Why the ANC won't be able to stay in power by unconstitutional means

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The ANC’s leaders cut a cake during the party’s 106th birthday celebrations at Buffalo Stadium in East London. Party president Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the event and tried to stop the crowd from booing Jacob Zuma. (Leon Sadiki, City Press)
The ANC’s leaders cut a cake during the party’s 106th birthday celebrations at Buffalo Stadium in East London. Party president Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the event and tried to stop the crowd from booing Jacob Zuma. (Leon Sadiki, City Press)

William Gumede 

Very few African liberation movements – especially those who had armed wings during the struggle for liberation – which went on to come to power and dominated the newly liberated country’s army, have peacefully given up power in elections they subsequently lost. 

The willingness to voluntarily relinquish power after being outvoted is a real test for whether African, guerilla-dominated liberation movements turned governments and their leaders are genuinely committed to building democracy, serving inclusive development and sustaining peace. 

The ANC belongs to the family of left-of-centre African liberation movements that waged armed struggles. These movements include the African Party for the Independence of Guinea- and Cape Verde (PAIGC), the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), Swapo of Namibia, Frelimo of Mozambique and the MPLA of Angola. 

The leaders of the military, intelligence and security wings, given the nature of an armed struggle, often over time come to dominate the leadership, decisions and ideologies of these movements. 

When the movement eventually comes to power, the military, intelligence and security groups are powerful and often decide who the party leader should be. Often when on the verge of losing power, the military steps in to keep the party in control of government. In some cases, long-time leaders may want to step down, but military, intelligence and security cadres would put pressure on them not to. 

As the battered ANC, weighed down by corruption, mismanagement and poor service delivery under President Jacob Zuma’s faction, now faces the prospect of either having to form a coalition to stay in power or lose out entirely in the 2019 national elections, the question is whether dominant ANC factions will accept defeat. 

So far, of the family of African liberation movements with armed wings, only Cape Verde’s African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV), has voluntarily given up power. In 1991, the PAICV lost to the opposition Movement for Democracy, and gave up power without a fight. 

Then PAICV leader Pedro Pires, who was one of the leading commanders of the armed wing of the PAIGV, resisted pressure from his militant peers to stay in power by unconstitutional means. 

After giving up power peacefully, the PAICV did return to govern after genuine introspection on the opposition benches brought humility, new ideas and fresh blood. The PAICV has since distinguished itself as the best governing, left-of-centre African liberation movement that also had an armed wing. 

Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), under pressure from ordinary Algerian citizens demanding freedom, allowed the first multiparty parliamentary elections in the post-liberation era in 1991, which the opposition Islamist Salvation Front (ISF) won.

However, the Algerian military, dominated by the FLN’s former military wing, staged a coup against the ISF, sparking the bloody Algerian Civil War. 

In 2008, the Zimbabwean military informally and violently intervened when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential elections, spiking the former trade union leader and Movement for Democratic Change's (MDC) opportunity to replace Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF. 

In Mozambique, the former armed wing and commanders of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) have a strong grip on the party leadership, who gets elected president and key government decisions. Party leaders would rather resist the opposition with violence than lose power, even in provinces or municipalities.  

Similarly, in Angola, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) is dominated by the commanders of its former armed wing. 

Often, the only way to get these parties out of power, is for them to break apart or through coups, as in the case of the PAIGC of Guinea Bissau. 

In the ANC, although the military by the 1980s had increasingly played an influential role, it never dominated power as much as in sister African liberation movements. Power was more dispersed within the ANC: there were the internal United Democratic Front, the allied trade unions, civil society and church groups, which emphasised mass action, rather than military insurrection. 

In the post-apartheid era, although the ANC has been dominant, societal power has also been more widely dispersed. There is countervailing power in South Africa’s opposition parties, business, the media and civil society. South Africa has increasingly seen a rise in "activist" constitutional, democratic and oversight institutions, such as the Constitutional Court, the Auditor-General and former public protector Thuli Madonsela who hold public and elected leaders accountable.  

More recently, citizens have increasingly become more active, holding the ANC to account. South Africa’s more sophisticated markets, number of large corporates and capacitated financial institutions that play an oversight role over government, have further added to the diffusion of power. 

The transfer of power from the ANC to opposition parties will not be abrupt as in other African governments where liberation movements are in charge. With the ANC already having lost the Western Cape to the Democratic Alliance (DA), having been in opposition in KwaZulu-Natal for a decade, and since the local elections in August 2016, also in three major cities as well as smaller towns, its members and supporters have gradually become used to it as an opposition party.  

Furthermore, the number of significant breakaways from the ANC under the Zuma presidency, such as the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have also meant that ANC members gradually over time have become used to the ANC not being the only legitimate representative of liberation traditions, struggle credentials and culture. 

Even with Cyril Ramaphosa as leader, the damage done by the Zuma presidency has been so devastating, that many ANC supporters will change their vote to opposition parties in the 2019 elections, meaning the ANC may still win, but with under 50% of the vote, which will necessitate the party to go into coalition to govern. 

Gradually losing power, as is the case with the ANC, means it will be difficult for the party to retain control by unconstitutional means, if it is outvoted, as has been the case with its liberation cousins, the FLN and Zanu-PF. 

- William Gumede is Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand's School of Governance and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times

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