As South Africa prepares for local elections, divisions on policy direction within the ruling party run much deeper than questions of leadership.
The Africa National Congress (ANC) launched its manifesto for the local elections starting on 3 August at a poorly attended rally in Nelson Mandela Bay on 16 April. The ANC is hoping that its manifesto launch helps to unite the party as it faces the most contested election in urban areas since 1994. President Jacob Zuma highlighted past ANC successes and made promises of future delivery. But putting the leadership team on the same stage to promote unity does little to hide the cracks in the party.
These local elections promise to be a major test. Support for the party remains strong among the rural poor but the loyalty of urban voters is not guaranteed. They could mark a watershed for post-apartheid South African politics, signalling that the ANC's tight grip is further loosening, particularly in the province of Gauteng.
The ANC now represents such diversity that presenting a manifesto to accommodate all its constituencies is virtually impossible. The party has traditionally embraced multiple ideologies to span demographics and gain votes from workers and capitalists, men and women, and from rural and urban areas. But these groups are moving in different directions and the party's response may be exacerbating rather than bridging these divisions.
In his speech Zuma remembered the ANC's liberationist credentials but also emphasized its more recent record on delivery of water access, sanitation and electricity to the country's poorest. This 'service delivery' is key to winning votes in closely contested urban municipalities such as Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay.
Urban citizens have much higher expectations. In the economic hub of Johannesburg, where elections will be very tight, 90 per cent of the population have access to piped water, sanitation and electricity. Around three-quarters of the population earn more than the R10,000 per month ($685) threshold to be considered 'middle class'. These voters expect better quality service provision, as well as expanded access, with fewer power outages and better transport systems. They want promises of employment to be backed up with real plans for private sector growth and job creation.
The need for the party to appease diverse constituencies has resulted in a thin manifesto that doesn't mask the fault lines created by the party leadership crisis. President Zuma has been embroiled in a series of scandals. On 12 December 2015, ominously dubbed '9/12', he replaced the minister of finance with an unknown who lasted only four days, rattling the markets and investor confidence. It was subsequently revealed that this was connected to bigger allegations of state capture by the wealthy Gupta family, initiating further calls for his resignation. A constitutional court decision that he must pay back state money used for upgrades to his private home led to the second vote on his impeachment in a month. But, while he may be protected in the national assembly by the party's 62 per cent majority, it is lower down the party structures where loyalty is being tested.
The chairperson of the Gauteng ANC, Paul Mashatile, has publically called for the president to 'do the right thing' and step aside. He and the Gauteng premier, David Makhuru, have voiced their criticism of the leadership for a long time, and now the pair must lead the local election campaigns for the province, home of almost a quarter of the population and the vital cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
There is mounting speculation that a managed change of leadership is imminent. But to move before the election would be catastrophic, as it would create a factional fight for succession and survival. So those who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Zuma on stage on Saturday have the difficult task of uniting a party for an election campaign, while considering options for smooth leadership transition after it. Tough decisions lie ahead and it is becoming harder for the ANC to be a united force that can offer all things to all people.
Chris Vandome is a Research Assistant in the Africa Programme of Chatham House.