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Nelson Mandela’s characteristic sparkle has been fading, his wife, Graça Machel, lamented in an interview published as the 94-year-old former president was struck by a recurrent lung infection last weekend. So too, much of South Africa worries, is their country’s post-apartheid lustre.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is gathering for an important leadership conference this weekend at a poignant moment in which there is an obvious contrast on show. On the one hand, the inspirational statesman lies in hospital, his life and legacy of racial tolerance under threat. On the other, Jacob Zuma – the scandal-racked head of state presiding over the steady erosion of the ANC’s founding values amid rising discontent – is plotting another term as party leader.
More than at any time since the transition to black majority rule in 1994, the future of the ANC as a viable coalition is threatened by divisions among among its members, which include newly rich tycoons, liberals, racial nationalists, radical populists and unions. The result is that Mr Zuma faces a leadership challenge from his soft-spoken, but widely respected deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe.
The president is a political bruiser and the way he has been lining up provincial votes makes him a near-certain winner. Regardless, the contest will likely deepen the splits, and the ramifications for South Africa are worrying.
The country is in the midst of crisis. Its education system is failing, poverty and unemployment are rising and the traditional bedrock of the economy, the mining industry, has been hobbled by months of wildcat strikes.
If Mr Zuma wins the party leadership he is likely to vie for and win a second term as president in national elections due in 2014. This means seven more years of weak and indecisive leadership, distracted by internal power struggles and reliant on patronage rather than persuasion.
“When the ANC is unstable it’s not going to be an institution that can enhance the capacity of the state. So it does not matter who is president, whether it’s Kgalema, Zuma, or Donald Duck, in terms of the capacity to deliver on the promise of a better life,” says political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi.
Every day, he adds, South Africans wake up to the possibility of a black swan moment – some catalytic event that pitches the country from slow-burning crisis into something worse. But if Mr Zuma and his cohorts have appeared to ignore the national mood there are factions in the ANC who feel differently.
Recognising the scale of social discontent, they forecast that with the same leadership in 2014 the ANC vote will dip below 60 per cent or worse – threatening the dominance the party has enjoyed since the first multiracial elections in 1994.
“Even if [Zuma] understands there’s a crisis he does not have a solution. The economy will not grow and we will lose jobs. South Africa cannot afford that,” says a senior ANC insider. “We have conducted research – if there’s no change in the leadership we will lose a big chunk of support.”
Hence, the possibility that a victory by Mr Zuma could provoke a split within the ANC comparable but possibly more significant to that which took place before the last elections. It could also lead to significant gains by the existing, white-led opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Broader opposition to the ANC is also growing, embodied by rolling service delivery protests and this year’s strikes.
The combination might not provide stability in the short term. But it could begin to break down the monolithic political system that has begun to stifle national debate and prevent the emergence of more strategic thinking about the future.
“There was a dream in South Africa and there were lots of initiatives premised on that dream. But people with less noble intentions hijacked them,” says another ANC insider of the post-apartheid years when Mr Mandela was still in charge. “We respond well to adversity but did not respond well to the dream.”
If there is a silver lining it is that more adversity is likely. Facing growing opposition, the ANC could follow in the mould of other liberation movements to forge an increasingly authoritarian state. Mr Zuma’s inclinations appear to be in that direction. But given how vibrant South African society is, it’s far from certain he would be allowed to. As Mr Mandela’s sparkle fades, there is still everything to play for.
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