In South Africa, empty sta­di­ums may be a bad omen for the ANC

With growth stalled, calls for Pres­i­dent Zuma to step down are com­ing from all sides

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - By Krista Mahr Mahr, now based in Jo­han­nes­burg, was a spe­cial correspond­ent for Reuters and Time mag­a­zine’s bureau chief in In­dia.

It’s elec­tion sea­son in South Africa. Small planes drag po­lit­i­cal slo­gans across au­tumn’s blue skies while par­lia­men­tary ses­sions dis­solve into scenes of protest and fisticuffs far be­low. In April the na­tion’s three largest po­lit­i­cal par­ties staged ral­lies to un­veil lengthy elec­tion man­i­festos far ahead of mu­nic­i­pal polls on Aug. 3, with thou­sands of would-be vot­ers pack­ing into sports sta­di­ums to show their sup­port.

Some sta­di­ums were more packed than oth­ers. For the gov­ern­ing African Na­tional Con­gress, the op­tics of its launch weren’t ideal, with awk­ward swaths of empty seats pic­tured in Nel­son Man­dela Bay Sta­dium in the south­ern city of Port El­iz­a­beth, where Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma spoke. The rally’s spotty at­ten­dance didn’t es­cape the at­ten­tion of South African re­porters, whose “pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with sta­dium seat- count­ing” was later lam­basted by an ANC spokesman, call­ing it “the new sci­ence of ‘sta­di­u­mol­ogy.’ ”

Sci­ence or no, sta­di­u­mol­ogy is a triedand-true part of the elec­toral the­ater. I moved to South Africa in March af­ter work­ing as a jour­nal­ist in In­dia for four years. As In­dia pre­pared for its own heated elec­tion in 2014, the me­dia drew reg­u­lar com­par­isons be­tween the thinly at­tended ral­lies of the in­cum­bent In­dian Na­tional Con­gress and the fre­netic crowds drawn by the op­po­si­tion’s front­man, soon-to-be Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. No­body ex­pected Con­gress to lose as big or Modi to win as big as they did in May 2014. In ret­ro­spect, the mood in the stands was a clear omen.

The ANC, the party that led South Africa out of apartheid, has his­toric par­al­lels and ties with In­dia’s Con­gress party, which was in­stru­men­tal in free­ing the sub­con­ti­nent from Bri­tish rule. And the tra­vails of the two Con­gress par­ties—in­dian and African—have a lot to say about the chal­lenges faced by young democ­ra­cies.

Calls for Zuma, who’s led the coun­try since 2009, to step down have come from both an en­er­gized op­po­si­tion and free­dom-strug­gle stal­warts. The party lead­er­ship has backed Zuma, eas­ily car­ry­ing him through a par­lia­men­tary vote in April that at­tempted to re­move him from of­fice. Since then, a court ruled that a de­ci­sion by state pros­e­cu­tors to drop al­most 800 cor­rup­tion charges against Zuma was “ir­ra­tional” and that he should face charges. The pres­i­dent has ap­plied for leave to ap­peal the de­ci­sion.

Zuma has con­tin­ued to cam­paign en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. On May 17, mem­bers of the ul­tra-left Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers (EFF) party call­ing for his ouster were thrown out of par­lia­ment amid brawl­ing and lobbed wa­ter bot­tles. Zuma pro­ceeded to ad­dress the house, tak­ing the podium with a chuckle.

Not ev­ery­one is amused. For many, 22 years af­ter South Africa’s first demo­cratic elec­tions brought to power the party that fought apartheid, the op­ti­mism that once de­fined the Rain­bow Na­tion is flag­ging. Protests over the state’s fail­ure to de­liver ba­sic ser­vices, such as wa­ter and elec­tric­ity, have be­come a fix­ture of civic life. Eco­nomic growth has fallen from an an­nual aver­age of 5 per­cent from 2004 through 2007 to less than 1 per­cent, pro­jected for this year. In early May the gov­ern­ment an­nounced that un­em­ploy­ment reached 26.7 per­cent in the first quar­ter, the high­est in at least eight years.

Zuma has said South Africa is still a suc­cess story—and it is—but for some, the ANC has lost its lus­ter. “When our lead­ing party took power, we thought all would be well,” says Jo­hanna Nomvete, a politi­cian and mem­ber of a small ANC break­away party, Con­gress of the Peo­ple, at a Jo­han­nes­burg protest. To­day, “the poor re­main poor, and the rich be­come richer.”

