ANC: Accountability at Last?

South Africa's ANC has not faced a serious challenge for decades. Will the 2014 elections force the party to finally answer questions of competence?
By Rishabh Bhandari

In 2010, the world looked to South Africa with delight. The country had just hosted the FIFA World Cup without experiencing a crises or suffering any major gaffes, and although the World Cup could not have hoped to rival the Beijing Olympics, South Africa never tried to make it so. Expectations were low and the global football community was simply relieved that everyone made it there and back in one piece.

With the World Cup past, a more important question arises: will the world still be watching South Africa in 2014, when the country is poised to elect a new leader? Next year’s election’s will be South Africa’s first since 2009, and they come at a crucial juncture for the wealthiest and most prominent country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Narratives of growth aside, the reality is that BRICS has become BRIC as South Africa has lagged behind her peers. Unemployment in the country sits near 40% and the economy is grinding along at 3%—an anemic number for a developing country. Inequality has also skyrocketed in the past twenty years. According to the Gini Index, which measures a country’s inequality on a scale of 0 to 1, South Africa has gone from a Gini coefficient of 0.59 in 1993 to one of 0.63 today. Considering that apartheid was still in place in 1993, the fact that inequality has risen is not one to ignore. Rising costs of living and the lack of social mobility have led many South Africans to make risky choices and load up on credit card debt. In a country with weak financial regulations and poor governance, banks have come to play the role of loan sharks, often charging lower-middle class South Africans interest rates as high as 30%.

Though these numbers paint a bleak picture, they are apparently not enough to pique the world’s interest. A big part of the problem stems from political predictability. Since apartheid ended, the African National Congress (ANC) has exerted a seemingly impregnable monopoly over national politics. In each of South Africa’s four elections from 1994 to 2009, the ANC won at least 62% of the vote. And this in spite of the ANC’s widely perceived dalliances with incompetence and corruption.

The ANC is so strong politically that its leader and South Africa’s Prime Minister, Jacob Zuma, won the 2009 election despite being accused of both rape and corruption. Earlier this year, the Western press even discovered that Zuma had spent $27 million of South Africa’s budget on renovating his private property, yet even so, Zuma remains in power.

The ANC’s power, in part, has relied on both its unique brand of socialist populism and its role in defeating apartheid. As the most organized force that combatted apartheid, the ANC and its former leaders – including Nelson Mandela – have held an understandably strong place in the hearts of many South Africans.

Past virtue does not, however, justify present malfeasance. The country has too much promise and its people have suffered too much to continue being oppressed by the shackles of history, even if it is former liberators who now serve as the captors.

The ANC’s moral high ground is slowly evaporating.  On Monday, one distinguished anti-apartheid leader, Mamphela Ramphele, announced her intention of forming a new political party in order to challenge Zuma in 2014. Called “Agang,” Ms. Ramphele’s party is one of several that have emerged over the years as activists and veterans of the anti-apartheid movement have grown frustrated with the ANC. Yet hers comes with a new twist: she brings to the electoral process the exact kind of pedigree that the ANC has long touted and used to remarkable success. Ms. Ramphele was a freedom-fighter of the highest order, and she is the mother to the famous and late activist Steve Biko’s two children.

She also comes with competence and experience. After being banished to a remote village in South Africa for fighting apartheid, Ms. Ramphele later became a managing director of the World Bank. She also has significant experience working with the South African private sector: her last job was as chairwoman of Gold Fields, a major South African mining company.

While ‘Agang’ may not win ultimately win in 2014, the party’s presence, combined with that of Ms. Ramphele, will hopefully serve to provide the accountability that the ANC, despite its electoral accomplishments, has never had to worry about before.

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