The president’s party is rife with corruptionApr 25th 2019Print edition | Special report
“WE ARE THE ones left after the dead,” says Thulani Cele. “We are the lucky ones.” Sitting on a plastic chair in a shelter made from corrugated iron at the Glebelands hostel in the uMlazi township on the outskirts of Durban, Mr Cele (who was too scared to give his real name) describes the past several years living in fear.
The housing estate was built during apartheid, one of many residential complexes where male workers were confined when away from their home villages. Today 15,000-20,000 people live here in squalor, often crammed a half-dozen to a room. Yet the scale of the hostel makes it a juicy source of votes at elections and of corruption the rest of the time, for whoever controls Glebelands has access to an income stream of rent and upkeep contracts.
These prizes seem to be worth killing for. Since 2014 more than 115 Glebelands residents have been murdered. Many were ANC members who objected to the ways of Robert Mzobe, an ANC councillor accused of corruption, and Bongani Hlope, a local warlord who terrorised residents. “Glebelands is a microcosm,” argues Mary de Haas, a researcher into local violence. Throughout the country violence is regularly meted out by one faction of the ANC against another. From 2000 to 2017 nearly 300 political assassinations have been recorded, many of them ANC members.
The world may still think of the ANC as the organisation that led the struggle against apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s party. It still has many thoughtful and courageous politicians. But over the past 25 years it has become deeply corrupt. “The thing I hate about the ANC is the normlessness they’ve brought to the country,” says Paulus Zulu of the University of KwaZulu Natal. “The amorality.”
President Ramaphosa faces a huge task in patching up South Africa’s institutions. But the organisation in most need of reform is his own party. Without cleaning up the ANC he will struggle to enact his agenda. For much of the ANC remains opposed to Mr Ramaphosa, whether out of ideology, self-preservation or both.
The origins of the president’s fragile position lie in his victory at the ANC National Conference. Held every five years these meetings decide the leadership of the party. In December 2017 he won the presidency of the party, and so, later, the presidency of the country, by a margin of 179 out of 4,701 votes. The top six officials on the National Executive Committee, the main decision-making body, are finely balanced between the president’s camp and his enemies. At the time Mr Ramaphosa told friends that this victory would have to do—“We settle for the beachhead,” he said. Yet he still has a war on his hands with the allies of Mr Zuma.
There is not a single “Zuma faction”, but a series of overlapping groups. One is the set of hard-left ideologues who do not trust Mr Ramaphosa’s pro-business instincts. Since the ANC still pays lip-service to being a Marxist organisation, with some members addressing each other as “comrade”, it can be hard to distinguish champagne socialists from real ones. But the latter still exist.
Then there are the Zuma allies in cabinet positions deemed too powerful to dislodge. For example Bathabile Dlamini, who last year was found by the Constitutional Court to have been “reckless” and “grossly negligent” in her conduct before an inquiry into her ineptitude as the minister in charge of welfare payments. In the 2000s the party devolved more power to the nine provinces, encouraging the growth of local barons. Many of these, such as Supra Mahumapelo, a strongman and former premier in North West province, have patronage networks that they do not want unspun by Mr Ramaphosa. Since they control a lot of party cadres, they must be handled with care.
Increasingly regional barons have taken up positions in Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters. It is here that the party’s day-to-day operations are conducted and decisions are made about party jobs. This includes who gets to become MPs.
The secretary-general of the party is Ace Magashule, another client of Mr Zuma’s. From 2009 to 2018 he was premier of the Free State—one of the provincial big men. Under him the province cemented its reputation for corruption, including with a deal using 570m rand of public funds to set up a failing dairy farm, which went to a group involving his son, Mr Zuma’s son and the Guptas. Mr Magashule has denied any wrongdoing.
Another former regional baron is David Mabuza, the deputy president of both the ANC and the country. Mr Mabuza was appointed by Mr Zuma as premier of Mpumalanga in 2009, shortly after he donated 400,000 rand for the former president’s fourth wedding. As premier he faced many allegations of misconduct. In 2017 Mr Mabuza used his power to be the kingmaker at the ANC election. At the last moment he switched from Mr Zuma’s ex-wife and preferred candidate (since he assumed she would protect him from prosecution) to Mr Ramaphosa, ensuring his victory. Many close to the president fear that his deputy wants to dislodge him.
Mr Ramaphosa’s supporters say much will change after the election. They believe a clear victory would give him a mandate, make it easier to push his policies, and encourage amoral cadres to align with his camp. Yet there is no magic share of the vote that can solve problems with his party.
There are two reasons for that. The first is that the ANC has already adopted several left-wing policies. While all the attention at the conference in 2017 was on personalities, the party also formally agreed to support a national minimum wage, expropriation of land without compensation, and the nationalisation of the central bank. Mr Ramaphosa may try to limit the negative sideeffects from these ideas, but the fact that they exist as party policy reduces his room for manoeuvre.
The second reason why a clear Ramaphosa victory will not solve his internal problems is that it will not change the occupants of the ANC’s senior positions. It is possible that certain senior figures could face prosecution for their roles in state-capture scandals. But many wield a lot of power over delegates at future ANC conferences and could make life difficult for the president.
Those people who want to see Mr Ramaphosa go after the worst of his party have so far been disappointed. The clearest evidence for his weakness came in March, when the ANC published its list of candidates for the election. It is a rogues’ gallery, full of people fingered by state-capture inquiries.