The mood is strik­ingly sim­i­lar to New Delhi in the runup to In­dia’s na­tional

elec­tions in 2014. Pub­lic sen­ti­ment had turned against then- Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh, whose gov­ern­ment also faced al­le­ga­tions of large-scale cor­rup­tion. The heady growth that had cap­tured the world’s imag­i­na­tion had slowed. With wide­spread un­em­ploy­ment and few prospects for new jobs, In­dia’s young ma­jor­ity was in­stru­men­tal in vot­ing Con­gress out—a move their grand­par­ents wouldn’t have dreamed of. “The sys­tem could no longer de­liver,” says Mo­han Gu­ruswamy, a fel­low at the Ob­server Re­search Foun­da­tion in New Delhi. “Younger peo­ple were en­ter­ing the work­force in large num­bers, and you didn’t have jobs for them.”

Some say the ANC is re­peat­ing Con­gress’s mis­takes. “The ANC, the last of the iconic lib­er­a­tion move­ments, is fall­ing in the trap of all of them,” says Wil­liam Gumede, ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of the African non­profit Democ­racy Works Foun­da­tion. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties born out of lib­er­a­tion strug­gles of­ten re­tain strong ma­jori­ties dur­ing their early years in power for good rea­sons. Their sup­port­ers have deep and emo­tional ties to the or­ga­ni­za­tions, and as the par­ties start to gov­ern, there are cred­i­ble ex­cuses for them to take time to re­build weak in­sti­tu­tions. But voter loy­alty also means such a party “can mess up for a while,” says Gumede. “Peo­ple sup­port it for much longer than they should.”

For any party, a clear ma­jor­ity means there’s no ur­gent im­pe­tus to do the kind of in­tro­spec­tion and re­form an elec­toral de­feat can spark. Prob­lems that emerge, be it a cor­rup­tion scan­dal or poor ad­min­is­tra­tion, can linger, widen­ing the gap be­tween party lead­ers and sup­port­ers to the point of gen­uine dis­con­nect. It hap­pened in 1977, when In­dia’s Con­gress party lost power for the first time since in­de­pen­dence, and again in 2014. And that’s what the ANC’S crit­ics say is hap­pen­ing now in South Africa.

Of course, there are clear and im­por­tant dif­fer­ences be­tween South Africa’s ANC and In­dia’s Con­gress—among them the size of the coun­tries, the na­ture of the strug­gles, and the rule they fought against. The ANC has been in power for a lit­tle over two decades; Con­gress was in power for three be­fore its first ouster. By the time of its most re­cent vic­tory, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had al­ready run In­dia be­fore and pre­sented a much broader chal­lenge to Con­gress than ei­ther of South Africa’s two main op­po­si­tion par­ties, the Demo­cratic Al­liance (DA) and the EFF, presents to the ANC to­day.

At last count, the ANC was still go­ing strong, cap­tur­ing 62.1 per­cent of the 2014 vote, down slightly from 65.9 per­cent in 2009. Whether a siz­able num­ber of those vot­ers have lost faith won’t be clear un­til Au­gust. Even if op­po­si­tion par­ties per­form well in cities, the ANC could re­main the party of choice among ru­ral vot­ers, where it dom­i­nates. Na­tional elec­tions aren’t sched­uled un­til 2019: If the party does per­form badly in Au­gust, there will be a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for the ANC to be in­tro­spec­tive and al­ter its course. “Per­son­ally, I be­lieve if you got the right lead­er­ship in place, you have a party that has the great­est com­mit­ment and em­pa­thy for the poor peo­ple, the peo­ple in the street,” says Mavuso Msi­mang, one of sev­eral ANC vet­er­ans who have re­cently called for Zuma to step down. “But that will only hap­pen if you em­ploy the right peo­ple to do these things.”

In­dia’s prob­lems, for the record, didn’t dis­ap­pear un­der new man­age­ment. Modi has hit many of the same walls Con­gress faced, and his much touted bid to make In­dia a man­u­fac­tur­ing hub hasn’t taken off. In the end, notes Gu­ruswamy of Ob­server Re­search, the BJP’S in­abil­ity to make a dent in job­less­ness among young vot­ers—who helped bring the party to power in 2014—could be its un­do­ing and Con­gress’s next op­por­tu­nity. That kind of power strug­gle is healthy for democ­ra­cies such as In­dia and South Africa, says Democ­racy Works’ Gumede: “That’s what you want in a de­vel­op­ing coun­try. You need a sense of com­pe­ti­tion.”

What­ever hap­pens at the polls, that sense of com­pe­ti­tion is grow­ing. At the end of April, Soweto’s Or­lando Sta­dium out­side Jo­han­nes­burg was over­flow­ing with EFF sup­port­ers, ea­gerly await­ing the ar­rival of the party chief, for­mer ANC youth leader Julius Malema. They roared as the fire­brand politi­cian en­tered the sta­dium wear­ing the party’s trade­mark red jump­suit, beret, and his own sig­na­ture gold avi­a­tors. The sta­di­u­mol­o­gists had a field day. <BW>

South Africans hoped for broad changes, but “the poor re­main poor, and the rich be­come richer”

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