Factionalism in South Africa’s ANC Fuels Violent Protests

On June 20, violent protests broke out in Tshwane, the metropolitan municipality encompassing South Africa’s executive capital, Pretoria. The death toll associated with the chaos that ensued cost five people their lives. While violent protests are not an unusual occurrence in the embattled democracy, last week’s events are particularly significant. With just six weeks to go before the municipal elections on August 3, the ruling party – the African National Congress (ANC) – is feeling the pressure like never before. For the first time since the liberation movement came to power, there is a very real chance that the party may lose political control of some of South Africa’s biggest cities (to the ANC’s chagrin, opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) already has control over Cape Town, the country’s second most populous urban area and its legislative capital). With increasing economic fragility in light of political uncertainty, South Africa’s rising tide of social discontent threatens to create the perfect political storm for the ANC ahead of the local elections. Liberation credentials have long delivered a solid voter base for the party, but poor job growth and stark economic inequality have caused once loyal supporters to reconsider whether the ANC is capable of delivering on its promises.

The ongoing protests broke out after the ANC special national executive committee rejected the proposed list of mayoral candidates submitted to them by local ANC leaders in Tshwane. One of these names was that of the current ANC Mayor, Kgosientso “Sputla” Ramokgopa, who was removed from the list to avoid inciting factional rivalries within the party. After realizing that the incumbent “people’s mayor” had been excluded by the national executive committee as a potential candidate, disenchanted Tshwane residents took to the streets, burning tires, overturning and setting a light trucks and buses, and barricading roads. Before the party leadership announced its alternate candidate on Monday, a man was shot and wounded in a factional dispute outside the meeting hall.

The delayed announcement of Tshwane’s mayoral candidate combined with the ensuing unrest is symptomatic of the factionalism that is rife within the ANC. It’s been a difficult few years for the party that is struggling to recollect itself. The country’s president, Jacob Zuma, has survived two no-confidence votes against him in the last year, partly triggered by what has been termed his ‘reckless’ economic management of the country. In December 2015, Zuma fired two finance ministers within two days, triggering panic in the markets. Following pressure from within his party, he then appointed former finance minister Pravin Gordhan to the post, in an effort to stabilize the economy ahead of the municipal elections. Nevertheless, in 2016 the economy is expected to expand at its slowest rate since 2009. And, earlier this year, the public protector investigated President Zuma’s expenditure on his renowned private homestead and recommended that he pay back the money spent on non-security upgrades. Later, the Constitutional Court ruled that President Jacob Zuma failed to uphold the Constitution when he disregarded the public protector’s recommendations. In addition, the High Court has now ruled that a decision to drop the corruption charges facing Jacob Zuma before he came president was “irrational”. As a result, it is possible that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) will now reinstate over 700 charges against the president.

The monumental student protests at universities around South Africa have acted as a barometer of public discontent with the lack of economic progress experienced by black South Africans more than twenty years after the official end of apartheid. The rising popularity of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party headed up by former ANC youth league president Julius Malema illustrates a growing appetite for change. With the foundations of its loyalty base deeply shaken, the ANC has become skittish and protective in recent months, suspicious of what it perceives to be a growing “regime change agenda” among internationally funded non-profits. The party has failed to bring factionalism under control and the cracks are increasingly pronounced as the August 3 election approaches.

Last Monday morning the ANC announced a “neutral” choice for mayoral candidate–Thoko Didiza. A relatively young, popular member of the party, Didiza was chosen in part to avoid inciting the simmering factional disputes between supporters of the current mayor and those who support his deputy. It appears that Didiza is competent and well qualified for the job – with fourteen years of government experience and a former position as minister of land, agriculture, and public works under former President Thabo Mbeki, she has had her fair share of governance experience. With Didiza’s nomination, the ANC is aware of how close they are to losing some major power bases in the country, and are attempting to bridge the fine line between drawing back disgruntled voters and not alienating supporters distributed across political factions. The Tshwane protests show that party unity is no easy task to achieve, and residents have gone as far as to threaten to vote for the historically white DA if their concerns are not addressed—and quickly.

The events surrounding the unrest in Tshwane highlight a deeply embedded flaw in ANC party structures – a lack of democratic processes that threaten to exacerbate existing factionalism. The ANC has retained its centralized leadership despite calls for it to reform, alienating membership and leaders at the lower levels of the party. As opposition parties gain traction against the once “undefeatable” ANC in the run-up to August’s elections, the cracks are more pronounced than ever. The Tshwane protests have shown the lengths that ANC supporters are willing to go to in order to express their displeasure – and if the last week is anything to go by, the prospect of the ANC losing control of Tshwane and potentially other major urban areas does not bode well for peaceful transition.

Chloë McGrath is a Visiting Fellow with the Africa Center. Follow her at @MalawiCoffee 

Image: State Security Minister David Mahlobo, Gauteng Premier David Makhura, and Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula respond to Tshwane protests (Photo credit: Flickr/GovernmentZA)