South Africa: A future with many unknowns

Discontent with president Zuma is growing. In the last local election the ANC lost the main cities. Many think towards his replacement. The future leader could be his ex-wife: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The scandals that in recent years involved the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, have called into question his ability to govern. They have also cast shadows over the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party since 1994. Press campaigns against the President focused on his residence in Nkandla (renovated with public money) and his friendship with the Guptas (a controversial family of entrepreneurs), resulted in a backlash for Zuma and the ANC. The popular discontent translated into votes for the opposition in the August 2016 local elections. Zuma and his supporters are determined not to hand power to the opposition, and this justifies fear of a phase of instability and violence in the African country in the short to medium term.


To stop a hemorrhage of consensus, Zuma and his partners have relied heavily on the card of fear of chaos and disorder. The basic idea they tried to convey was simple: the ANC is the party of progress and stability. Those who vote against it (and thus for the opposition) push South Africa into the abyss. This is a clear reference to Julius Malema. He is the founder of the radical leftist party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), as well as the former leader of the ANC youth wing who entered into collision with Zuma himself. Malema and his followers have made violent opposition (until now mostly verbal) to the head of state one of their distinguishing features. On several occasions they have disturbed the work of the parliament until they were expelled, in order to prevent Zuma from speaking. But, if the EFF seems to be the main target for the supporters of the President, for years the main opposition to the ANC has been the Democratic Alliance (DA).


The DA, a centrist party which before the elections already governed the Western Cape Province and Cape Town, has always been seen in and out of South Africa as the party of the white minority. To break this stereotype and broaden its electoral base, in May 2015, the leadership of the DA chose Mmusi Maimane, a politician and a pastor of a Protestant church, as its first black leader.
But the ANC leaders have pointed the finger at foreign enemies, who are allegedly pushing for a change of leadership in South Africa. Gwede Mantashe, Secretary General of the ANC, accused the US of working in this direction and spoke of regular meetings that allegedly take place in the US Embassy in South Africa. The purpose of these meetings is allegedly to mobilize various elements (not clearly identified) for a regime change. 

The August elections

The local elections resulted in a major blow for the ANC and Zuma. The ANC garnered 54% of the vote on a national level, but for the first time was defeated in cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, now ruled by the DA. The only major center governed by the ANC is Durban, a Zuma stronghold. Zuma’s party lost in comparison with 2011 local elections. The DA got 27%, and gained the support of black South Africans. The EFF at its first local election won only 8% of the national vote. But in places like Johannesburg it became a sort of kingmaker when it decided to create a coalition with the DA to beat the ANC. Many commentators saw the vote as a referendum on Zuma. The fact of losing support (also while winning) is a primary threat to the President. The loss of votes could push the ANC leadership to marginalize if not replace him.


The first name mentioned when talking about a possible successor to Zuma is that of his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, but he is not the only one. Another possible challenger is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s ex wife and the President of the African Union.

Tensions on the horizon

Many of the profiles of Zuma written by South African (and foreign) journalists voice the opinion of the country’s urban elite and its overseas partners. That is, of a minority of the nation. Zuma and the ANC in South Africa, and especially in rural areas, still enjoy a solid consensus. It was built over the years through networks of efficient and ramified patronage. For the inhabitants of these areas, issues such as legal actions for corruption against the President are in some ways academic. These people have concrete problems of survival, which the ANC has not tried to solve with development policies (as one might expect) but with populist measures, such as the distribution of goods (which apparently work).


This proven system of power, however, could begin to crumble due to the rise of the opposition and the economic difficulties that the country faces and to which the ruling party has not found an answer. The August elections showed that voters are now more interested in ‘practical’ issues (unemployment, good governance, corruption, etc.) than in the race question. Political tension is rising and this could lead to clashes and political violence. In May 2016 the leader of the ANC youth wing, Collen Maine, in a public speech launched appeals for a ‘war’ against the EFF. Some ANC leaders criticized Maine. But the South African press has already reported episodes of opposition meetings disturbed if not impeded by ANC militants. The danger is that the bellicose rhetoric of some political leaders may lead to violence and deaths.

Andrea Carbonari



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