Political Power Struggle Overshadows South Africa’s Broken Promise

The African National Congress' political inheritance is all but spent. Now, a new generation of activists must forge their own struggle.

By Michelle Chen Sep 16, 2011

It’s been more than two decades since South Africa overthrew apartheid rule, but ordinary South Africans today live under a different, subtler form of oppression–governed by those who came to power as their liberators.

The crisis that has gripped the regime of the African National Congress (ANC) lately is not the country’s crippling poverty, its festering corruption nor its threadbare infrastructure. All eyes are on Julius Malema, the leader of the ANC Youth League, who has been found guilty on charges of "hate speech" in a disciplinary case brought under the country’s Equality Act. His offense was singing a racially charged old anti-apartheid anthem "Shoot the Boer," but the verdict reflects general anxiety about the young firebrand’s role in the party. He has angered and embarrassed party higher-ups with remarks attacking South Africa’s ally Botswana and calling for the nationalization of mines and other industries. At the same time, the ANC leadership’s retaliation against Malema has sparked protests among followers who see him as a sort of folk hero who embodies widespread public disgust with ANC rule.

Some call the Malema controversy a "battle for the ANC’s soul," between the establishment, represented by President Jacob Zuma, and the militant populism that Malema has stirred up. But Malema is a shrewd political player himself, embedded in a political class consumed by corporate cronyism. Some activists view him simply as an opportunist within the regime, and his call for nationalization as a self-serving rhetorical tactic to empower his faction and business allies. The grassroots Unemployed People’s (Shack Dwellers) Movement recently dismissed Malema as a "demagogue," a product of a society in turmoil, not a force to deal with the nation’s institutional decay.

Pedro Tabensky, a philosophy professor at Rhodes University, told Colorlines that the political ambitions and business connections on both sides of the rivalry indicate that its about power, not ideology:

I think at bottom the Zuma/Malema war is expressive of a party that is in general terms no longer committed to its forming ideals.

It’s been almost 20 years since the advent of democracy and the ANC has done almost nothing for the poor in this time. And the more the poor start to raise their voices the more they are met with a state that shows itself over and over again to have no interest in their plight. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the ANC to hide behind rhetoric. Years go by and the mismatch between rhetoric and concrete emancipation becomes ever more apparent.

Many South Africans are justifiably incensed that the post-apartheid leadership has followed the path of its predecessor in many aspects, systematically exploiting the country’s poor and its natural resources at the expense of democracy. Within the ANC, Malema has capitalized on the public’s disillusionment. Yet the anger in the townships isn’t about aligning with one faction or the other, but about the profound hypocrisy underlying South Africa’s image as a model post-colonial democracy.

Leonard Gentle, director of the South Africa-based think tank International Labour Research and Information Group, says the Malema controversy is a platform for ANC factions to spar in the lead-up to the 2012 party elections, while restraining real political debate. He acknowledges in a commentary that even if Malema’s message is "sheer opportunism," the gagging of Malema and the ANC Youth League reveals the white domination and class barriers that still striate the public sphere.

And what is their crime? Calling for nationalisation, defying the decisions of the parent body, accusing whites of stealing the land, and trying to open up the succession debate in the ruling party….

The right of the ANCYL to openly promote their views and to campaign for their choice of ANC leaders should be defended by all democrats and should not be compromised by this association with Malema….

What holds back public debate in South Africa is the dead weight of white entitlement in the media, both print and television. Anything faintly redistributive is simply attacked. Any acknowledgment of the violence of apartheid is simply "dragging us backwards." Any reference to the liberation struggle is stigmatised as racist by association.

While the ANC focuses on Malema’s political transgressions, a more pernicious crime thrives throughout all corners of South African society. Since apartheid’s fall, aggressive economic liberalization and privatization of government institutions have aggravated myriad forms of social inequality.

Social data from recent years show that apartheid-era divisions have remained intact even if explicit segregation has been abolished. Educational disparities have persisted, with a "newly wealthy non-white population" joining whites within a tiny elite. Access to healthcare services and facilities remains harshly stratified between richer and poorer communities, partially due to unequal funding systems. The government has suppressed protests with brutality that recalls the crackdowns of an earlier era, leaving citizens to wonder what actual progress has been made since the ANC took power.

Against this backdrop of oppression, the fact that the ANC’s crackdown on Malema has invoked the country’s landmark civil rights law reflects a skewed sense of social priorities. Activists on the ground have condemned both Zuma and Malema for exploiting or betraying the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the original ANC of the anti-apartheid struggle.

With the ANC consumed by internecine warfare, some grassroots movements have declared independence from the old guard as well as from Malema’s faction, and their direct actions often parallel movements unfolding across the Global South. Last February in Grahamstown, public outrage exploded at the authorities’ failure to address sexual violence and poor housing conditions, staging the occupation of government offices and road blockades. After the police cracked down, the Unemployed People’s Movement issued a statement declaring the sit-in "our own little Tahrir Square" and argued, "It is incredible that our demand for justice is taken as violence while the way that we are supposed to live without jobs, houses or toilets or basic safety is taken as normal."

S’bu Zikode, founder of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers) Movement, a campaign for "the militant poor in post-apartheid South Africa," said during a recent visit to New Zealand:

We held our first free elections in 1994. Nelson Mandela promised jobs, security, education, a rainbow nation where all people would get fair, even treatment, and respect.

What’s happened is that the oppressed have become the oppressors. A huge gap has opened between the poor and the rich; it’s no longer a battle for justice based on colour, it’s now social class and money.

The ANC has staked its legitimacy on its vaunted history for nearly a generation now, but in today’s South Africa, their political inheritance is all but spent. The country’s democratic project, a revolutionary work in progress, now falls to a generation of activists who must build on, not ride on, the legacy of their founding struggle.