Carry On Regardless in South Africa, as ANC Re-elects Zuma

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Mike Hutchings / Reuters

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma celebrates his re-election as the African National Congress party president on the outskirts of Bloemfontein on Dec. 18, 2012

In a normal democracy, a crushing victory at the polls by the incumbent generally means an overwhelming popular desire for more of the same. Tuesday’s triumph by South African President Jacob Zuma in a contest to lead the African National Congress (ANC) reveals something quite different: how removed Africa’s most famous liberation movement now is from the people it would represent.

With the ANC’s two-thirds electoral majority — a legacy of its glorious, revolutionary past under Nelson Mandela — Zuma’s re-election to the presidency of the party all but guarantees him re-election as national President, keeping him in power until 2019, when he would be 77. But to confuse his popularity among the 4,000 party delegates assembled at Mangaung, a township on the outskirts of Bloemfontein where the party conference was held, with wider popular support would be a mistake.

(MORE: As South Africa Reels from Mine Shooting, Social Inequality Threatens to Undo the Post-Apartheid ‘Miracle’)

Zuma came to power in 2009 under a cloud. For years he had faced charges of corruption, racketeering, money laundering and fraud, only for them to be dropped weeks before he took power. Today he faces another scandal: the state spending of what the South African press say is $28 million on security upgrades at his private residence in his home province of Kwazulu-Natal. Those allegations — and hundreds of other accusations of corruption and criminality against ANC ministers and councillors — fixate the media. But it is the ANC’s failure to lift its natural constituency — the half of the country, according to the government’s own figures, that 18 years after the end of apartheid still live below the poverty line — which this year stirred violent and angry mass protests against it. The state’s brutal opposition to those demonstrations, which included police shooting dead 34 striking miners at a platinum mine at Marikana in the north of the country in August, was both shocking in the manner it evoked the violence of apartheid and underscored the distance that now exists between South Africa’s poor and the party that promised to liberate them.

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa with a similar margin as Zuma’s deputy on Tuesday is further testament to how blind the ANC now is to popular sentiment. Ramaphosa was a target of particular fury at Marikana: he is a former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers who went on to use his political connections to become one of South Africa’s richest men, in part owing to his stake in Marikana’s mine owners, Lonmin. An official inquiry into the massacre heard how the day before the shooting, Ramaphosa wrote to Lonmin’s chief commercial officer saying: “The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labor dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such … there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”

(MORE: South Africa Massacre: Miners Charged over Colleagues’ Deaths)

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in re-electing the tainted Zuma and superrich Ramaphosa, the ANC has added further cement to South Africa’s central problem: the yawning divide that not only exists but has actually widened since apartheid between the elite, now both white and ANC-connected black, and millions of poor South Africans. On the wrong side of the tracks, life is defined by violent crime, unemployment of 25% to 40% and the world’s biggest HIV/AIDS population. Many millions still live in the same shacks in the same townships. Once, led by the ANC and others, South Africans fought such unfairness and brought down a regime. Tuesday’s elections show how the ANC is ignoring the message of this year’s protests: they could do so again.