How the ANC could fade away

Pierre du Toit writes on the ruling party’s travails in the context of the experiences of other dominant parties

The 2021 local government elections have been hailed as significant, with some analysts seeing it as a decisive turning point, to be repeated at the next general election in 2024, in which they anticipate that the ruling ANC will lose its parliamentary majority.

On what basis can one make such a calculation?

More generally, what do we have to consider when predicting the end of the dominant party system which the ANC and its voters have built since 1994?

We need to identify not only the resources that were used to establish ANC dominance, but also to assess their renewability, crucial to sustaining ANC rule.

A comparative overview of how other dominant party systems evolved follows using the Southern African cases of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe and the developing countries of India, Taiwan, Mexico and South Korea as reference points.

The historic moment

A major event of national or even international significance, which led to domestic regime change, has proven to be a highly effective ideological launching pad for establishing party dominance.

Decolonization, or democratization inaugurated new democratic regimes and the post-liberation movements in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe as well as the Congress Party in India not only won the inaugural elections but claimed for themselves the pivotal leadership role in these historic events.

In Taiwan the Kuomintang Party (KMT) used its historic relocation from mainland China as a claim to political legitimacy and in South Korea (hence just Korea) the memory of the brutal Japanese occupation from 1910 to the end of World War II was used by Park Chung-Hee in his ascendancy to power.

The newly liberated mass of citizens then became a de facto “historic block” of voters, mostly ardent loyalists.

The durability of this ideological claim can be stretched with the effective use of political imagery and symbols which remind citizens of the seemingly inextricable link between liberation history, the ruling party, and the formal trappings of the state.

Cast against this backdrop elections then becomes an event for the dominant party to generate “flashback moments” to remind voters to whom the owe their newly found freedom.

This historic event is however not renewable and is subject to erosion by generational change among the electorate. The historic block of voters ages, sometimes quite rapidly as was the case in India, but apparently less so in Namibia.

The 2021 local government election campaign by the ANC was notably absent of attempts to generate support by pressing the button on past wrongs and subsequent liberation. And the crumbling of their historic block of support was nowhere more noticeable than among the urban youth of Soweto.


Culture expressed in ethnicity provides a more enduring resource than a single pivotal event rooted in the receding memories of citizens, but also tends to be largely fixed in terms of demographic presence.

In both Zimbabwe and Namibia core ethnic support, from the Shona and Owambo communities respectively, did provide the launching platforms for ZANU-PF and SWAPO, without such identity being overtly pitched as the main electoral drawcard.

What was decisive in both cases, as well as in South Africa, was the white/black divide, so overwhelmingly present in both the past and present of all these countries, with Botswana as the notable exception.

Once salient, culture can become a highly volatile resource for any political party, especially one which aims to dominate the electoral arena for decades. In South Africa cultural blocks can sub-divide and re-subdivide, and often contain incipient divisions some of which can mutually reinforce one another. The crucial potential debilitating factor of culture is that it can (reinforced by other socio-economic fault-lines) provide the bedrock of factional divisions.

The presence of factions and the way dominant parties have dealt with them appears to be a major if not decisive factor in shaping the durability of dominant parties, the quality of democracy within those regimes, and the likelihood of the emergence of a stable multi-party system.

In India, Korea and Taiwan all the dominant parties had to contend with factions, and they all did so successfully through nimble tactics of incorporation. All these factions were of a non-ethnic nature, providing a clear distinction from the Southern African cases mentioned above. Our 2021 elections provide some clues to the nature of the challenge presented by the emergent factions in South Africa. More about this below.

Charismatic leaders

Charisma is a highly valued but exceedingly scarce non-renewable resource that cannot be manufactured, copied, multiplied, constitutionally engineered or cultivated. It is vested in the personal attributes of gifted individuals who arrive in leadership positions through unique personal, social and political histories.

This resource is present in a number of our cases. Robert Mugabe and Sam Nujoma were prominent leaders but less than charismatic. In India Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru were charismatic leaders with global influence, as was Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. In Southern Africa Botswana’s Seretse Khama legacy is one that continues to be respected and admired.

Nelson Mandela is first among equals in this field, with a remarkable personal history who ended his career as global icon of a leader as a benign peacemaker, a role model to many, and who rose above every kind of adversity that confronted him.

None of the current leaders of the Southern African cases we look at show charismatic leadership qualities and our current leader, President Ramaphosa, also weighs in at the lower end of this scale.

Constitutional Rules

Constitutional rules that make it easier for winning parties to keep on winning are obvious resource assets and rules that inhibit repetitive electoral victories by one party are equally obvious liabilities.

