Compare the state of two political parties which share a close past connection but which today face distinctly different futures. I’m referring to Britain’s Labour Party and South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC).
The British Labour Party has just held its most successful national conference for years. It projected an image of unity, confidence and enthusiasm constructed around its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who less than a year ago was widely portrayed as leading his party into the political wilderness.
Corbyn won the leadership by mobilising mass backing among an increased party membership (encouraged by internal party reforms). But he also alienated many of the party’s MPs. Forced into a repeat leadership election after most of his shadow cabinet resigned, he had been overwhelmingly re-elected by the membership, yet still failed to convince the media he was electable.
In early May 2017, Labour was trounced in local government elections, losing a swathe of seats while the ruling Conservatives gained heavily. So when new Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election a few weeks later, seeking a personal mandate to pursue the country’s fateful “Brexit” negotiations, it was widely expected that Corbyn would drag Labour down to another miserable defeat.
Corbyn defied expectations. Rather than sweeping to a triumphant victory, May lost her party’s majority and was forced into a humiliating deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. Labour lost the election, yet managed to project its unexpectedly improved performance as a victory.
Now it was the Tories in disarray. May hung on to her leadership only because those eyeing the top job feared that a new leadership contest would pull the party apart.
Labour’s success is widely ascribed to Corbyn. His election campaign was remarkably low key, almost old fashioned. Above all, he projected himself as a rarity in politics – a man of principle whose adherence to a socialist platform had been consistent throughout his career. His idealism appealed especially to younger voters, and “Corbinistas” won the war on social media.
Corbyn has yet to win back many of Labour’s traditional working class. But with the Tories increasingly led by the nose by their most right-wing elements, and their incompetence in negotiations with the EU threatening a disastrous Brexit, Corbyn has claimed convincingly that Labour occupies the critical centre-ground in British politics. And that the Thatcher revolution has run its course and that neo-Liberalism is dead.
In its place, Labour will lead a crusade against the vicious social inequalities that neo-liberalism has brought in its wake, promising a new social project “For the Many, not for the Few”. Labour is smelling power, and the making of a new social revolution.
In contrast, today’s ANC seems to have much more in common with the Tories than with the revitalised Labour Party. Just like the Tories, it is brutally factionalised and is led by a discredited leader. It is bereft of new ideas and is manifestly failing in government. The South African economy has slumped; investor confidence has plummeted; key parastatals have been bankrupted and social services are failing. Worse, its president and its party cadres have converted the state into a feeding trough for private interests.
The ANC is openly divided and locked into an increasingly bitter battle for the party leadership, to be elected by delegates to the party’s national conference in December.
There are six or seven notional candidates for the top job. But the race for the leadership appears to be between Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. Zweli Mkhize is now running close behind, threatening to overtake and win by a nose. The ANC likes to boast that it’s a forum for the “battle of ideas”. Yet this contest is almost totally bereft of ideas.
Dlamini-Zuma has claimed the banner of “Radical Economic Transformation” for her campaign. Her lacklustre performance, though, has failed to clothe it with any convincing content. Rather than promising a new world, her strong backing by President Jacob Zuma suggests the main purpose of her candidacy is to keep him out of jail and to maintain the state as a site of political largesse for those who have benefited from his rule.
Ramaphosa is projecting himself as the reform candidate : the man of common sense and experience who will cleanse the party of its corruption and set the economy back on track. Yet, for all his talk about corruption and his railing against “state capture”, he has exhibited a total aversion to any naming of names. The firebrand union leader of yesteryear has turned into a pussycat.
Some in the ANC claim he is constrained by his awkward position as Deputy President, and that were he to step out of line, Zuma would not hesitate to sack him. Others fear that he does not have the courage and determination to win the prize.
So up comes Zweli Mkhize on the outside track, being projected as the candidate who could straddle the Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa divide and restore the ANC to unity. But at what cost? As with both other candidates, Mkhize would have to make major compromises with many powerful elements in the party to win, and his triumph would herald greater continuity than change.
The ANC a lost cause?
Former President Kgalema Motlanthe has suggested that the party must lose the national election due in 2019 if it wishes to regain its soul. Similarly, Makhosi Khoza recently resigned both as an MP and a member of the ANC declaring that the party has become “alien and corrupt”.
Such siren calls, issued from under its own roof, suggest that – given the right circumstances – the ANC is capable of “self-correction”. Yet the evidence for this is thin. South Africans were promised this after the party’s dismal showing in the 2016 local government elections. All they have had is more of the same.
The problem for the ANC is that unlike the Labour Party, it lacks a credible prophet with moral appeal and related new ideas to lead it out of the wilderness. Despite its divisions, it may well creep home in 2019, or at least win enough seats to become the major party in a governing coalition.
However, the more its desperation in clinging to power, the more its inability to tackle the fundamental reforms needed to restore it to its former glory. A politics of patronage will remain at its core; principles will be sacrificed to personal ambitions and material gain; and the ANC will remain a party, not for the many, but the privileged few.
Roger Southall is Professor of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand
This article first appeared in The Conversation Africa