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The Fall of the ANC: What a Change in Power Means for South Africa’s Future

Image via REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

In 1994, the world applauded as Nelson Mandela won the presidential election in South Africa. His landmark victory signified the end of 46 years of apartheid, the system of institutionalized racial segregation between the minority whites in power and the majority Black populace. With Mandela’s rise to leadership also came the rise of the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912 to advocate for Black South Africans’ rights. The inception of an ANC-led government marked the start of a new era in a nation with such a troubled history: an era of hope, progress, and the promise of equality. 

Now, 28 years later, the ANC is still in power. But its reputation among South Africans has long strayed from its original image of apartheid-fighting revolutionaries. Today, the ANC government has become synonymous with corruption and ineptitude, its leadership marred in scandal and misconduct allegations. But change is coming. For the first time in 28 years, the ANC is losing most of its elections. Other parties, such as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), are gaining popularity. The ANC’s fall is yet another example of the failure of a single-party state. The impending power change and new coalition government will help the nation combat its myriad of social, economic, and political issues. 

South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma, was recently released on medical parole after receiving a 15-month sentence for refusing to testify before a graft inquiry. His imprisonment is the most recent in a long history of scandals. In June of this year, Zuma’s son’s business partners, Atul and Rajesh Gupta, were taken into custody under Interpol’s orders for unlawfully receiving over $6.5 billion in public funds under Zuma’s administration. Zuma is also under fire for alleged sexual assault, using millions in state funds for upgrading his country estate, and executing a fraudulent arms deal, for which he stands trial today.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma, he promised that he would clean up the corruption that plagues the nation’s government. However, controversially, in his first move as president, he retained many of the officials that had led Zuma’s administration. The most notable of his many scandals is “farmgate,” which came to light this summer. In 2020, an estimated four million dollars was stolen from the couches on Ramaphosa’s farm. Zuma’s refusal to report the incident to the police, the fact that the money was in foreign currency, and the fact that it was stuffed in couches point to widespread money laundering. “Farmgate” added to the already brewing intra-party tensions between Zuma’s supporters and Ramaphosa’s supporters, leading many in the ANC to call for Ramaphosa to step down.

The modern-day ANC is as defined by ineptitude as it is by corruption. One key issue is unemployment. By some estimates, the South African employment rate is just under 50 percent. An energy crisis has only amplified economic strain. Due to a breakdown of power plants, South Africans have been forced to go up to 12 hours a day without power. The buying power of the Rand has weakened from 7 rands per dollar in 2000 to 18 per dollar, contributing to the 2.5 million South Africans that experience perpetual hunger. The World Bank determined that South Africa is the most economically unequal nation in the world. About half of South Africans live in poverty. 

This economic crisis contributes to the nation’s high crime rates. In comparison to the United States, which has about 81.44 robberies per 100,000 people, South Africa has 332. The nation has the highest rate of rape in the world, with about 115 rapes a day. One crime South Africa is notorious for is farm attacks. From 2010 to 2019, 2,874 farmers were injured in these attacks, with 596 killed. Crime and corruption compound in the South African Police Services, which has ties to the historical enforcement of apartheid and is deemed by many to be the most brutal in the democratic world.

This is not new. History is littered with examples of parties forged in revolutions that, although effective at creating change, failed to lead in the single-party systems they created. Perhaps the most infamous is Cuba. In the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was ruled by authoritarian dictators and the military. In 1953, Fidel Castro led a revolution, transforming Cuba into a single-party communist state. Castro promised, and initially delivered on, change. But his People’s Party government brutally suppressed free speech and oversaw extreme economic deterioration starting in 1959. Instead of recognizing the need for change, the Castro government doubled down. To this day, the People’s Party retains control, with poverty high and support low. With little change in leadership, this governmental crisis led to the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Cubans. 

Cuba hasn’t had a free election in a number of years, but those in South Africa have revealed ever-diminishing electoral success for the ANC. Other parties have the chance to turn the tide. Last year marked the first year the ANC received less than 50 percent of the votes in local elections. This month, the Southern Nelson Mandela Bay municipality voted the party out, marking the first time the party controlled less than half the nation’s urban centers. Popular support for the party is also waning. In recent polls, only 46 percent of South Africans back the ANC, compared to 70 percent in the early 2000s. For the first time since apartheid ended, other parties had a chance of gaining the presidency.

The most significant of these contenders to beat the ANC is the DA. It is currently the second-most popular party in the nation and is officially registered as the ANC’s opposition party. The DA was founded in the apartheid era as a party for white liberals who opposed apartheid. In 2015, it elected its first Black leader, Mmusi Maimane. Today, the party is a center-leaning party mainly associated with white Afrikaaners and English speakers.

The DA has extensive plans on how to improve South Africa. The party cites the infighting that occurs in the ANC as chief among their issues, and thus prioritizes having one coherent vision guiding each of their policy sectors. Economically, the party hopes to have all ministers sign a single macro-economic framework as a “blueprint” for development, ensuring all officials have a coherent vision of what economic policy should look like. The party hopes to grow the gross domestic product 8 percent by 2025, creating 5.8 million new jobs and combatting wealth inequality. 

The party connects high crime rates to the lasting inequalities created by apartheid. To combat this legacy, the party hopes to focus on reforming the policing system and prison rehabilitation systems. The party also hopes to consolidate many of the government’s ministries in order to avoid the government bloating that they see as responsible for the nepotism and inefficiency that characterizes the ANC government. 

A third contender in the race against the ANC is the EFF. The party is more left-wing than any mainstream South African party. It appeals to younger Black voters and the working class, with party leaders often dressing in red overalls and plastic hard hats to show their commitment to South African workers. The party prioritizes land reform, with detailed land reform plans for each of the nation’s municipalities. Under these plans, land will be audited to ensure true land ownership, and then redistributed to the landless and for agricultural and economic development. The party plans to support small farmers and small businesses, and will increase social welfare spending. It hopes that its socialist-leaning policies will combat South Africa’s egregious wealth inequality. 

Although the impending change in power in the nation may cause instability, the country needs a new government. New ideas, such as the DA’s plans for crime and economics and the EFF’s plans for land reform, offer fresh perspectives to a government long dominated by one single institution. These new ideas, and the competition that they represent, will push the South African government towards problem-solving and accountability. A coalition government of diverse parties will help the nation develop new solutions to its rampant social, economic, and political issues. For South Africa to thrive, the ANC needs to go.