Botswana represents a clear cut case of the former. Its inaugural constitution awards vast powers to the Presidency in an otherwise parliamentary system creating a winner-takes-all result. In addition, the parliamentary elections are constituency based, using a FPTP vote-counting rule, with only relative majorities needed to win. This has led to consistent overrepresentation of the dominant Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), who have yet to lose a parliamentary election, and hence, the Presidency.

The process of rule changes through constitutional amendment makes these rules a renewable resource. But one of our cases show that unexpected, unplanned and unforeseen consequences can flow from new electoral systems.

In Taiwan the KMT lost its 50-year dominant position with the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The new government under President Chen Shui-bian then submitted under widespread pressure to reforming the electoral system, which was duly enacted in 2005. In the very next elections in 2008, the KMT alliance promptly returned to power with an overwhelming majority, capturing both parliament and the Presidency.

South Africa also faces the prospect of a new electoral system. In early 2021 the Constitutional Court ruled that an amended system be adopted which allows for independent candidates to stand at provincial and national level while still retaining proportional outcomes. Can this produce another as improbable result as happened in Taiwan?


The power of appointment vested in executive authorities provide direct access to lucrative career positions for successful candidates, who invariably have to qualify by virtue of personal loyalty to the executive authority in question, and/or to the ruling party. Few dominant parties have been able to resist abusing this resource, which was used by many, from Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), through to Korea and Taiwan.

In South Africa the by now infamous practice of so-called “cadre deployment”, where the ruling ANC blatantly appoints party loyalists to key positions in the state and parastatals has been a centerpiece of capturing these sites as part of the overall ideological project of establishing hegemony. This elevates loyalty and accountability to the party above that of the constitution, and has gravely affected state capacity.

Material Goods

Arguably the most effective resource for maintaining dominance is for the ruling party to gain fairly unrestricted access to a large and growing financial base funded by taxpayers. This can be used in many ways to sustain the ruling party, one of which is to reward large sectors of the electorate with tangible benefits in the form of selective allocation of public goods. Partisan allocations of many kinds can secure loyal blocks of voters for many decades, with the PRI in Mexico as the leading example.

Botswana appears as a striking counter-example. The ruling BDP built up the state’s financial capacity with impressive prudence and self-control. They avoided the resource curse when the huge diamond deposits were discovered and insisted that the state is allocated a 50% share of the profits of Debswana.

This windfall was not squandered on vanity projects but was distributed through various developmental projects with meticulous fairness and discipline, securing a deep legitimacy for the ruling party for decades.

The benefits have been enduring, with Botswana rising from being the world’s third poorest country at independence in 1965 to becoming a successful developmental state and an upper-middle-income-country by the close of the 20th century.

Equally impressive has been the state management of the private sector economies of Korea and Taiwan. Sustained growth over decades provides wealth not only to the state party but also to voters, through a highly renewable and expandable resource.

The ruling ANC is embarrassingly absent from this group of over-achievers. Economic stagnation of close to a decade in which growth rates have barely registered positive, and a corresponding negative impact on the tax base of the state has lead us perilously close to de facto insolvency. Unemployment keeps rising, leading directly to deeper poverty and rising inequality.

Within this dismal socio-economic context, however, an underappreciated source of electoral strength for the ANC is found. For the unemployed and unemployables, the destitute and the poor, a lifeline has been created over the last two decades in the form of an extended social grants system, delivered to beneficiaries in a monthly payout.

For millions of South Africans these grants are key to survival and a form of deep dependence on the state and its managers, the ruling party, from which very few can and will be able to disentangle themselves.

It is naïve in the extreme to think that the ANC election campaigners will not find it opportune to remind their voters who are in this vulnerable position of the source of this lifeline, with the implied threat that a vote for other parties may/can/will jeopardize these continued monthly payouts.

Opposition parties, especially the DA, seem to be keenly aware of this uneven playing field, and have tried to outbid the ANC with a proposal for a national minimum payment, similar to what was called the dole in the welfare state of the UK.

To date this has not seemed to be persuasive, and promises to this effect are unlikely to find traction with desperate people whose time horizon extends no further than the date of next month’s payout. Given their marginal position they are likely to be highly averse to taking risks with their only lifeline, so the best, and even most rational bet for them is to play it as safe as possible.

Good fortune

The ascendance and durability of dominant parties are also shaped by resources that are forthcoming from external parties or withheld by them. Favourable or adverse conditions within the international context can also be decisive.

The stunning economic performances of Taiwan and Korea was not only the outcome of domestic growth dynamics, but was also driven by massive American economic aid. This was part of their Cold War contest with the then Soviet Union and its allies, and was intended to show to the world that free market economies can outperform Communist one-party centralised economic systems.

The ending of the Cold War also provided a favourable context for democratic transition in South Africa, of which the ANC has thus far been the main beneficiary.

