South Africa's Never-Ending Party

Jacob Zuma's seemingly invincible ANC is back on top -- but that doesn't mean it will continue to rule “until Jesus comes back.”

CAPE TOWN — The 2014 South African election was supposed to be all about change.

This was supposed to be the year when the African National Congress (ANC) -- the liberation movement-cum-political party that has dominated South African politics since 1994 -- finally came crashing down to Earth.

Victory for the ANC in the May 8 elections was never truly in doubt. But last year, pundits predicted the ruling party's share of the vote would decline to under 60 percent, a symbolic threshold which would, some said, necessitate the ANC recalling Jacob Zuma as president. Zuma's tenure has become synonymous with scandal, spiraling unemployment, a sluggish economy, and systemic mismanagement. The ANC itself is still smarting from charges of cronyism and corruption, from the Marikana massacre and broader social unrest. As late as the morning of the election, Britain's Telegraph noted that the ANC "could see a considerable drop in its support base and even lose the country's economic powerhouse province, Gauteng."

Instead, the results of the 2014 South African election, held May 8, became a lesson in both the durability of the ANC, and the systematic flaws that still trouble this young democracy, which often seems more like a one-party state. The ANC won 62 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country's only significant opposition party, secured 22 percent. The results saw a small decrease for the ANC, which captured 65 percent of the vote in the 2009 election, and a modest, 6 percent gain for the DA.

This was supposed to be the election when the upstart Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party led by Julius Malema, once an acolyte of Zuma and now his fiercest critic, would encroach upon ANC support. That, too, didn't happen. Exiled from the ANC, accused of fraud and tax evasion, Malema was looking for both revenge and higher office. His party promised Chavez-style socialism and Mugabe-style land grabs. Despite disproportionate media attention, the EFF only scratched out a million votes, some 6.2 percent of votes cast.

It was also supposed to be the election when the DA emerged as a viable contender, a party for all South Africans, not just for all South Africans who aren't black. That didn't happen either. The DA has consolidated a constituency of white, Indian, and "colored" (South Africans of biracial heritage) voters. But in a country with a 79 percent black majority, that clearly isn't good enough.

The DA has been attempting to make inroads with black South Africans who are increasingly disillusioned with the ANC. It has campaigned more aggressively in townships and other overwhelmingly black areas. Last October, it endorsed an affirmative action policy in Parliament (though subsequently made a U-turn when confronted with opposition from its base). And in April 2013, the party launched the "Know Your DA" campaign, an exercise in rebranding that subtly sought to rebut charges that the party was passive in the fight against apartheid.

But most black South Africans still regard the ANC as the party that delivered them to freedom, and consider the DA complicit in the country's racist past (the DA was formed in 2000 from a merger between the traditionally liberal Democratic Party and the New National Party, a descendent of the party that created apartheid). For these voters, the DA is a symbol of white privilege, and the party's platform of non-racialism is but cynical electioneering.

In 33-year-old Mmusi Maimane, the DA party's high-profile spokesman, the organization found what it had been looking for, for over a decade -- an attractive, intelligent, black candidate who could be groomed to become the leader of the party. Maimane, who was just tapped to become the DA's speaker in Parliament, is known to be a favorite of party leader Helen Zille; the DA is rumored to have spent close to $10 million -- a fortune for an opposition party in South Africa -- on the Maimane-led campaign to wrest control of Gauteng, the country's financial capital, from the ANC.

Maimane appeared in a series of commercials, self-consciously styled after Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign, touting the party's pledges to create 6 million jobs, introduce a youth wage subsidy, and erase the country's legacy of inequality. (Democratic Party pollster Stanley Greenberg, who advised Bill Clinton and Al Gore's presidential campaigns, played a key role in refining the DA's messaging this year.) The commercials were vibrant -- even inspiring. Turns out, it didn't matter. Black people were never going to vote for the DA en masse. According to party leader Helen Zille, roughly 760,000 black South Africans voted for the DA. There are over 41 million black people in South Africa; that is a negligible result.

Too large to be a niche party but too small to be a serious contender, the DA is confined by its constituencies. With a million new votes this year, the party has experienced growth, but at the expense of other opposition parties, and with little threat to the ANC. To this end, it can only grow so much. Political analyst Steven Friedman argues that the DA "may well have an important role in [South Africa's] future, but as a coalition partner, not as a national election winner."

