Johannesburg, South Africa — The African National Congress (ANC) is well ensconced within the ranks of those parties around the world — usually they have hilarious names, like Mexico’s Party of the Institutional Revolution — that began as populist but, after many years in government, seem anything but.
In the campaign that concluded this week in South Africa, which saw the ANC extend its grip on power for another five years, it was not uncommon to see the party’s campaign paraphernalia tacked onto Land Rovers and Lexuses — even, I glimpsed, an Aston Martin.
This Wednesday, at the voting center at the Killarney Country Club in an affluent Johannesburg suburb, one such bedecked SUV cruised through, music blaring. The song was Awuleth’ mashini wami, “Bring me my machine gun” — the popular and infectious ANC ditty from “the struggle,” as it is inevitably termed. Emerging from the car was a man, suitably dressed in his bright-yellow ANC T-shirt, the oblate-spheroid head of Jacob Zuma staring out. And then a woman emerged, wearing the same T-shirt but, over it, a fur coat.
The country club was scene to a carnivalesque atmosphere as voters and spectators alike awaited the precinct’s most famous voter, Nelson Mandela. He is treated with the reverence one usually reserves for saints and gods. At last, he arrived. One young woman stepped out of her place in line — putting her back some hours — and asked if she could perch on my (a perfect stranger’s) shoulders, just to see Mandela with her own eyes. She had never seen “Madiba,” she said — calling him by the name he earned in the struggle. People waved to him, serenaded him with struggle songs.
South Africa may have some of the makings of a well-adjusted, increasingly wealthy democracy. Free and fair elections exist — there really is very little vote-rigging — and unlike almost anywhere else in Africa, there is a robust civil society that makes noises about judicial independence and corruption. The political campaigns are vibrant and rollicking, and you can say supremely nasty things about your leaders without being arrested. “Put criminals in jail, not in office,” read one opposition campaign poster.
But for all practical purposes, South Africa remains in the thrall of one party, the ANC, which can do no wrong. That opposition poster was a reference to Zuma, who was bribed so frequently by one businessman that he was essentially “put on retainer,” or so a court found in the judgment that sent the briber to jail. Zuma himself remained free, becoming ANC party chairman and, after the new parliament convenes next month, president. When the party continues to support a politician in the face of credible evidence of wrongdoing, South African voters seem unwilling to enforce accountability through the ballot. “We want Zuma — corrupt or not,” Julius Malema, the head of the ANC’s Youth League, memorably declared.
Over half of South Africans, according to recent polling, believe their country is on the wrong track. Nonetheless, the ANC has prospered — going into the election, it held 297 of the 400 seats in parliament, and it seems its share will decrease only a few percentage points.
So why isn’t blame laid on the political party that has had control of the national government, and nearly all regional and municipal ones, for 15 years? The reasons for the ANC domination are both social and historical.
Here, the political scene — like much of life, from restaurants to the marriage register — remains riven by a stark racial divide. Polling in March suggested that the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), would draw only 2.5 percent of black votes, while attaining a majority of votes from whites, Indians, and “coloureds,” as the mostly Afrikaans-speaking people of mixed race are still called here.
In a democracy, leaders must not just represent, but in some sense resemble, their electorate. In America, that might entail having a fondness for McDonald’s or being “the guy you could have a beer with.”
In democracy’s African exegesis, it means first and foremost being black and culturally “African.” No matter the platitudes about South Africa being a “rainbow nation” with a home for all races, most voters do not see themselves reflected in the white face of Helen Zille, the DA leader. Nor do they see themselves in the buttoned-up, middle-class blacks who head a faction that broke away from the ANC and was thought to pose a significant challenge. (It ended up taking below 8 percent of the vote.)
Jacob Zuma, on the contrary, is someone to whom a much broader swath of South Africans can relate. He swills sorghum beer. He dresses in traditional Zulu garb for his weddings. (He’s married four women and has nearly 20 children.) And he frequently makes frank and offhand comments expressing views about masculinity, women’s place in society, and homosexuality that are popularly held, if not often expressed in the cautious rights-based elocution of South African politics.
There is a bit of Richard Nixon to Jacob Zuma. He’s the guy the elites love to hate, who rose from poverty (he was pulled from school to be a herder boy and educated himself while a political prisoner), who can speak for that silent and unlearned majority and its traditions. Zuma is nothing short of the epitome of what many voters would themselves like to be: a poor African who has done well.
Nothing, however, is more essential to his and other leaders’ success than their revolutionary credentials. The ANC has sold itself as the sole guarantor of black South Africans’ liberties. A campaign T-shirt expresses the sense of obligation many blacks feel: “Born ANC, I Will Die ANC.” Thus the enduring acceptability of militaristic and terrifying ANC anthems, and the undying love of “struggle” leaders.
As the director of the party’s apartheid-era intelligence operation, Zuma was one among a milieu of ANC leaders who gave up their normal lives for decades. That history gives him and his coterie a free pass to do, really, whatever they please — even peddle influence. People may resent corruption in general, but on some level, it is regarded as only fair that Zuma be allowed — even through extralegal means — to enrich himself and make up for his lost time. One sees this same syndrome in Zimbabwe, where, regardless of his cruelty and misrule, to make personal attacks on Robert Mugabe remains a political non-starter because of his central role in independence.
The problem, of course, is that cherished revolutionaries rarely make good democrats. One can almost see the indignation churning within Zuma when a white judge presumes to sit in judgment over one of his many legal matters. Recently, he even criticized the supremacy of the constitutional court over the judgments of elected political leaders.
What Zuma will do in office is a mystery. He mostly kept quiet on policy matters during the campaign, letting his personality and his party machine do the work. This, really, is what South African democracy is all about. Not an exercise in accountability or a debate over policy, it is a contest of personality, history, and populism — and it will continue to be, until demographic forces make the ANC’s battle against apartheid seem a moving but distant history. For now, however, it can be no surprise that Zuma, a man of the people and of “the struggle,” won so convincingly.
– Travis Kavulla is a journalism fellow of the Phillips Foundation and, last year, was a Gates Scholar in African history.