The Beginning of the End of the ANC

by Jun 13, 2024Election, Feature

This article was first published in ROAPE. We are publishing a variety of views on the results of the election in order to stimulate debate. 


Anti-Zuma protestors in Cape Town complaining of the junk status that South African debt became valued at during the Zuma presidency. The term “se poes” is a slang insult in Cape Town (7 April 2017).


For the first time in South Africa’s 30 years of democracy, the African National Congress (ANC) failed to obtain a majority of votes, making a coalition with other parties imminent. Luke Sinwell considers the consequences and discusses the emergence of a new party, MK, led by Jacob Zuma. Sinwell looks at what has happened to the left and its repeated failure to make any serious inroads into South Africa’s political scene.

The newly minted Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party led by former President Jacob Zuma quickly established itself in the elections as the third largest party in the country, obtaining about 15% of the votes, following the Democratic Alliance’s 22% and the ANC’s 40%.

Those on the right who support unfettered market freedom fear the ANC will partner with the left-leaning Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF – which obtained about 9.5% of the votes) and the MK (much more on this below). But a coalition with the Democratic Alliance (DA – the historically white party) is perhaps the greatest threat to those who seek historical redress.

The latter would crush existing hopes for redistribution of wealth and cement the misguided sense that we live in a “post-racial” world – like the one that Republicans in the US strive for where the past must be forgotten. The wounds that were inflicted by colonial-imperialist powers during colonialism and apartheid would likely be brushed aside.

We are consistently asked about the most “market-friendly” coalition, but one must ask: for whom? Those at the top or the bottom? South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. In 2023, Statistics South Africa found that 18.2 million people experience extreme poverty (living on less than US$1.9 per day) – it is highly unlikely that the trickle-down theory will work to their advantage.

Ramaphosa promised an end to corruption and a “new dawn”, but what we got was a new darkness. Our lights have literally been shut off, often on a daily basis, not only in poor communities who are disproportionately affected, but the middle class and big business has also been hit. Unemployment stands officially at a touch below 33%, but many have it at 50%. Even water runs dry in some suburbs and, while South Africa used to have amongst the safest drinking water in the world, one now questions whether to quench one’s thirst from the tap, or to buy bottled water. Excessive inflation rates, as well as high loan premiums for housing bonds, mean that the middle class, too, has been drowning.

The ANC’s vote dropped slightly in previous national elections from about 62% in 2014 to nearly 58% in 2019, but plummeted to just over 40% last week in what has been widely described as a humbling if not an utter humiliation for the former liberation movement.

On Sunday, the former trade unionist and anti-apartheid activist, President Cyril Ramaphosa, took centre stage as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) announced the results of South Africa’s elections. The IEC chairperson fumbled on his words when he introduced Ramaphosa on stage saying that the president was “extinguished” rather than “distinguished.”  All jokes aside, this election cements the beginning of the end of the ANC.

Or does it?

The party, which came to power on the back of the liberation movement against apartheid, promised “a better life for all” in 1994. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was intended as a state-driven policy to improve the lives of the black majority, but the 1996 “class project” adopted under the leadership of former President Thabo Mbeki rolled back the state.

Neoliberalism became ANC policy. White capital surged as South Africa was able to re-enter the global economy, as the working class experienced increased levels of poverty and unemployment.

There are a few black diamond billionaires who benefitted from Black Economic Empowerment, including Ramaphosa, but this doesn’t sit well with the vast majority of poor people, many of whom understandably feel as if they have been forgotten  — especially the 9 million people still living in shacks.

South Africa’s Constitution is much touted, but it reinforces private property rights. Within this misguided framework, the land which was dispossessed from the black majority must be bought back for its market value. The white minority continues to own nearly 80% of productive land and about half of the country’s land overall, making the question of land expropriation without compensation a key item of contention.

