In 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years' imprisonment in South Africa, he noted in his first speech to a waiting world: "I am a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress. I am therefore in full agreement with all of its objectives, strategies and tactics." His iconic status helped sustain the ANC over the next decade and a half as it transformed itself from a liberation movement into an electorally unassailable democratic government.
That unity unraveled last week. In short order, the party membership of former national chairman Mosiuoa Lekota was suspended after he claimed that the ANC had moved away from its founding principles. Mbhazima Shilowa, the former premier of South Africa's wealthiest province, Gauteng, resigned from the party. Both said they would call a national convention early next month with a view toward forming a new opposition party. This dramatic rupture in South Africa's ruling behemoth, which won nearly 70 percent of the vote in the 2004 election and governs the country's nine provinces and all but one of its major cities, creates hope that my country's somewhat sclerotic political system will be rejuvenated.
The seeds of this discontent can be traced to December, when the arrogant Thabo Mbeki was ousted as party president by the populist but ethically challenged Jacob Zuma, and even earlier to Zuma's 2005 ouster as deputy president of South Africa after he was implicated in a corruption case. The democratic defenestration of the once all-powerful Mbeki and his ejection from the country's presidency last month have unleashed waves of disaffection that could lead to a reconfiguration of South Africa's largely one-party politics. Both Lekota and Shilowa are key Mbeki allies, and while Mbeki has not yet signaled his support for the incipient party, other ANC grandees who exited the government in solidarity with Mbeki may pitch their tents alongside them.
I was a close observer of the ANC in power, having led the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, in parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2004. Despite my movement's strong anti-apartheid origins, pro-poor policies and liberal political program, the ANC branded us "the white party" in particular reference to my skin color. That did wonders for the Democratic Alliance in minority communities, but it excluded us from any meaningful share of the majority-black vote. Race mobilization helped the ANC secure its overwhelming majorities. By invoking ethnic solidarity and the struggle against apartheid, Mbeki kept restive and increasingly contradictory constituencies -- from black billionaires to rural peasants -- under one tent.
At least if a new party is formed, this "race card" will be ineffective against it. In addition to claiming credit for defeating apartheid, each party would attempt to outdo the other in loyalty to the "real core" of the ANC. Unlike previous schisms in the ANC's nearly 100-year history, this split is neither purely ideological nor tribal. Shilowa, for example, has strayed far from his trade union roots, and he and his powerful wife have amassed a fortune under government-directed "black empowerment" deals. Zuma and those who remain in the ANC government are surrounded by rich businessmen, including former politicians such as Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa, who both ran afoul of Mbeki. And with the ethnic factor largely absent, both sides will have support across tribal lines. More worrisome is the attitude of some activists and dissidents. Some of Zuma's supporters, especially his allies in the ANC Youth League, have announced that they would "kill for Zuma." The ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, has described members of the judiciary as "counter-revolutionary." Others feel humiliated by the brutal ousting of Mbeki and his supporters and resent their exclusion from power.
It is good that they wish to regain influence via the polls. But South African soil has remained stony to newcomers to the opposition. Still, this could be the country's most significant post-apartheid political division and could make the outcome of April's election less predictable. In some combination or coalition, the old and new opposition forces could easily win control of the three most significant provinces: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. Significant growth in the number of opposition members of parliament is also likely. The ANC's overwhelming majority in South Africa's past three elections has allowed it to retain the trappings of multiparty democracy while depriving parliament of any meaningful role. In many respects, South Africa has begun to resemble a one-party state where major decisions are made by the party executive, not the national assembly. A larger and more racially diverse combination of opposition forces could significantly help to restore meaning and content to South Africa's vital but somewhat hobbled democracy.
*Published 23 October 2008 in the Washington Post