In sum, this overview of the shifting resource base of the ANC highlights a crucial point: their ability or lack of it to contend with factions within their own ranks. Thus far the party has contained factions by disbursing patronage all round.

This is most evident to the outsider when looking at President Ramaphosa’s current cabinet, a very large assembly with almost every persuasion and interest formation being represented. More generally factions are rewarded from the spoils generated by the process of state capture, as outlined in their 1997 strategic policy documents.

To ensure that patronage remains a renewable resource, state capture had to endure, with new sites of power and money continually added to the catch, if not through deft social engineering, then through corruption. The tactical sharp end of this ideology (often called the National Democratic Revolution) was policies of affirmative action, black economic empowerment and above all, cadre deployment.

But, as James Myburgh (Rapport 7th November 2021) has shown, all of this has produced a paradoxical result. Cadre deployment, was intended as a means to the end of securing ANC hegemony (i.e., rule into perpetuity, or, as Jacob Zuma expressed it in religious metaphor, until Jesus returns).

What has in fact been achieved, is for the institutions of state as a mechanism for delivering the most basic of public goods (clean water, electricity, sanitation, health care, physical safety) to be critically weakened, and in some towns, effectively paralyzed.

With that the resources that universally go with incumbency of the state evaporate, and instead it has become the albatross hanging around the ANC’s neck. Escalating service delivery failure has become the inescapable hallmark of ANC rule and is at the core of its 2021 electoral setbacks.

This paradox is a stunning and cruel illustration of the general proposition expressed by Aldous Huxley in 1937, that “The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced”.

Floating voters or floating factions of voters?

Do the 2021 local elections in South Africa show that we are at a watershed moment? If so, what does the evidence of declining support for the two major parties, along with a massive stay-away vote indicate?

The shift in partisan support away from the established big parties could indicate that the electorate is fragmenting into new blocks capable of reorganizing themselves into coherent ideological formations.

The ever-growing number of smaller parties and the large number of voters who abstained from casting their ballots could rather indicate that the electorate is crumbling into an incoherent mass of unstructured opinions incapable of being remobilized into the political party system.

Support for the interpretation of a fragmenting electorate is found in the view of Frans Cronje (see Rapport 7/11/2021). He sees in the election result as the outlines of two new electoral blocks. On the hard left he finds the ANC and its younger sibling the EFF. He does not take factions within the ANC into account.

At the other end of the scale Cronje senses a broad conservative configuration of floating factions developing, ranging from the Christian ACDP, to the Afrikaner nationalists in the VFPlus, the ethnocentric IFP, the DA, now again a classic liberal party, and the African conservative ActionSA. (Is there room for an ANC faction here?) Should they be able to coalesce into an able alliance these parties can, according to Cronje effectively challenge the ANC in the 2024 election.

The alternate interpretation of a crumbling party system makes sense only when it is envisioned within a broader context of social, economic and political decay. In this scenario the central institutions of any state, the police and armed forces, shatter through infighting and factional rivalry.

This opens up social space for criminal syndicates and warlords (already present) to lay waste to civil society, unravelling many of the remaining networks of social and communal capital that provide social cohesion, with an attendant spread of ungovernable zones.

The remaining core institutions of the state such as SARS will then also crumble leaving only enclaves of order, who then will have to put it all together again. If they fail the violent insurrection and anarchy of early 2021 in KZN and parts of Gauteng could become the norm. At its extreme state collapse, as is now unfolding in Lebanon becomes inevitable.

Electoral defeat: will the ANC step down?

In democracies dominant party rule ends with defeat at the ballot box. In India, Mexico, Taiwan and Korea dominant parties accepted the result and more or less graciously stepped aside. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe responded to the ZANU-PF’s defeat in the constitutional referendum of 2000 by taking his party and his country in the other direction: an assault on civil society and the rule of law, ethnic cleansing of the remaining white farmers, and the collapse of the modern sector of the economy.

What can we anticipate from the ANC? Much depends on the following considerations: the factional balance of power within the ANC (how strong/weak will the RET faction be by then), the state of the economy (with respect to sources of patronage, levels of inequality, unemployment and poverty), and the extent of polarisation within the electorate, and hence, the party system immediately after the election.

Polarisation can be driven by many factors, but one decisive one will be found in the nature of the 2024 election campaign. This will in turn to a very large extent, be a function of the rules of the new electoral system under which the election is conducted.

A set of electoral rules that provide incentives and rewards for moderation can generate a momentum towards mutual accommodation, making it easier for the dominant party to concede, as they have already done many times at the local and provincial level.

Other rules can reward confrontation and hostility, a context within which it becomes ever harder to step aside. Finding the right new electoral system is at a premium. The stakes can hardly be higher.

Pierre du Toit.