Today marks 13 years since South Africa’s first multiracial elections brought the African National Congress to power. A country that once stood on the brink of a civil war is now a stable multiparty democracy and one of Africa’s freest economies. Yet the ANC’s behavior is increasingly intolerant toward political opposition, raising fears for South Africa’s political future.
The end of apartheid was supposed to put an end to censorship. But as an internal inquiry revealed in 2006, the ANC has banned a number of outspoken critics from appearing on the state-owned and publicly funded South African Broadcasting Corporation. Among those silenced were Moeletsi Mbeki, President Thabo Mbeki’s own brother, who criticized some of the government’s race-based redistributionist economic policies, and Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, who criticized Pretoria’s soft line on Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical rule in Zimbabwe.
The ANC has also tried to usurp power in Cape Town—the last major city remaining outside of the government’s control. Cape Town is run by Mayor Helen Zille. A recipient of the United Nations Human Rights Award, Zille is a woman of unimpeachable anti-apartheid credentials. But her membership in the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, makes her unpalatable to the ANC, which has recently tried to replace Cape Town’s executive mayoral system with an executive committee on which the ANC—now excluded from the city government—would have had substantial representation.
The ANC is also contemplating legislative proposals which would put the Justice Minister in charge of court budgets. The judiciary perceives this, quite rightly, as an attack on its independence. Significantly, the proposals under consideration include a measure that would limit the courts’ power to suspend an act of Parliament that they deemed unconstitutional. George Bizos, a prominent lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela during the latter’s treason trial in 1963, likened the ANC’s proposals to the events in the 1950s, when the all-white parliament passed a law that allowed it to override unfavorable court rulings.
The culture of political correctness, actively encouraged by the ANC, stifles public debate over the direction of South Africa’s economic and social policies. Those who dare to criticize the government are often labeled racists. That is troubling, because only in an atmosphere of openness, where different views and policy recommendations can be thrashed out without intimidation, can South African society hope to find the answers to pressing social problems such as crime, poverty, unemployment and the spread of infectious diseases.
Though the ANC continues to enjoy much of the international support it received in the days when it fought apartheid, its political tactics remain rooted in the Cold War. When the apartheid government cracked down on the ANC in the late 1960s, many of its top members went into exile. Some, including President Mbeki, went to the Soviet Union and became members of the ANC’s sister organization, the South African Communist Party. While in exile, the ANC cadres were exposed to the rigid structure and anti-democratic nature of the global Communist movement.
Upon his release from jail, Mandela undertook the difficult task of modernizing his party’s outdated political and economic agenda. He helped cut the ANC’s close link with the SACP and shed much of its Marxist ideological baggage. Yet despite Mandela’s opposition, the exiles were strong enough to push through Mbeki’s appointment as South Africa’s deputy president. As the aging Mandela became increasingly detached from day-to-day politics, Mbeki’s appointment ensured that the ANC retained its Marxist party structure and its intolerance to political opposition.
A reassessment of the ANC’s democratic credentials is long overdue. The party appears increasingly interested in little more than concentrating and maintaining power. And unfortunately, the accolades the party garnered during the battle against apartheid protect the ANC from a loss in international standing or inner confidence.
The ANC remains hypersensitive to criticism and, as President Mbeki’s reversal of his earlier denial that HIV causes AIDS suggests, able to change course. Western diplomats, civil society groups, and the business community should speak out against those policies that undermine the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media and the functioning of opposition parties in South Africa. Their criticism will only be effective, however, if it is loud and unambiguous.
Marian L. Tupy, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, is author of the policy paper Troubling Signs for South African Democracy under the ANC.
Can’t get enough? Check out opposition politician Jack Bloom’s take on the ANC and South Africa-U.S. relations, and AEI’s Roger Bate on Zimbabwe’s implosion and the ANC’s anemic response.