Among the other predictions that never came to pass, this was also to be the year of much-touted "born free" elections, when young South Africans who were born in or after 1994, and who had no experience of apartheid, exercised their right to vote. It was an appealing story. The "born frees" made headlines in the days leading up to the election -- "South Africa's ‘Born-Frees' Cast First Ballots" wrote AFP; "South Africans Vote in First ‘Born Free' Elections," said Reuters -- and appeared in newspaper profiles and television reports. The only place they didn't appear, it seems, was at the ballot box. Fewer than a third of this new, baggage-free generation of voters registered for the election. Young voters in general failed turn up: The New York Times noted on the eve of the election that the "weight of younger voters, who are more likely to abandon the ANC, is expected to offset the dominance of older voters." But that can't happen if young voters don't actually vote: While 90 percent of people in their thirties registered to vote, that number fell to 60 percent for those in their twenties.

The 2014 election turned out to be about loyalty and apathy. It wasn't so much a victory for the ANC, but for the status quo.

South African voters aren't happy with their incumbents: An Ipsos "Pulse of the People" survey released in January found that the ANC "shed almost a fifth" of its "overall support" between November 2008 and November 2013. The reasons for the decline, according to Ipsos, included the controversy around Nkandla, the luxury presidential compound Zuma built with more than 215 million rand ($23 million) of taxpayer money, the Marikana mine disaster, and protests over the government's failures to deliver basic services like water and electricity.

So why did this dissatisfaction not translate into a shellacking for the ANC at the polls?

The easy answer is the ANC's aggressive election campaign, their superior political machinery, and exhaustive outlets for propaganda. (The South African Broadcasting Company, with its three television channels and 18 radio stations is once again a government mouthpiece, much as it was during apartheid.) The more complex answer is best suggested by Zuma himself, who in 2008 said that the ANC "will rule until Jesus comes back." Exaggeration aside, Zuma is right: For many South Africans, the ANC is not just a political party. For all its failings, 20 years after the end of apartheid, it remains the political party.

Political commentator Susan Booysen wrote a few days before the election that the "riddle of ANC supremacy amid adversity has three legs -- the ANC's unremitting, albeit changing, linkage with the South African people, which often overrides leadership malfunction; the innate weakness of opposition parties; and the use of state power to compensate for decay in the ANC's support base." Critics accuse the ANC of not reforming fast enough, or at all. They say the organization is too large for its own good -- that it has become increasingly undisciplined and slow to react to important events. But the ANC's huge size remains an advantage at election time, and its campaign machinery is formidable.

Many South Africans voted for the ANC in spite of Zuma, not because of him. In South Africa, discontent with the state of the nation rarely translates as discontent with the ruling party. An editorial in the influential newspaper Business Day opined that the government's "lack of accountability is a function of the electorate's lack of expectation of accountability. There is simply no culture of using the vote to force either political parties or individual leaders to account for their actions. People may take to the streets to protest, burn down municipal buildings or councillors' homes and even boo the president, but they could still vote for the party responsible."

And yet South Africa inches toward change. Since the 2004 election, when the ANC secured almost 70 percent of the vote, support for the party has slowly but steadily declined. The ANC has lost significant influence in urban areas, and may well lose Gauteng, which generates more than a third of the country's GDP, in the next election.

Earlier this year, Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent's largest economy. While South Africa's infrastructure is stronger than Nigeria's in almost every respect, the downgrade was a symbolic blow. Union strife has kept business at bay and overseas investment is down. The country's official unemployment rate is 24 percent -- unofficially, it's as high as 40 percent.

Analysts say Zuma's post-election objective will be stabilizing the economy, which means enabling industry and pushing back against the labor factions, with whom he's been accused of being too cozy. And yet this isn't without danger. Anger at the government's neo-liberal policies is electric on the left. If the ANC is undone anytime soon, it is likely to be from a coalition of embittered allies, who break out on their own, much like Malema and his EFF. The ANC's real threat is from within.

The ANC is likely to retain its broad support for the remainder of the decade, and possibly beyond. But, with significant challenges in its future, and fresh incidents of political unrest seemingly every day, whether it will last until the day Jesus comes back is looking more and more in doubt.

