The clamor for a ‘credible opposition’ in South Africa?

William Gumede, who wrote a book about the ANC, makes a strange and careless argument--without recourse to evidence--about the ruling party's fortunes.

Jubilant crowds listening to the speech of President Nelson Mandela. 10/May/1994. UN photo credit Sattleberger.

South African writer and journalist, William Gumede, in a contribution to The Guardian this week asserts that “South Africa desperately needs a relevant, credible and non-racial alternative to the dominant ANC” if “the [country’s] infant democracy [is] to fully come of age”. No evidence is given to support the claim of ‘desperation’, or any analysis to uphold the idea of an ‘infantile’ democracy. South Africans will participate in the country’s fourth national democratic elections on 7 May (not “April” as Gumede asserts); a right many desperately struggled for, and a right that the majority continue to exercise without infantilism or defeatism.

Gumede asserts, without any data to shore up his claims, that “The mass supporters of the ANC… appear to be ready to break their sacred attachment to the party which brought freedom and the vote” but that “opposition parties [are] either too tainted by their record under apartheid to [attract] black voters [or] too small and divided” to capitalize on this apparent boon.

He also implies that the DA-Agang project (the doomed, weeklong proposal to merge the Democratic Alliance and former World Bank Executive Director Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang) had offered the promise of a “credible and non-racial alternative” to the ANC. The failure of DA-gang has allegedly dealt “those who oppose ANC rule in South Africa … a blow.”

Then there’s what Gumede offers as an alternative: No “strong and unified opposition that can straddle the country’s enduring racial divide” is likely to emerge from Gumede’s fantasy of a “giant opposition or grand coalition” formed through “the merger of other centre-right and liberal black and white opposition parties – such as COPE [a pro-Thabo Mbeki breakaway from the ANC], the Inkatha Freedom Party [led by the geriatric and compromised Mangosuthu Buthelezi who has led that party since the mid-1970s] and the United Democratic Movement [led by a homeland general and former ANC government minister, Bantu Holomisa]”.

The most recent polls suggest that such a bargain would win between 2.5 and 4.5% of the vote. The DA won more than three times as many votes in 2009.

It is a strange and careless argument, that Gumede – oft quoted in the international press – has toted, without recourse to evidence for some time (in fact entire paragraphs of the article under discussion are reprised from this article also published in The Guardian): The booing of President Jacob Zuma at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was apparently evidence of a “critical mass of people who say the ANC is not the ANC of Mandela and you’re not betraying anyone if you leave it”; the ANC celebrated its centenary at “a time when anti-democratic leaders and groups appear to have a stranglehold on the party”; and, “Nelson Mandela was the glue that held the deeply divided ANC together”.

On the basis of these claims one would think that the ANC should be disgorging members, representatives and structures at an alarming rate. Perhaps, but perhaps give us some numbers to back it up. Whatever your take of the ANC, even with Zuma as its presidential candidate, the party still has the ability to draw in the crowds, and win elections. The ANC’s retaking of the Tlokwe municipality, in a December by-election, is a case in point.

Gumede is also quick to dismiss Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters which is building a credible base among not only young people, but within significant segments of the working and unemployed poor. Various polls put potential electoral gains for the EFF at between four and eight percent.

What is more surprising is that he doesn’t even mention the significant disquiet in the trade union movement, where the ANC aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (COSATU) largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), has announced that it will no longer contribute dues to towards COSATU’s funding of the ANC, will play no active organizational role in the ANC’s campaign, and that it is investigating the formation of a “political organization”, potentially in collaboration with the EFF and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers (AMCU), to advance the cause of a “socialist South Africa”. Clearly, Gumede does not credit these events as contributing to the evolution of a “credible” and/or “nonracial” opposition in the country.

Moreover, nothing is said about the wave of protests that is rocking the country in the run-up to the election. In a country where the media is largely complicit in perpetuating a public sphere that patronizes the grievances and aspirations of the poor – reducing the lived experience of failed government and the legacy of apartheid to statistics – these protests are usually characterized as spontaneous and anarchic. But the germ of civic protest could mark the nascent development of a movement – loosely defined – similar to those that have driven successful delivery and rights campaigns in India and Brazil, eschewing electoral politics for more dynamic engagement with the state and political parties.

But for the moment, let them eat ‘credible opposition’, or something.

  • A correction was made to this article on 02/09/2014 to clarify that NUMSA will continue to pay dues to COSATU, but will not contribute towards COSATU’s monetary support of the ANC’s campaign.

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