“If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”
Leading up to the death of Nelson Mandela, international observers spent considerable time debating what state South Africa would find itself in when it lost its beloved tata. As it were, Madiba’s death in December 2013 brought the country together in many ways: South Africa, contrary to popular theory, did not immediately descend into chaos, but rather, the country collectively mourned and celebrated the life of the iconic anti-apartheid leader.
Now, however, South Africans find themselves asking a difficult question: how best to preserve the legacy of one of the most legendary figures in history? Much of South Africa entrusts the African National Congress – Mandela’s own party – with the responsibility of pushing forward his pursuit of democracy, equality and justice. Yet, much of the black South African population is actually more disadvantaged today than during the apartheid era. Dissent and protests, often demanding mere basic services, are widespread in the country. Despite this, wildly unpopular current president and ANC candidate Jacob Zuma is still likely to prevail in the national election this May in the wake of recent fractures in South Africa’s primary opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
Lately, a number of observers suggest that the preservation of Mandela’s legacy necessarily entails voting the ANC out of power in the upcoming election, suggesting that the ANC going unchallenged poses an obstacle to the institution of South African democracy. Through 20 years in power, the ANC has grown increasingly corrupt: instead of debates spanning the South African political arena, most take place within the party; and government-owned corporations benefit from exclusive access to state contracts. Arguably most importantly, absent any real political competition, the ANC is unmotivated to pursue improvements to the state, rendering voters virtually powerless. (One South African voter commented he “’would never make the mistake’ of voting again because ‘these people forget who put them in power.”’)
Corruption and growing inequality aside, the ANC continues to be perceived as the party of Mandela (he even left money to the ANC in his will), and to vote it out of power suggests to some that “…one would have to effectively vote against Mandela himself,” – a perception that the ANC has capitalized on, convincing black South African voters that they would be traitors to vote against them. Furthermore, while some rival parties have found success regionally, there is little hope that any could win a national election against the ANC. Simply, none has had the backing of the country’s national hero.
In South Africa, the image of Nelson Mandela is synonymous with the idea of South African democracy, equality and justice, as well as the ANC. But given the party’s shortcomings over its two decades in power, the ANC’s associations, in addition to its attachment to Mandela, now include political dominance, corruption, and stalled progress on human development. Mandela himself said, however, if the ANC begins to mirror apartheid-era politics, South Africans have a responsibility to remove the party from power. In order for South Africa to adequately preserve Mandela’s legacy and prioritize democracy, voters must separate the ideal of Mandela’s ANC from the ANC of today, and consider political alternatives.