The ANC has a storied past and a questionable present. What matters is that millions of South Africans care about the party, even if the party doesn't often care about them. The ANC is ubiquitous and, at least for now, it seems, invincible.



High Tea With a Spot of Racism

Britain's almost comically right-wing Tea Party clone is on the rise -- but if it ends up kingmaker in Westminster, that's no laughing matter.

LONDON — British tea parties are supposed to be genteel affairs. Earl Grey, cucumber sandwiches, and strawberry tarts. This one isn't. This one is a torch and pitchfork affair, in which the closest thing Britain has to a political Tea Party looks likely to set British politics ablaze.

Populism has rarely prospered in the United Kingdom. This month, however, Britain's political establishment seems likely to be humiliated. The forthcoming elections to the European Parliament are not -- as they are in some other more enthusiastically European countries -- actually very much about Europe at all. They are, rather, a referendum on Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government and an opportunity for disgruntled voters to voice their frustration with the realities of life in modern Britain. All the opinion polls suggest it will be a massacre.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) seems likely to emerge as the largest party once the Euro election votes are counted. Cameron's Conservatives are, as matters stand, likely to finish in third place -- more than one in three voters who endorsed the Tories in 2010 look ready to desert the party and rally to UKIP's standard. With just 12 months to go before the next general election, this off-year kicking will be a bruising experience for Cameron. The wounds he suffers will take time to heal, if they heal at all.

Comparisons with the American Tea Party should not be exaggerated. Nevertheless, like their American counterparts, UKIP's supporters are disproportionately likely to be right-wing, old, and white. Hostile to liberalism and modernity, they fret their country is fast becoming unrecognizable. UKIP is less a traditional political party than a state of mind, a tendency rather than a coherent philosophy.

Two issues, above all else, serve as outlets for the frustration felt by UKIP voters: immigration and the European Union. The former should be stopped -- or at least sharply curtailed -- and the latter simply left entirely. Half a million Poles have moved to Britain in the last decade, and Britain's black and South Asian minorities are growing much faster than the "traditional" white population. Foreign workers, the UKIP complains, are stealing British jobs -- and London, the party notes, is already a minority-majority city in which white Britons are outnumbered by more recent arrivals.

As for Europe, well, UKIP's hostility to matters continental is unbounded. This month, the party's leader, Nigel Farage, insisted that he "loves Europe" -- it's just everything about the European Union he can't stand: "I hate the flag. I hate the anthem. I hate the institutions." Hate, it might be noted, is not a word often used by mainstream politicians. But the detest now borders on the farcical: A majority of the party's supporters even think the United Kingdom should leave the Eurovision Song Contest. Brussels is the new Evil Empire, routinely referred to by Ukippers as the EUSSR.

Above all, UKIP voters rail against an unaccountable, out-of-touch, liberal "elite" that is, in their eyes, selling an Englishman's birthright for less than even a mess of potage.

Farage is a charismatic showman whose opportunism knows no limits. Part used-car salesman, part carnival barker, he plays a game that does not seem to be subject to the usual rules of politics. Scandals and gaffes that would sink another party do little to damage UKIP. Scouring the Internet histories of UKIP candidates, donors, and prominent supporters is a favorite pastime on Fleet Street these days. Gays, Muslims, Jews, foreigners of any description, blacks, women, Conservatives, Socialists, Liberals: Somewhere there's a UKIP candidate who hates you. And there's little evidence of contrition. In fact, UKIP's unique selling point is that it is not like other parties. It is not corrupted by being part of a discredited political system. Every scandal, every public relations disaster paradoxically reinforces that truth. Vote for UKIP: We're not like the rest.

This is undoubtedly true. UKIP does not seem to bother vetting its candidates, far less does it insist upon anything recognizable as message discipline. Ordinary political parties do not select candidates who wonder whether World War II was "engineered by the Zionist Jews." Nor do they endorse candidates who suggest that a black comedian should emigrate out of Britain to a "black country" or who think Islam is "organized crime under religious camouflage." Nor do they promote aspiring politicians who suggest that second-generation immigrants -- such as Labour Party leader Ed Miliband -- have not "earned" the right to think themselves British.

