Siphiwe Sibeko / REUTERS South African President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria, August 2016.

Will South Africa Split Apart?

The Dangers of the ANC's Decline

South Africa’s municipal elections on August 3 were among the most important in the brief history of the country’s democracy. Although the ruling African National Congress (ANC) maintained its rural strongholds in the country’s north and east, the party lost majority control of South Africa’s largest metropolitan areas, from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth. In just two years, the ANC’s share of the vote has fallen from 62 percent to less than 55 percent. In some of South Africa’s cities, those losses are nearly twice as high.

The ANC has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, but it faces growing threats from the left, from the right, and from within the party itself. From the left, the Economic Freedom Fighters—a self-styled Marxist–Leninist–Fanonist Party—has attracted the support of many young people who are leaving the ANC to seek more radical solutions to the country’s 50 percent youth unemployment rate; since 2013, the party has captured hundreds of posts once held by the ANC. From the right, the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s largest opposition party, has seized control of important cities such as Cape Town and Tshwane, appealing to middle-class voters fed up with economic stagnation, official corruption, and poor public services. And within the ANC, disputes over the flow of party patronage have pitted a rural base loyal to South African President Jacob Zuma against the urban party members who seek to oust him. Intraparty strife often exploded into violence in the run-up to the election: in June, five people died in protests sparked by the announcement of the ANC’s mayoral candidate in Tshwane. In the province of Kwazulu–Natal, 12 ANC candidates were assassinated this year in the struggle for local posts.

A dominant party system may deteriorate into a fractured and volatile one.

The election results represent a moment of reckoning for party elites who have long abused their political dominance. Zuma has governed with impunity—he appropriated some $23 million of until Jesus Christ returns to Earth. In this context, some observers have argued, the erosion of the party’s dominance suggests that South Africa’s democracy is maturing. “There is an element of unpredictability [that may] inject an element of accountability in the political system,” Prince Mashele, the executive director of the Centre for Politics and Research, a South African think tank, told the AFP. This is the logic of the democratic marketplace: the end of the ANC’s monopoly on power will produce political competition, and political competition will generate better governance.  

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