JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Compared with many of its neighbors, South Africa has been a political success story. But as the country prepares for its general elections next year, it remains to be seen whether Africa’s richest nation will be able to maintain both a successful democracy and a prosperous economy.
That reputation has been imperiled by a recent power struggle within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. A hard-fought contest between former president Thabo Mbeki and the new National Executive Committee (NEC), led by former Vice President, Jacob Zuma, it culminated with Mbeki’s defeat this September. But with the changing of the political guard has arrived social unrest and economic instability.
The roots of this volatile new order go back several years. Former allies, Mbeki and Zuma have a bitter history that dates back to 2005, when Mbeki sacked Zuma from his previous office of deputy president after the latter was fingered in an arms-deal corruption saga that saw his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, sent to jail. Zuma never forgave the slight.
Zuma’s chance for revenge came on September 12, when he came into power and took control of the ANC’s leadership. Shown the door alongside Mbeki was the woman he picked to be Zuma’s replacement as Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Her husband had been one of the first to investigate Zuma.
Zuma wasted little time exacting retribution. To stem the fallout from Zuma’s purges, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe insisted that his decision to fire Mbeki and others was necessary to smooth the political transition. That justification did not prevent the explosive reaction that followed. At least six cabinet ministers resigned in solidarity with the toppled Mbeki. Zuma retaliated in turn, sacking provincial and district government officials with links to Mbeki. The fissures in South Africa’s government grew.
“Things have been bad in the ANC since the new leadership came in,” says Charlotte Lobe, a former NEC member of the Mbeki-led executive. “Members are being purged for their beliefs, which differ from those of the new leaders and the party’s democratic values have been lost.”
Those sacked from the party, and their colleagues who resigned in solidarity with Mbeki, have found solace in forming a new parallel movement, the Congress of the People (COPE), which analysts say will become the country’s main opposition after next year’s elections. The new party, fronted by firebrand former defense minister Mosiuoa Patrick Lekota and former premier Mbhazima Shilowa, has already received overwhelming support from members of the country’s elite class and business community, who fear that the ANC, if it retains power, will introduce drastic measures that might hurt the economy.
The new party has wasted little time making its voice heard. COPE members were the first to fire a salvo at Zuma’s ruling party, which they accused of betraying democratic values by sacking Mbeki. “We cannot allow the President of a country to be kicked out just like that, that is why we are saying ‘let us go join hands, win this election and defend our democracy’ and fight for stability in this country just like any part of the world,” said Willie Madisha an outspoken member of the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), who has since joined the new.
The division between COPE and the ANC falls squarely along class lines. COPE is favored by the country’s elite, including the minority whites and business classes, while the ANC appeals to poor blacks.
The fallout from these divisions, however, has affected the entire country. As the political infighting continues, South Africa’s economy suffers. The South African Rand, the national currency, has fallen from a rate of 7.5 rand to the dollar five months ago to 10 rand to the dollar today. And with political feuding growing bitterer by the day, South Africa is starting to look more and more like its dysfunctional regional neighbors.