The making of a martyr

Having spent a decade as a political prisoner on Robben Island from the age of 17, former President Jacob Zuma went into exile in 1975, before rising up through the ANC’s leadership ladder, eventually becoming the Deputy President of the country between 1999 and 2005. The fact that he had been charged with corruption in an arms deal and was recently acquitted from a highly publicised charge of rape in 2006 did not prevent members of the party from electing him President of the ANC.

At Zuma’s rape trial he famously testified that he took a shower after having sex to avoid contracting HIV/AIDS.  Zuma supporters were seen outside of the courtroom burning pictures of Khwezi (who accused Zuma of rape) and in one instance his supporters were seen stoning a woman who they apparently mistook as his accuser.

Zuma’s ascent to ANC Presidency, at the ANC National Conference in Limpopo in December 2007, happened with the backing of the left-wing coalition of Cosatu and the SACP.

Disgruntled with what he viewed as the ANC’s flawed decision to oust Thabo Mbeki (whose term was set to expire in April 2009) in favour of Zuma, Terror Lekota and others formed the first breakaway party from the ANC called Cope in 2008; it earned about 7.5% in the national elections. So neither MK nor the EFF is the first breakaway.

A product of the ANC, Zuma is seen by many as a “man of the people”, and yet his nine years of “state capture” (or predatory capitalism) from 2009 to 2018 when he was President cost the country up to R500 billion. A self-described socialist, at the end of 2017 he introduced a programme of “radical economic transformation” which was supposedly aimed at redistributing resources to the poor and working class.

Ramaphosa was elected the president of the ANC at their 54th annual conference in December 2017, thereby ending Zuma’s term as president of the ANC, thus leading him to be recalled as president of the country prior to the 2019 elections. This set the foundation from which Zuma’s ardent supporters viewed Ramaphosa as their arch enemy.

In their press conference on Monday this week, Julius Malema — the Commander in Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — was asked about his own party’s decline of about 350,000 votes between 2019 and 2024.  For him, it had to do with Zuma who — as it happens — he had campaigned for in the 2009 elections even going so far as to famously state that he would “kill for Jacob Zuma.”

Malema reflected at the press conference:

The people who were supporting President Zuma… [t]hey had no other political home because they didn’t want Cyril so they ended up coming to us… when it came to voting they said… “the closer to what we want is the EFF.” … In 2019 … we get 350,000 votes… in Kwa-Zulu Natal… We don’t know where those numbers came from. Now there is an explanation. Those people were never ours. They were President Zuma’s people.  So it’s good they found their home.

Under Ramaphosa’s government, the Zondo State Capture Commission was established thus further pitting him against Zuma — who was pitched as the king-pin of state capture corruption.  When Zuma was sentenced to jail in 2021, after refusing to testify at the Zondo Commission to answer questions regarding charges of corruption and cronyism, protests and riots spread, starting in KZN, Zuma’s stronghold, and then the rest of the country, leaving more than 300 people dead and costing R20 billion in damages to 161 malls and nearly a dozen warehouses.

In the press conference on Monday, Malema referred to a conversation he had with Ramaphosa where he reportedly said, “you can’t do what you are doing. You are going to make him [Zuma] a hero…. Even after taking him out of jail they [ANC] still go on to harass him.”  From this perspective, the ANC solidified the sense among voters that Zuma is a kind of martyr.

However, he is a false messiah, and although there are certain benefits that the EFF brings to those who seek left-wing policies, Malema too is not a saviour of the working class.

Whither a Left alternative?

Following the Marikana Massacre on 16 August 2012, which witnessed 34 mineworkers gunned down by automatic weapons under the auspices of the ANC, Julius Malema launched in 2013 the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In a symbolic gesture, this ‘launch’ happened below the exact mountain where the shootings took place. The left-leaning party appeared at face value to have a radical economic agenda.

They even brought one of the leading woman activists in Marikana, Primrose Sonti, to parliament so that she could take forward the struggle of the mineworkers and the community who lived across the road from Lonmin platinum in shacks, often without running water or electricity. The EFF spoke the language of the people, wearing mineworkers’ hats and red overalls. Many of us used to love watching how the party disrupted parliament on the one hand while on the other spoke truth to white supremacy and capitalism.

