As Solidarity goes to press on 13 February, the ANC, the ruling party, has officially asked Jacob Zuma to step down as President of South Africa. Zuma has been under increasing pressure to resign since December, when deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was narrowly elected leader of the ANC at its conference.
The ANC has been the ruling party in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. Yet in the same period deep disillusion has set in. The country has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world. About 60% of the population earn less than R42,000 per annum (about US$7,000), whereas 2.2% get over R360,000 per annum (about US$50,000).
South Africa has well-regarded universities; but elementary education for the poor is worse than in some much poorer countries. There is a growing black middle class; but many people are still living in shanty housing in the townships, and 27% are unemployed. Amidst the pauperisation, violence has escalated.
Rape Crisis South Africa reports that twelve times more women are raped and then murdered in South Africa every year than in the USA, which has a much larger population and is much more violent than European countries. It also reports that every six months in South Africa a woman is killed by an intimate partner.
Both Zuma and Ramaphosa were heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. Zuma was sentenced to ten years on Robben Island for his political activities as a ANC leader and Ramaphosa was jailed as a student activist. Both were seen to be somewhat on the left, Zuma a long-term member of the Communist Party (SACP) and Ramaphosa the founder and leader of the militant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and a big figure in founding the then-radical COSATU union federation in 1985. In the transition to democracy, Ramaphosa was a negotiator for the ANC, and Zuma, as the most prominent Zulu in the ANC leadership, played a role defusing the tribal violence incited by Zulu royalty in the KwaZulu Natal region.
Once in power the ANC leadership wanted to open the country up to big business. They set up quotas for black representative on company boards. Often the people who took these lucrative roles were leaders of the ANC or their relatives. Ramaphosa lost the battle in 1997 to succeed Mandela as ANC leader, and went into business instead, becoming one of South Africa’s richest capitalists and a member of the board of Lonmin, a mining company founded by the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
In 2012, miners striking against Lonmin at Marikana were machine-gunned by the police. Ramaphosa condemned the miners, not the police. Zuma became deputy leader of the ANC under Mbeki until charged with corrupt involvement with an arms deal in 2005. Later that year he was also charged with rape. Eventually the cases against him were dismissed, but with serious questions still to answer.
On the strength of populist calls for greater black power, he was elected leader of the ANC in 2007, and won the presidency in 2009. There have been a series of splits from the ANC. The most notable is the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters. Meanwhile Zuma has faced more corruption allegations, such as about the cost of his lavish personal country home, which has been charged to the state, or his relationship with the wealthy Gupta family.
Ramaphosa re-entered politics by becoming deputy president in elections in 2014. In 2016, the ANC lost some key cities in municipal elections for the first-time, including Johannesburg and Pretoria. At the ANC December congress, Ramaphosa narrowly won the leader election against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife and ongoing ally. Zuma retains support in some sections of the ANC and loyal appointees in the state security services and judiciary, and is said to be holding out for a promise of immunity or presidential pardon before stepping down.
A Ramaphosa presidency holds little promise for the working masses. His idea of economic reform seems to mean making South Africa even more open to big business. His ideas on rebuilding public services seem similar to Tony Blair’s marketisation of these services. At best Ramaphosa promises a more competent and even-handed administration of neoliberalism. Despite their histories both Zuma and Ramaphosa are now key figures in the South African ruling class.
South African workers need a party of their own committed to working-class power and genuine racial equality. In the recent rank and file struggles in the unions breaking away from the COSATU leadership, in the struggles in the townships, in the women’s protests against rape culture, and even among some of the rank and file of the ANC, lie the building blocks for a workers’ party that can fulfil the true promise of the long struggle against apartheid.