AFRICA’S OLDEST political party, the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, is going through a tough time. As the party approaches its 105th birthday next month, you can say such times are to be expected. Of those impressive 105 years, the ANC has only spent 22 years in power, meaning for the greater part of its life, the party has been engaged in the active fight for freedom. Naturally, therefore, the party can be forgiven for showing signs of fatigue, having been worn off by an oppressive apartheid regime.
But that is not the case.
Growing expectations and increasing frustrations on the slow pace of development have become norm and the party is being punished at the ballot. While it is still enjoying enormous support, declining support during election periods points to a restless electorate that only a few years back, would have not hesitated to pledge its support. These frustrations have culminated in, most recently, calls for the party and state president, Jacob Zuma, to resign. In the last two weeks, these calls have come from higher echelons within the ANC itself, with some cabinet ministers reportedly calling for Zuma to step down.
These calls have largely pointed to an allegedly corrupt relationship the president enjoys with a wealthy family that is seen as having overwhelming influence in how South Africa is run. This family, the Guptas, have various business interests that range from computer technology to uranium mining. The view taken, therefore, is that these enterprises may be unfairly benefiting from State contracts because of the owners’ proximity to political power.
More damningly, however, president Zuma has been accused of taking instructions – from the Guptas of course – on whom to appoint in his cabinet. Such accusations have gained traction since a December 2015 episode that ended with South Africa having three finance ministers in less than five days. Needless to say, the finance minister who was eventually settled upon, Pravin Gordhan, is facing various legal battles which most people believe are designed to coerce him into resigning, paving way for a finance minister who may be able to create access and opportunities for Gupta-related enterprises.
A recent investigation by the South Africa Public Protector has attempted to point to growing influence by the Guptas in government and in how some strategic State-owned enterprises are run. This report, titled State of Capture, has added more weight to calls for Zuma to step down. However, critics argue that the extent of ‘state capture’ goes beyond the Gupta family and is significantly decided by white monopoly capital in South Africa. The latter refers, of course, to how whites still control the larger part of their economy and exercise both power and influence in broader government policies.
Away from the Guptas and white monopoly capital, the ANC still stands. It is still likely to win general elections in 2019 despite poor showing during the last two electoral processes in 2016 and 2014.
At a recent National Executive Council (NEC) of the ANC meeting that lasted three days, Zuma emerged unscathed and some argue, even more powerful. He is still president and ahead of the party’s elective conference in December 2017, he may have greater influence on who becomes his successor. It is this succession battle that is at the heart of attempts to reinvent the ANC and get it to reconnect with its key constituencies. But has such an attempt been left too little, too late? Well, that is for the ANC itself to prove, first in 2017 and then during the general elections of 2019.
When it comes to the ANC, something is always forgotten – the institutional resilience of the party. This trait is non-existent in most political parties across Africa, including Malawi. The ANC’s battle with internal democracy, especially after seeing breakaway parties form in 2009 (Congress of the People) and in 2012 (Economic Freedom Fighters) is worth recognising for its potency. That the party can still rely on its internal mechanisms and even go as far as discussing the recall of a sitting state and party president should not be taken for granted. It is quite rare to see this within political parties.
In Malawi, we have not yet awoken to the fact that the weaknesses in our political parties directly affect the strength of our democracy. We cannot have weak political parties and expect robust democratic culture to prevail. While recent defections to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) may be good fodder for jokes, the truth of the matter is that such practices are harmful to party democracy as well as the promotion of democratic culture at large.
A small country like Malawi having over fifty political parties is no indicator of the vibrancy of democracy. Rather, it proves its weaknesses. Ahead of our own elections in 2019, we need to start rethinking our political culture and understand the purpose political parties must serve, aside from attempting to capture State power. If we do not, then the joke will be on us, not on the political actors who have no appreciation of their role in democratic society. In fact, the joke is already on us, we have empowered these politicians to behave in the ways they do!
Guess who’s laughing now?