downgraded South Africa’s credit rating, expressing the fear that government policy was unable to meet the expectations of its people. The social and political crises of the year were joined by serious doubts about the economic sustainability of the ANC’s policies. The cherry on the ANC’s centenary birthday cake was The Economist’s leading story in October 2012, entitled “South Africa’s Sad Decline”. The ratings downgrades and the article in The Economist were high-profile international denunciations of the ANC’s ability to govern South Africa and have shifted international perceptions of the party.
These 10 public relations crises led to a definitive change in attitudes towards the ANC. During 2012 the South African Institute of Race Relations met with, and briefed, more than 150 different corporations, diplomats, media organisations, civil society groups, political parties, and government leaders. These included large local and domestic investors, diplomats from Asia, Europe, and North America, a cross-section of leading domestic and foreign journalists, all major political parties, and a host of government agencies and departments. As the year progressed the change in attitude towards the ANC was palpable. Erstwhile supporters of the party across the board were deeply disturbed by what they were witnessing. In fact, attitudes towards the ANC changed more dramatically over the past 12 months than in the entire period since 1994. It is, of course, possible that 2012 was just a particularly unfortunate set of coincidences for the ANC. Alternatively, the year’s events were the manifestation of a cycle of destructive behavior that will extend into 2013 and beyond and may culminate in the eventual political demise of the party. DM
Frans Cronje is deputy chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations. Georgina Alexander is a researcher focusing on politics, government and assets and incomes.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine