Corruption and factionalism ANC's biggest threats

Image: PHILLIP NOTHNAGEL

The ANC - like most liberation movements turned political parties - has dominated SA's politics since it came to power in 1994.

Having just won 57.5% of the national vote in the general election, it appears set to continue its dominance until the next one in 2024.

The ANC's electoral fortunes have steadily declined in the past three national elections: 2009 (65%), 2014 (62%) and 2019 (57.50%). Does this suggest Nelson Mandela's party will join the global list of dominant parties that lose power and eventually disintegrate sooner rather than later?

Globally, dominant parties experience moments of failure. Sometimes they completely disappear from the political scene. For example, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, considered the largest political party in Sweden from 1917 onwards, has been recording electoral defeats since 2006. Another example is the Irish Fianna Fáil (Republican Party), which was in power from 1932. It lost heavily to the opposition in 2011.

Scholars have ascribed declines like this to four broad reasons: opposition coordination; institutional or electoral reforms; high level of corruption and gross abuse of office; and factional conflict within the dominant party.

The two the ANC should be worried about are high levels of corruption and conflicts within the party.

Studies have established that growing disenchantment with the government of a ruling party over recurring high levels of corruption represents another reason for the loss of the hegemony. The argument is that when a party stays in power for a long time without facing a credible threat of defeat, it becomes complacent and susceptible to corruption and abuse of office. This may result in the accumulation of grievances among citizens which could lead to protest votes that could eventually dislodge the dominant party.

This was the case with the Peoples Democratic Party in Nigeria (2015), the Kuomintang in Taiwan (2016), and the Grand National Party /Saenuri Party in Korea (2004). Studies also confirm that internal dissent and disorder were major reasons for the disintegration of dominant parties across different regions of the world.

In Africa for example, these splits are often associated with unresolved leadership tussles as was the case in Nigeria when the Peoples Democratic Party fell after 16 years in power.

The opposition DA and EFF remain the two front-running opposition parties. But, there are still doubts about their capacity to dislodge the ANC in the near future. This is especially so given their ideological differences, which makes an alliance unworkable, although not impossible. This explains the collapse of their coalition arrangements across the country following the ANC's losses in the 2016 local government elections. These developments indicate that the opposition is not coordinated enough to dislodge the ANC.

The ANC has used its majority in parliament to create (or influence) laws that limit the chances of the opposition growing, further perpetuating its dominance. And the proportional representation system creates room for further fragmentation of the opposition.

But corruption and factionalism are the two factors that threaten the ANC's dominance and could eventually kill it - unless it kills both first.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has done a lot to unify the party since he became its president. But how he balances his party's interests and those of the country in the coming years will determine whether or not the ANC implodes.

-Isike is professor of African politics and international relations at University of Pretoria

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