If anything, the people of Marikana had a loud and consistent “voice” in Parliament, and yet few changes have been evident in the lives of ordinary people in Marikana. The women I spoke to in 2012, who were standing alongside their mineworker husbands and running from the police raids in Nkaneng informal settlement, still live in shacks without electricity.

The EFF though has arguably been most effective on university campuses where it leads most Student Representative Councils (SRCs), thus reaffirming that the party has a strong base from which to flourish.

One might suggest that the vast majority of voters still want the ANC in power, but a different ANC — and perhaps even one that nationalises mines and banks as is written in the manifestos of both MK and EFF.

But the MK is not the way to go for those who seek a left alternative. It claims in its manifesto to be committed to radical redistribution and to be run by the will of the people, but the experience of Jacob Zuma (the main engine of the party) suggests that this is mainly rhetoric. Early this year, Zuma addressed 3000 MK supporters, where he opposed same-sex marriage which he has previously referred to as a “disgrace to the nation and to God.”

In part as a response to rising calls for nationalisation, capital attempted to promote a new party, Rise Mzansi, but it failed, only capturing less than one half of a percent of the votes in the elections, despite the funding it was given by one of the richest families in South Africa, the Oppenheimers.

The MK and EFF have been relatively effective at building grassroots electoral machinery, but the independent left (those who fall outside of mainstream political parties and outside the ANC’s alliance), have been utterly incapable of demonstrating organisational capacity in this regard. While the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) stood proudly in the 2014 national elections, using the platform to push forward pro-working-class politics, they obtained just over 8000 votes and could not obtain a seat in parliament.

Many placed hope in the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (“NUMSA Moment”) which broke from the alliance with the ANC in December 2013. The SRWP (Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party) which was formed to provide a socialist political home for workers and the unemployed also faired incredibly poorly in the 2019 elections, obtaining about 20,000 votes despite it being Numsa’s (which had an impressive trade union membership of 350,000 at the time) brainchild.

No credible alternative to build people’s power from below, uniting trade unions and social movements to make a wide set of demands within a socialist framework, existed on the ballot in this election. This is a symptom of the independent left in South Africa which is in disarray. NGOisation, whereby movements are watered down by organisations or academics with a bit of resources to throw for transport and pocket money, continues to be en vogue.

Following this year’s election outcome, the suggestion amongst some who I have spoken to informally is that we should stand candidates in the local government elections of 2026 to avoid a similar fate.

But, we don’t know what the people are thinking, for example including those who did not vote at a moment when the percentage of voter turnout is the lowest it has ever been during our 30 years of democracy. We need to go back to the drawing board. We need to sit and listen to the people before propping up the next workers’ party or socialist electoral front which will, if history is anything to go by, in all likelihood have a very thin support base.

This week’s commentary by politicians, analysts and journalists mirrors this appraisal. But the assumption that, because people voted, their voices have been heard is shortsighted and dangerous terrain for those who seek fundamental change.

We require a deeper, more robust democracy, not one where people vote every five years and then sit back in the hope that the new configuration of power within parliament will hand down some crumbs to make our lives slightly better.

What is clear is that the rules, norms and boundaries in which decisions are made at the ballot box, at public meetings and in the streets must be reimagined on the terms of the people themselves. Without this, elected officials will continue to break attractive promises. They will speak the language of the people as a means to pacify and control, thus denying present and future generations in South Africa our economic and political freedom.

Luke Sinwell teaches at the University of Johannesburg and is an activist and socialist. Among his books is the co-authored The Spirit of Marikana (Pluto, 2016), Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer (Jacana, 2013), and his recent The Participation Paradox – Between Bottom–Up and Top–Down Development in South Africa (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023). Luke first visited Marikana the day after the massacre to provide solidarity to the striking mineworkers.

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