Connor Foley

If the ANC continues to show a lack of commitment to democracy and its party’s values, it begs the question, is this the same ANC that Mandela governed 24 years ago? Or is the once revolutionary party that broke the shackles of apartheid now truly losing its way?

On 27 July, former President Jacob Zuma was seen dancing and singing with supporters after his third appearance in court this year on charges including corruption, money laundering and fraud. The appearance in the Pietermaritzburg High Court, which was ultimately postponed until November, was almost ten years to the day since Zuma was first seen in court on corruption charges in August 2008.

Meanwhile at African National Congress (ANC) headquarters in Johannesburg, the dark shadow of the Zuma era continues to linger over the political party as they look towards the 2019 general elections.

His most infamous alleged scandals include bribery in a multi-billion Rand arms deal in 1999, being charged with rape in 2005 (although the court later dismissed the charges), and using taxpayers’ money to upgrade his private Nkandla residence in 2011 in what the Office of the Public Prosecutor found he ‘benefitted unduly’.

Zuma’s presidency has left an open wound in the political and economic climate of South Africa. Yet, perhaps its biggest impact has been on the ANC itself, whose descent in recent years has been closely intertwined with Zuma’s own grim fate.

Zuma consistently boasted approval ratings of 60% to 70% during his first term as president, but as the allegations piled, his popularity begun to nose-dive by 2015. The support for the ANC has experienced a similar downward spiral.

The South African Citizen Survey asked respondents to rate how much they ‘like or dislike’ each major political party on a scale of 0 to 10. During 2015 – shortly before Zuma’s ratings first slumped – 61% of South Africans still held a positive view of the ANC

However, by the end of 2017 only 43% held a positive view and those who gave the ANC a higher score than other political parties had reduced from over half in 2015 (55%) to just over a third (37%) in the 2017 survey.

The survey also revealed that only 32% of respondents said they ‘felt close’ to the ANC, which is the lowest figure in 17 years. As if a steady decline in popularity wasn’t bad enough, Zuma’s biggest fall from grace came in late March 2017. His support dropped by a whopping 12% after firing Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and reshuffling 20 ministers into new roles – a move that scared investors and caused the South African Rand to plummet.

This proved to be the final straw for the party and within a year Zuma was finally removed from office with Cyril Ramaphosa taking the reins. However, with the ANC’s popularity ratings at an all-time low, much of the damage had already been done.

The party has lost approximately 15 percentage points of electoral support in the past 8 years, with a record low 54%in local elections in 2016. Zuma’s actions have not only been a blow to the ANC, but are an illustration of South Africa’s recent corruption issues as a whole.

The annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has seen an on-going decline in global rankings for South Africa, who has dropped 33 places since 2001 and was ranked 71st out of 180 countries in 2017.

Gabriella Razzano, Executive Director at the Open Democracy Advice Centre, believes transparency in government is vital and corruption issues go well beyond the ANC.

‘For any democracy to flourish there needs to be a basic level of transparency, openness, and accountability,’ she says.

‘There’s a bureaucratic administration that creates an environment that allows corruption to flourish… it’s not only an ANC problem, but an “everyone in government” problem. That’s why institutions like the Public Protector exist and they will keep power in check, in what is essentially a balancing act.’

Razzano also stresses the importance of accountability institutions so people are held responsible when information surfaces.

‘We can have all the access to information laws and policies but, once that information comes to life, if we don’t have strong accountability institutions to follow up on that information, then we are just going to keep chasing our tails,’ she says.

Since becoming president, Ramaphosa has campaigned profusely that he wishes to rid the party of corruption and move the ANC into a ‘new dawn’. The latest National Conference Report – which annually details the approaches and policy choices of the ruling party – highlighted corruption as one of their biggest concerns.

The report states that ‘at times we do things that are not according to ANC policy or government policy…[and] that the lack of integrity perceived by the public has seriously damaged the ANC image, the people’s trust in the ANC, and our ability to occupy the moral high ground, and our position as leader of society.’

The report also says ‘we publicly disassociate ourselves from anyone, whether business donor, supporter or member, accused of corruption or reported to be involved in corruption’ – yet fails to mention any specific plan of action to eradicate corruption.

The report’s claim to disassociate from corruption comes after Zuma received overwhelming support throughout his scandals, most notably when he survived multiple no-confidence motions in parliament. The party was even close to electing Zuma’s ex-wife and hand-chosen successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as his replacement for president.

This support remains today, as ANC members show their backing through night vigils and marches at each of Zuma’s court appearances. While the ANC have cut off the snake’s head  with Zuma, corruption remains, and it seems Zuma may not just be a bad apple, but part of a rotting orchard. The New York Times recently published a chilling investigation of Deputy President David Mabuza, whose own corruption and bought leadership scream déjà vu.

Fellow ANC figure Fish Mahlalela even said Mabuza’s rise ‘was out of money and manipulation, nothing else’.

With people like Mabuza still so influential within the ANC, it shuns the likelihood of any true change of heart for the party and means Ramaphosa’s promises for justice wear thin.

While speaking at the Daily Maverick’s The Gathering conference on 15 August this year, United Democratic Movement (UDM) deputy-president and chief whip Nqabayomzi Kwankwa discussed the political culture of lying to the public and using unethical means to gain power.

‘We operate in a post-truth era where politicians can tell lies as long as those lies are going to deliver them to parliament or to political power,’ he said.

‘We are in an environment currently where they say lies have short legs, but if they can deliver you to parliament and political power then so what? You’ll think of a different lie after the elections.’

As they move forward, one of the ANC’s most problematic regions in the lead up to the general elections will be KwaZulu-Natal, which has the highest number of branch delegates and is home to many Zuma loyalists. The recent northern KwaZulu-Natal by-election results – the first since Zuma was removed from office – saw a drop of 8% in votes for the ANC. Whether the ANC can maintain allegiance in a region where the political setting has fallen into disarray in recent years, will be pivotal come election time.

Irony lies in the fact that the ANC have lost numerous voters in the past by protecting Zuma, and as they now move with the greatest uncertainty towards an election since 1994, they struggle to hold what supporters still remain.

How Ramaphosa will actually tackle the issue of corruption isn’t yet clear, but the various problems he will need to address run much deeper. The South African economy is yet to regain its strength prior to the 2008 global financial crisis and shrunk by 2.2% in the first quarter of 2018. Over a quarter of South Africans are currently unemployed and there were nearly 19,000 murders in 2017 alone.

Ramaphosa must find a way to tackle these issues while also rebuilding the tarnished image of the ANC. For many, their trust will be hard to earn.

When Zuma – a close friend and colleague of Nelson Mandela during his presidential years – promised in 2009 to return South Africa to a Mandela style of leadership, many may have believed him. The reality turned out to be anything but and the ANC and South Africa as a whole have suffered as a result.

If the ANC continues to show a lack of commitment to democracy and its party’s values, it begs the question, is this the same ANC that Mandela governed 24 years ago? Or is the once revolutionary party that broke the shackles of apartheid now truly losing its way? The coming months will likely offer an answer to this question.

‘This article originally appeared on Cape Chameleon.’