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South Africa’s ruling party is going after corrupt leaders. That’s only half the problem.

Even low-level offices can bring wealth, so people are killing each other to gain election.

- May 5, 2021
A September 2017 protest organized by the South African trade union COSATU in Cape Town, South Africa to call for an end to corruption in the administration of President Jacob Zuma (cc) Discott, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editors’ note: South Africans vote in national and provincial elections on May 29, 2024. Thirty years after South Africa’s first democratic elections officially ended the apartheid regime, what are the challenges facing the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party? This analysis by Patrick Pierson was originally published in the Washington Post on May 21, 2021.

In late April 2021, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the head of the African National Congress (ANC), announced that this year’s much-anticipated local government elections would take place on Oct. 27.

Just hours later, ANC spokesman Pule Mabe spoke with reporters about the upcoming elections, but the context was quite different. Mabe expressed shock at the arrest of ANC party member and local councilor Lucky Mbuzi in connection with the killing of a fellow ANC member, Mduduzi Madikizela.

Madikizela’s death isn’t a tragic aberration. Political violence is a regular feature of local politics in post-apartheid South Africa, part of a broader phenomenon of competition and conflict at the heart of the ANC.

Corruption flourished within the ANC

Since coming to power in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, the ANC has dominated South Africa’s electoral landscape, winning more than 50 percent of the vote in each round of national and local elections.

The party’s long-standing anti-apartheid credentials help maintain credibility with the country’s Black African majority — founded in 1912, the ANC is often heralded as the continent’s oldest liberation movement. But many party members also leveraged this popular support for political and personal enrichment.

Speaking in 2001, shortly after his term as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela chastised many of his co-partisans for abandoning their democratic principles once in office: “Little did we suspect that our own people, when they got a chance, would be as corrupt as the apartheid regime. That is one of the things that has really hurt us.”

If the signs were there in 2001, graft and mismanagement reached new heights during the 2009-2018 presidency of Jacob Zuma. While details remain murky, observers estimate that some 1.2 trillion rand ($85 billion) was plundered from government coffers during Zuma’s tenure.

Testifying last week in his capacity as the top member of the ruling African National Congress, Ramaphosa spent two long days answering questions from the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, a specially appointed judicial body tasked with uncovering the depths of corruption during Zuma’s nearly nine years in office.

The focus of the Zondo Commission is primarily limited to graft and corruption at the uppermost reaches of the party and the government, a dynamic underscored by the two primary factions within the ANC — one group is under the leadership of Ramaphosa, while the other remains loyal to Zuma. The Zuma faction is led by ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule, a member of the party’s influential “Top Six,” the central power-brokers at the top of the party hierarchy.

Magashule, who rose to power while premier of Free State province, faces a variety of charges related to his time in office, including 74 counts of corruption. Ramaphosa is trying to sideline Magashule under the party’s “step-aside” resolution, which calls on members charged with corruption and other serious crimes to step down until their cases are heard in court.

The ANC’s National Executive Committee gave Magashule an April 30 deadline to step away from his role as secretary general, but he refused to budge. The party leadership now looks set to back Ramaphosa, reaffirming their support for the step-aside resolution and threatening a party suspension for those — including Magashule — who refuse to comply. On Wednesday, Magashule fired back by appealing the suspension and publishing a letter suspending the president himself from the ANC, a move the party maintains he does not have authority to pursue.

Grass-roots competition, municipal services, and violence

As this intraparty drama unfolds at the national level, lower-level competition among ANC rivals is less sophisticated — and much more violent. My research on political assassinations in South Africa, for instance, found that more than 90 percent of the 140-plus assassination attempts between 2000 and 2019 targeted municipal councilors, the country’s lowest-level elected officials.

As part of the country’s Batho Pele, or “People First,” approach to governance, service delivery is directed by local councilors, the elected officials most proximate to everyday South Africans. In practice, this means local politicians have significant power over who receives often-lucrative contracts for municipal services. This influence gives councilors opportunities for kickbacks and other forms of corruption.

Barriers to entry are low — there are no formal education requirements for local councilors — and the potential upside to securing office is enormous. In a country where unemployment hovers around 30 percent — and often more than 50 percent for the younger generation — political office represents one of the surefire ways to gain influence and resources. And in a country dominated by the ANC, securing a seat on the ANC ticket is often step one in the process.

As a result, much of the political violence in South Africa is concentrated within the ANC as would-be politicians vie for control of the party apparatus at the local level. Local branches play a critical role in determining who is on the ballot and, as a result, party elective conferences are hotly contested by aspiring politicians.

As just one example, local elites often hand out cash to party members ahead of branch elective conferences in an effort to influence the ANC party list. Politicians also manipulate internal ANC voter rolls with “ghost members” to inflate membership numbers and sway the locus of control within the party. Just last month, the party’s national leadership suspended all ANC branch general meetings in Mpumalanga province after several meetings erupted in violence.

What does this mean for reform in South Africa?

South Africa’s president is no stranger to walking the political tightrope. As the ANC’s lead negotiator in the early 1990s, Ramaphosa helped secure a transition to “one person, one vote” democratic elections while avoiding a race-based civil war.

The ANC’s current efforts to usher in a post-Zuma “new dawn” are gaining traction, but the corruption runs much deeper than the power politics playing out in the newspapers. Renewal of the party — and, with it, the South African government — will require a much heavier lift than most realize.

Patrick Pierson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. Follow him on Twitter @plpierson.