When the ANC swept to power in 1994 it didn’t just have an overwhelming majority of the popular vote. It was also hegemonic in many of the important areas outside of Parliament.
Through the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) the ANC controlled the large and powerful trade union movement. Through the South African National Civics Organisation (Sanco) it exerted significant power over community organisations. The South African Student’s Congress (Sasco) allowed the ruling party to run most of the student movement. And in the NGO sector the South African National NGO Coalition (Sangoco) ensured that NGOs were not too critical of the ruling party.
While not formally organised, most intellectuals were broadly supportive of the ANC. Business was not formally aligned to the ruling party but its standing, and the huge moral stature of Mandela, meant that it would never stray too far from the fold. A similar dynamic played out in the international arena. Most foreign governments and international organisations were extremely supportive of the new government.
When the first shoots of organised opposition to the ANC emerged, in the form of the Treatment Action Campaign, they took the form of an opposition to government policy that was still organised from within the broader alliance around the ANC.
Today everything is different. Support for the ANC plummeted under Jacob Zuma’s disastrous rule. And while Cyril Ramaphosa is personally popular, the party has not recovered from the catastrophe of the Zuma years and could continue to lose support at the polls.
Already under Zuma the ANC took a heavy knock at the polls and while the Democratic Alliance (DA) did the most damage in terms of the number of votes won, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) did the most damage at the level of perception. It is the EFF rather than the ANC that, for many, is perceived, despite its often grotesque chauvinism, to represents the real interests of the nation.
The ANC has also lost the organisational hold that it once wielded over wider society. Cosatu is now a bankrupt federation, with very little moral standing left after its support for Zuma, that largely represents civil servants. Industrial workers are now mostly represented by the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa) while mineworkers are largely represented by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), both of which are hostile to the ANC.
Numsa is vibrant, growing rapidly, and is in the process of forming its own workers’ party. However, the new federation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) is seriously weakened by a deeply compromised Secretary General, Zwelinzima Vavi. It will not prosper until it gets credible leadership.
Sanco collapsed into the mire of corruption and general irrelevance years ago. Arguably the most significant community-based organisation to emerge in the vacuum has been Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is now growing rapidly, despite serious repression, and has members in five provinces. This powerful social movement does not support any political party.
In student politics Sasco has been routed by the EFF. The Zuma faction of the ANC had considerable influence in the student movement of 2015. But in recent student elections the EFF has swept the boards, condemning Sasco to oblivion.
Students do not represent society as a whole, and are en route to a life of relative privilege. The success of the EFF on campuses does not mean that the party will do as well in national elections. But it does mean that another constituency has been lost to the ANC.
The ruling party has also lost the support of many intellectuals and the NGOs, most of whom are, in the wake of the Zuma disaster, deeply suspicious of many in the ANC. Business certainly liked Ramaphosa as an individual but they do not, for good reason, believe that he really has full control over the party.
Internationally, the standing of the ANC has been ruined by Zuma. The election of Ramaphosa has been welcomed by two devastating long pieces in the New York Times, one on David Mabuza and the other on political assassinations, which have meant that the international view of the ANC is that Ramaphosa has not been able to restore the party’s integrity.
Despite the disillusionment, the ANC still controls most of the state and still has huge capacity to deliver patronage. This reality continues to set it apart from all other political parties.
The DA might be the official opposition but it has run into the limits of an alliance between the fears of minorities and the aspirations of the African middle class. It has been lurching from one public relations disaster to the next without any sense of purpose and direction.
The only reason the ANC doesn’t face a real threat of imminent defeat in 2019 is that the parliamentary opposition, in the form of the EFF, the trade union opposition, in the form of Numsa and AMCU, and the community-based opposition, in the form of Abahlali baseMjondolo, are not united. If they were able to unite, which is almost certainly impossible, the ANC would be facing a real prospect of losing state power.
If a rival that can link Parliament to the factory floor, the mine, the community and the campus emerges, it will find itself on the opposition benches. Right now it governs with an elected majority but no moral authority. DM
Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.