ANC splits

The ANC has quite often been a lousy party of government. As a campaigner in national elections, in contrast, it has been consistently formidable.

Victories are often attributed to factors outside the ANC’s control, such as voters’ knuckle-headed loyalty, entrenched race-based voting, or the self-destructive tendencies of opposition parties.

These arguments are not terribly persuasive. Black citizens’ votes are now spread across a range of competing parties. White voters have become increasingly tribal, it is true, but their block vote for the DA scarcely bolsters ANC power. The two big opposition parties, moreover, know their way around an election campaign.

This means the ANC deserves some credit for its electoral successes. It has cleverly reaped rewards for citizens’ gains, including improved access to housing, household services, and social grants.

The ANC’s political research and advertising is quite professional, and its campaign team is selected on merit, regardless of factional allegiance. It targets specific constituencies — including religious actors, traditional leaders, and black businesses — cynically but precisely.

The least recognised electoral skill of the ANC leadership has been knowing when to split, how to split — and when not to split. One misleading argument widely advanced today is that the ANC is unusually divided in advance of the May 8 ballot. Such alleged division is contrasted with a prior tendency to “pull together” before elections.

In late 2008, however, the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC forced state president Thabo Mbeki to resign barely months before elections were due. The NEC acted in full awareness that Mbeki’s minions, such as Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mluleki George, would quickly be dispatched by the Supreme Being to form a breakaway party that became known as the Congress of the People (Cope).

Cope received about 7% of the vote in 2009 – without doubt mostly lost ballots for the ANC. But Cope’s creation allowed the internal politics of the ANC to stabilise, bringing consensus to the candidate list process, a halt to purges of Mbeki loyalists, and a coherent campaign.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections the ANC leadership precipitated the creation of another breakaway party, the EFF. The immediate driver of Julius Malema’s initial five-year suspension in late 2011 was his switch of allegiance to the anti-Zuma camp. His full expulsion in 2012 flowed from a wider recognition in the leadership that he was a divisive force. The EFF secured more than 6% in 2014, again primarily drawn from likely ANC supporters. As in 2009, however, the split enhanced the cohesion and effectiveness of the ANC.

Another split might have followed Jacob Zuma’s recall from the presidency in February 2018. A breakaway would have supported the new leadership’s otherwise somewhat implausible central campaign narrative: that the “good ANC” under Cyril Ramaphosa is rehabilitiating the movement, while the “bad ANC” responsible for “state capture” is being expunged. Three factors militated against a split. First, key Zuma apparatchiks inside the party machine declared immediately that they would stay put. The close initial balance of power between winners and losers meant quickly forced expulsions were hard.

Second, the reliable part of the support base of the ANC is significantly smaller than in previous elections. Even if a breakaway of Zuma loyalists secured just 6%-7% of the vote, as Cope and the EFF managed in their first elections, this would risk an end to ANC majority government. Finally, Cope was in part an ethnic breakaway, funded by Eastern Cape political families. For its part, the EFF has enjoyed strong representation only in the north and Gauteng. But neither party has come close to winning a “home province”.

A post-Zuma breakaway, in contrast, could easily have secured the balance of power in KwaZulu-Natal and so reversed the ANC’s historic gains in that province. The winners and losers alike have decided to remain together, at least for now, in the ANC’s big tent. They have been quite rational in doing so.



• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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