The ANC is not Zanu PF; South Africa is not Zimbabwe

Brendan von Essen
The News Hub

A COMMON fear among South Africa’s middle class is the belief that we are but a knife edge away from “turning into Zimbabwe”; essentially the rise of a police state kleptocracy accompanied by spectacular economic collapse. This fear becomes increasingly shrill every time the South African government engages in a foolish endeavour, or a corruption scandal emerges.

Thanks to the recent explosion of public infighting between factions of the ANC and President Jacob Zuma’s apparent desire to seize control of the National Treasury the fear of South Africa’s Zimbabwefication has reached full-blown panic. This is frankly ridiculous, the ANC is NOT Zanu PF and South Africa is definitely NOT Zimbabwe.

Different Histories

Although both are national liberation movements, the ANC and Zanu PF have had vastly different histories. The ANC was founded 73 years earlier and has always had a long history of pursuing a non-racist, non-sexist South Africa and while it has been falling short of this endeavour for several years, this ideal is still firmly rooted in the organisation’s official philosophy.

Zanu PF, however, was formed from a strategic merger between the ZANU and ZAPU national liberation movements during Zimbabwe’s liberation war. It should also be noted, that Zanu PF’s struggle success was rooted in military conflict with the Rhodesian state. The ANC, despite fighting a proxy war with the Apartheid regime in Angola, owes its success due to the protest movements of its proxies, the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Mass Democratic Movement much more than its military endeavours.

Leadership changes

Importantly the ANC has proven capable of changing its leaders and presidents. In the post-Apartheid era, the party has had three presidents, whereas Robert Mugabe has controlled Zanu PF since 1987 (and ZANU since 1975). He has suffered no challenges to his leadership and centred power firmly on himself.

The ANC, by contrast, has regularly had contested election conferences and even though Zuma is a deeply unpopular president the fact that he was elected over the incumbent Thabo Mbeki, who wanted to continue to remain in power, was a significant democratic step for the organisation. So while factions of the ANC may be guilty of looting state resources and wishing to ensure access to lines of patronage, the party will continue to have leadership changes and thus prevent the rise of a dictatorship within the party.

Strength of Institutions

Quite simply, South Africa has always had stronger and better development institutions than Zimbabwe. The country’s court system is effective, even if somewhat overburdened. Time and time again the judiciary has fulfilled its role in restraining the power of the state. The Public Protector has investigated several high-powered individuals, including the president and has been supported by the Constitutional Court. The South African Reserve Bank has proven to be fiercely independent and is a pinnacle of sound monetary policy and central bank autonomy. Zimbabwe has never really had such strong institutions and the courts have long been lackies of the Mugabe regime.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has lived up to its name and proven to hold free and fair elections. This was most evident during this year’s municipal elections, during which the ANC suffered it most severe electoral losses to date, losing several municipalities including some major cities. This was also the first elections under the new IEC chairperson, Glen Mashinini, who many thought would be an ANC and Zuma ally. Yet, the IEC performed its role admirably and even opposition parties and observers were satisfied with the institution's performance.

Even parliament, which is majority controlled by the ANC, has largely been functioning. The country has an increasingly strong opposition, both in the longstanding Democratic Alliance (DA) and the new vocal Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). These two parties have succeeded in ensuring that government excess is highlighted and have even dragged the government to court over major issues.

South Africa also has a strong independent media which is free to criticise and investigate the government in a manner which has never been allowed in Zimbabwe. They have broken stories about government excess and neglect, most notably the outrageous expenditure on the president’s homestead in Nkandla. Even the comically sycophantic public broadcaster, the SABC, has been forced by the courts to reverse some of its unconstitutional editorial policies.


Over 60% of South Africa’s population lives in urban or para-urban areas allowing them greater access to information and an increased ability to mobilise. When Zanu PF’s majority in Zimbabwe's urban areas began to dwindle and the party’s electoral dominance was threatened, Mugabe was able to turn to the country’s vast rural population for support.

Thus for the last 15 years or so Zanu PF has been a rural party drawing minimal support from the major urban areas such as Harare and Bulawayo. The ANC simply does not have this option. If a political party was to be dependent on rural votes in South Africa it would lose power within a single election cycle.

Governance changes

Possibly most importantly of all the ANC has already peacefully ceded power to opposition parties on a provincial and municipal level. In 2009, the DA won control of the Western Cape and this year the ANC lost control of over a dozen municipalities to opposition coalitions. These municipalities included Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria), and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), meaning that combined with DA-controlled Cape Town, there are opposition governments in four of the country’s six largest cities.

These cities also have the largest municipal budgets in South Africa and with them the access to resources and influence. The fact that the ANC has been willing to relinquish billions of Rands and assume the role of the opposition is a hopeful indicator that one day it would be willing to accept losing national power. Zanu PF has never accepted such a significant defeat and loss of control.

In Conclusion…

It is overly simplistic and foolish to equate Zimbabwe’s past with South Africa’s future, there are too many differences between the two countries and between the ANC and Zanu PF. Yes, South Africa does have major challenges and yes, the ANC is currently going through a less than impressive period in its history. However, South Africa is not going to become a failed state ruled by a liberation movement turned authoritarian party.


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Denis Gwenzi
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