JOHANNESBURG — In the last six months, at least three new political movements have emerged in South Africa with a bold plan to challenge the dominant African National Congress ahead of 2014 elections. Amid their rhetoric that the ANC has let the country down and that real change is needed, there is a nagging question: can they pull it off?
Today’s South Africa is the continent’s most vibrant democracy, but it has been led exclusively by one party for the last two decades: the African National Congress.
There is a new group of challengers with high-profile South African personalities, including a stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, a slew of former freedom fighters and a firebrand politician who was expelled from the ANC for disciplinary reasons.
South African activist and anti-apartheid stalwart Mamphela Ramphele said many citizens of the “Rainbow Nation” feel their government has failed them in key sectors such as health, education, economic growth, and safety. “And they say, you know, ‘in the past we were poor, but we had hope. Now we have lost hope,” she stated.
Those are not new or unique sentiments -- and neither is Ramphele’s proposed solution to form a new party. Just this week, expelled ANC Youth League member Julius Malema joined the fray, saying he also plans to launch a political party. A third party led by former anti-apartheid fighters announced its formation in April.
Ramphele’s policy goals are vague -- she said she will outline them when the party, called Agang, officially launches next month. Failing that, Agang seems stuck in the traditional role of African opposition parties: principally defined by their opposition.
By contrast, the aims of Malema’s future party are clear. He said he wants to "restore the dignity of blacks" and lead an "onslaught against a white male monopoly capital" in a nation that still bears deep scars after the end of apartheid. He said he intends to achieve that by nationalizing mines and redistributing land without compensation.
Ibrahim Fakir, an analyst with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, said the new parties have more than just the ANC to worry about. Since none has the resources or organization to beat the large, well-organized ANC, he said, their real competition is each other.
“The opposition parties, I’m afraid, are going to be fishing for votes in the same pool because very few of them have distinguished themselves to such an extent that they’re appealing to particular and specific constituencies in the South African polity," Fakir stated. "And here I am talking about how they’re going to craft an election campaign message which is going to differ distinctively from what the ANC actually offers in practical terms.”
Another factor that none of the new parties seems to have acknowledged is that their plans may only work if they manage to win a majority -- or manage to bring around the ANC on issues.
The latter is not likely, according to ANC spokesman Keith Khoza.
“Mamphela Ramphele is learning to be a politician and she wants to play politics and to be relevant. And she will say anything and everything that will draw attention of people to herself," he explained. "The reality is that South Africa has improved since since 1994. The quality of life in South Africa has improved. The economy has been stable, people now have access to water and electricity, we have expanded access to education and healthcare, and whoever has this idea that we are failing the people of South Africa, it means that Mamphela Ramphele has not been in touch with reality.”
Khoza’s suggestion to Ramphele: if you want to bring change to South Africa, join the ANC.
But that trend seems to be going in the opposite direction, with frustrated urban voters looking to the opposition and new alternatives sprouting ahead of what promises to be an interesting vote next year.