The ANC has had 25 years in power and some believe it might lose that grip on 8 May. History categorically dictates otherwise because, in the vast majority of post-colonial societies, 25 years is actually a short hold on the office for a “party of liberation”.
This is especially true in our neighbourhood where there’s been no change at all since independence in the ruling parties of Botswana (BDP since 1965), Mozambique (Frelimo since 1975), Angola (MPLA since 1975), Zimbabwe (Zanu-PF since 1980) and Namibia (Swapo since 1990).
Zambia does provide a nearby example of the democratic removal of a liberation party but Kenneth Kaunda’s UNIP still lasted 27 years before losing in 1991. Malawi is another but Kamuzu Banda’s MCP held power, by fair means and foul, for 31 years.
And our self-styled party of Afrikaner liberation, the Nats, held sway over the white electorate here for more than 40 uninterrupted years.
The same picture appears in East Africa where Kenya’s KANU party – founded by Jomo Kenyatta – clung on for 39 years until 2002, and Tanzania’s CCM continues a hold on a government which it has run since 1961.
North and West Africa provide fewer examples because so many of those countries experienced military coups to evict the ruling party – Algeria, Ghana and Nigeria to name the prominent ones – and not because the electorate forced the issue.
It’s very clear that this continent simply does not easily do radical change by the ballot box. Stasis is the norm. But it’s glib shorthand to call this an African phenomenon because it isn’t. It’s actually a global post-colonial one.
The Indian Congress Party – the political home of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru – led the country through five elections from 1948, only finally being defeated in 1977.
Helen Zille is fond of Singapore as an Asian Tiger example that we should follow but Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP has been batting for 54 years without dismissal since the separation from Malaysia (and Lee’s son is the current prime minister). Malaysia itself only experienced its first electoral turnover last year after 55 years. And the undisputed record holder in this post-colonial field is in Central America where Mexico’s PRI governed for 71 years from 1929.
So, if that’s the history lesson about post-liberation politics, what can we learn from it?
This is more about Big Party than Big Man politics. Excepting Zambia’s UNIP and Malawi’s MCP, all these resilient ruling parties successfully moved through multiple leaders without losing power, even if that’s a very recent concept for ZANU-PF with Emerson Mnangagwa replacing Robert Mugabe. Generally, these are not personality cults.
Indisputably there’s an emotional link among voters to a liberation party which lasts for generations and can defy performance reality. For many, the party represents the very concept of government rather than one of several alternatives to run it.
The longer a party stays in power, the longer it can use the levers of power to entrench itself. Patronage is a powerful thing and that lies almost solely within the gift of the ruling party. Key democratic contestation becomes internal, in terms of both policy and personality, and not at the increasingly meaningless national polls. The party can shape the system – make the rules, pull the levers of state, control key appointments, dominate the media landscape – and, in sinister cases like Zimbabwe, deploy brute official force to rig the system.
So, the historical view is that the ANC – barring a major schism – seems pretty much bullet-proof for this election on a national level (the provinces are a different proposition), especially as the proportional representation voting system works for the status quo. And, statistically, they look solid for the next one as well.
What should concern the ANC’s strategists is what history tells us about the downfall of liberation parties when that finally does happen.
Party splits are a common cause of the trouble. In Sri Lanka, the UNP was ousted after only nine years because a popular party figure, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, left to form his own party. Mosiuoa Lekota and Julius Malema have both already tried to play the splinter role here but that disgruntled 76-year old, Jacob Zuma, might be excited by the example of Malaysia where UNMO lost in 2018 to a coalition led by a 92-year-old former leader of the ruling party.
A combination of corruption, repression and instability did for the venerable Indian Congress Party under Indira Gandhi who called a brutal State of Emergency before being resoundingly defeated in 1977 by the Janata Party led by Morarji Desai, a dignified old man of considerable reputation who had been imprisoned by Gandhi. He effectively headed a ragtag coalition of those seriously disaffected with the Congress Party. Zambia was similar in 1991 – Frederick Chiluba was a well-known trade unionist who’d also been imprisoned in a wave of repression, his policies were populist and Kaunda’s jaunty vague symbolism had worn thin with urban voters. So, if service delivery ructions spread, and the ANC ever starts locking up opponents or suspending parliament, it should know that the end is probably nigh.
In Mexico in 2000, the PRI was a byword for rampant corruption and repression, but it had been so for decades. It was only the charisma and exceptional television talents of a wealthy businessman, Vicente Fox, which finally triggered the end. The ANC should keep a wary eye out for a rich, media-savvy disruptor.
Whatever they do, the ANC leadership should note that Gideon Rachman, an astute commentator in the London Financial Times, reckons that the macro history cycles of recent times average out at around 30 years which means the liberation dividend for the ANC may not keep paying out so generously beyond 2024. DM