On January 8th, African kings and tribal chiefs congregated alongside world leaders and political figures in an overcrowded South African stadium to pay homage to an organization that rightfully refers to itself as “Africa’s oldest liberation movement”: the African National Congress. Founded in 1912, its purpose was to oppose the political status quo within South Africa.
At the back of the stadium lies a view of Bloemfontein’s impoverished townships, a defunct power station towering over them. In the back of many peoples’ minds is a sense that the celebration—at a cost of nearly $12.3 million—was in poor taste, and emblematic not of the ANC’s impressive past, but of its uncertain future, and that of the country it now governs.
One development South Africans feel particularly uncertain about is the Protection of State Information Bill, derogatorily referred to as “the secrecy bill.” It would punish journalists who obtain classified information that reveals government corruption, and those who do not turn that information over to the police. Journalists who possess such material would face up to five years in prison; those who publish it, up to twenty-five. Recipients of such information beyond the journalist would also be vulnerable to prosecution. The government claims that the bill will protect the nation from an “increasing threat of espionage” and “foreign spies” which cannot be sufficiently quashed by existing legislation.
In a 1990 article, arguing against the repression of information that had long been so common in her country, South African writer and future Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer wrote, “Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.” In November of 2011, she repeated her accusation, this time against the ANC, a political organization to whom Gordimer once gave her support, before it was legal to do so.
While Gordimer’s is only one of many public criticisms the law has received, the Protection of State Information Bill is merely the latest in a series of controversies that have involved accusations—and often evidence—of corruption and mismanagement within South Africa, much of it involving the ANC. Furthermore, in recent years, concern has increased over the extent to which the ANC has come to dominate political life in South Africa. In effect, it has created a one-party democracy in which the opposition, while free to exist, has little support.
This domination has thus far not resulted in any deterioration of the nation’s fundamentally democratic nature. Yet on the eve of its 100th anniversary as a political organization, it has become increasingly clear that the ANC’s grip on power has burdened South Africa’s fledgling democracy more than it has encouraged it. The nation’s future internal stability and international reputation as an example of successful democratic transition will depend on the willingness of the organization to favor democratic values over its own position of power, if and when the constituency it has so long represented grows tired of its mediocre governance.
The association of the ANC with liberation and democracy within much of South Africa is hard earned, dating back to the founding of the organization in 1912 to protest racial inequality under British rule and its subsequent use of non-violent boycotts, demonstrations, and appeals to the international community following the beginning of apartheid in 1948. Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, however, ANC founded an armed wing, known as the Umkhonto we Size (Spear of the Nation), and began a campaign of violent resistance alongside their nonviolent struggle throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, as much of their leadership—most prominently, Nelson Mandela—was captured and imprisoned. Beginning in the 1980’s, the ANC began negotiations with officials from the National Party, the majority representative of the white government, which eventually resulted in a comprehensive agreement that determined the political and economic post-apartheid order. In 1994, the ANC won 63% of the popular vote in the nation’s first fully free elections, bringing longtime de facto leader and former political prisoner Nelson Mandela to power.
Though Mandela’s time in power was generally regarded positively—his willingness to retire after just one term garnered comparisons to George Washington—the men who have followed him, all from the ANC, have not been looked upon so favorably. In 1999, just as Thabo Mbeki began his term as leader of South Africa, scandal erupted over an arms purchase of roughly $5 billion by the South African Defense Force from Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, and Canada. Accusations of corruption stemmed from bribes allegedly paid to facilitate the deal—bribes that have been associated with both Mbeki and his successor, Jacob Zuma. Schabir Shaik, Zuma’s personal financial advisor, was convicted in 2005 of connection to bribes associated with the arms deal.
Since the 1999 elections, concern domestically and internationally over corruption within the South African government has increased exponentially. In 2011, the Special Investigating Unit, an organization set up to monitor government corruption, estimated that nearly one-fourth of the national budget was mismanaged due to corruption, and is currently investigating 12 billion rand in questionable government dealings. The South African Social Security Agency is alleged to be rife with corruption and financial chaos. The former head of the South African police force, Jackie Selebi, resigned in disgrace after he was found to be purchasing lavish gifts for his wife using government funds and taking bribes from a convicted drug smuggler.
In response, the ANC has seen a diminishing of its support from former allies. Both of its partners in South Africa’s Tripartite Alliance, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, have threatened to dissolve their association due to internal disagreement over economic policies, a move that would threaten a relationship created to strengthen resistance against apartheid. Moreover, prior to the 2009 elections that brought Zuma to power, a number of former ANC supporters split off to form the Congress of the People (COPE), prompting talk of an end to ANC dominance. Though the COPE only garnered 7% of the vote in 2009, they are still regarded as a potential future threat to the ANC’s power.
Despite these developments, the ANC still enjoys the loyalty of many South Africans, who see it as the organization that fought for and eventually won universal suffrage and liberal democracy for their country. Furthermore, the association of Nelson Mandela, a man regarded as both liberator and founder of their young democracy, with the ANC, in addition to his continued support of that organization, has no doubt aided success. But other former supporters of the party, such as Gordimer and Archbishop Demond Tutu, have not been so forgiving. They represent the disillusionment of many with the ANC’s lack of success in encouraging honesty and transparency.
It is only natural that a political party with such vast and total control—one that has in effect become a state and a party all at once—would fall prey to the seduction of easy wealth and luxury. Furthermore, it is equally inevitable that their popular support will diminish over time in the face of such misdeeds.
In 2009, shortly after his party was elected to a fourth term in power, Jacob Zuma announced to a crowd of supporters that the ANC would rule “until Jesus Christ comes.” One can only hope his statement was made in the spirit of hyperbole rather than truth and that, when the time comes, the ANC will give up power in a way that pays respect to both their former leader and the democracy they once helped create.