UKIP's elected politicians are little less eccentric than many members of the party's rank and file. Roger Helmer, currently a member of the European Parliament and the party's candidate in a forthcoming Westminster special election, is fond of asking questions such as: "Why is it OK for a surgeon to perform a sex change operation, but not OK for a psychiatrist to try to 'turn' a consenting homosexual?"

UKIP insists it's not a racist party -- which leaves its critics to observe that, for a non-racist party, it is uncommonly full of evident racists. Farage, meanwhile, has rejected overtures of linkage from France's National Front, but it remains the case that Marine Le Pen's party, like that of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, lies closer to UKIP than UKIP does to its mainstream opponents in Britain.

One can understand why Cameron once denounced UKIP as a party of "fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists." But that was 2006; today, and rather inconveniently, the prime minister may need the support of at least some of these fruitcakes if he is to have a realistic chance of winning a second term.

Indeed, UKIP has experienced a remarkable rise from a tiny fringe affair to possible kingmaker. In 2010, UKIP won just 3 percent of the vote. That was still nearly a million ballots, however. And UKIP need not win many more than that to dash Tory hopes of winning a majority next year. Four years ago, Cameron's Conservatives won only 36 percent of the vote. That was in an election held in the shadow of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, against a Labour party that had been in power for 13 long years and was then led by Gordon Brown, a prime minister largely blamed for the Great Recession of 2008 and who, though intellectually gifted, never possessed the common touch. Labour's share of the vote slumped to 29 percent, its worst performance since 1983, when the party platform was dubbed the "longest suicide note in political history."

Yet despite Labour's weakness, Cameron could not quite win an overall majority. The sense of an opportunity missed persists to this day. If the Tories could not win handsomely in 2010, when will they ever do so again? In truth, Cameron's performance was not as poor as some of his internal critics believe. The Tories had been so eclipsed by Labour under Tony Blair that they required heroic gains just to become the largest party at Westminster. They gained 97 seats, but still fell short of a majority.

Hence the need to form a coalition administration with the Liberal Democrats. For all the optimistic talk that this "new politics" would impress voters, the coalition has been an uneasy marriage of convenience rather than any kind of true romance. The two parties have been lashed together by necessity, not by conviction.

Turnout in the European Parliament elections, of course, will be much lower than in next year's general election. (Last time European Parliament elections were held, in 2009, only 34.7 percent of eligible voters made it to polling stations.) But is the forthcoming election simply a protest vote? Having cast their angry ballots this month, some UKIP voters will doubtless return to the Tory fold next year. The Tories certainly hope so. A vote for UKIP, they argue, is functionally a vote for Ed Miliband to become prime minister. Only a vote for the Conservatives, by contrast, can guarantee that Britons will be given a referendum in 2017 on the country's continuing membership in the European Union.

That promise has been crafted to stem internal rebellion within an increasingly Euroskeptic Tory party. Cameron promises to "renegotiate" a better membership deal for Britain and, having done so, will campaign to remain a member of the European family. But the "Better Off Out" brigade within the Conservative Party commands support from as much as 40 percent of members. Even if he wins next year, and even if his renegotiation strategy proves successful, Cameron will have to fight a civil war within his own party.

And, as much though they loathe the European Union, many UKIP supporters loathe Cameron just as much. They perceive him as a soft, metropolitan, liberal elitist -- different in degree, not kind, to Miliband. They will not be easily persuaded to vote for even the lesser of two apparent evils.

Further complicating Cameron's task is the knowledge that tacking to the right -- and theoretically appeasing UKIP -- risks losing support from the moderate center. In 2010, the Conservatives won only 16 percent of ethnic minority votes, a miserable performance that cost it seats in England's major cities and that threatens the party's long-term viability, just as surely as UKIP menaces its short-term future.

Cameron, in other words, is besieged on both sides. The British economy may, at last, be recovering, but many Britons have yet to feel the benefit of that upswing. Optimism is thin on the ground, and the electorate is happy to flirt with an anti-politics populism. Cameron has been outflanked and the right is in revolt.

Perhaps this siege will soon lose steam, but if UKIP wins even 8 percent of the vote in England next year, it is difficult to see how Cameron can win his second term. Voters animated by a "plague on both your houses" spirit will not care whether Downing Street is occupied by Cameron or by Miliband.

It is an unenviable dilemma for Cameron and one that, on the evidence currently available, looks likely to bring his political career to a premature conclusion.

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