In 1994, South Africa broke a wicked spell of white control, saying its last goodbye to a horrifically undemocratic apartheid political system. But champions of democracy must be careful to turn the page. Decades later, we see a very new threat the country’s democracy: corruption within the long-dominant “liberation party,” the African National Congress (ANC).
The ANC of late has had a strong and public record of corruption, both on the national and local level. Current president and leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, faces charges on almost 800 counts of corruption over a major arms deal, multiple charges of financial corruption dating back to 2005, and a successfully prosecuted attempt to illegally use state funds for his own private home. On the local level too, corruption is rampant, with “networks of patronage” running deep in local elections.
This is not unknown to the public, including to those across parties. Pew Global reports that 8 in 10 South Africans see government corruption in the top three problems in their country—higher than poverty, quality of education, inequality, and access to health care. Almost half of South Africans believe that corruption will worsen in the future. The South African Electoral Commission further reports that trust in the nationally government has steadily declined from 61% in 2009 to 44% in 2013.
And yet, this has puzzlingly not translated into the disfavor of corrupt politicians and parties. Even after trust ran as low as 44%, the ANC won 62% of the national vote; the party shows almost no sign of losing a majority. President Zuma once again took office in 2014 for a four-year term and survived three votes of no-confidence, including one anonymous vote, despite widespread anger at his defiance of constitutional norms. None of three major actors—voters, the legislature, and the judiciary—could effectively prevent and punish the party’s corruption, nor have they chosen to remove from office a leader with a worrisome track record.
What enables this corruption to grow unmitigated in the South African government despite the fact that so many South Africans acknowledge it as a problem? How can we explain the persistent erosion of accountability in the country’s ruling party?
One answer lies in how the ANC and its leaders resonate with voters, and can be illuminated using Juan José Linz’s theory of regime legitimacy and effectiveness. Since the majority of voters perceive the ANC as a legitimate and effective governing body in comparison to its opponents, they are willing to overlook the corruption of some of its key leaders. So long as enough South African voters see their economic and social interests reflected—and successfully achieved—in the governance of the ANC, democratic accountability in the South African government will continue to backslide.
According to Linz, a successful regime of any type is one that citizens perceive to be most legitimate. A legitimate government is one best suited to pursue the collective goals and interests of the citizens in a particular period of time. A regime’s legitimacy is often enhanced or weakened by how effective it is at achieving its promised goals and how efficacious it is at overcoming political obstacles. Though Linz used the theory of legitimacy to describe successes and failures of government systems as a whole, the experience of South Africans prove that it can be applied to the success of particular parties within a democratic system.
The concepts of regime legitimacy and effectiveness help explain why the ANC has come to dominate South African national politics in the past several decades. It is because of its stance against economic and social inequality between poor blacks and rich whites—especially in comparison to the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party—that the ANC musters a lot of its support. First and foremost, it is worth noting that 96% of ANC supporters are black, whereas only 24% of DA supporters are black. Party leaders thrive on the promise of economic and social equality for blacks and draw strength from the party’s strong and unique history of opposition to apartheid. President Zuma’s populist rhetoric, promising to empower black citizens and to tighten the gap between races, appeals to the interests and values of his supporters, and understandably so.
Moreover, a good number of politicians and citizens worry that if the DA were to gain power, it would work towards reinstating apartheid—a recent poll reveals that nearly half of young South Africans agree. Other opinions hold that the DA would threaten the goals of equality and empowerment in smaller ways. The ANC therefore represents what Linz terms the “least evil” bodies of government according to the value systems of the majority of voters.
Consequent to their perception of the government as legitimate and effective, many ANC supporters subordinate issues of corruption to other causes. The same groups that are optimistic about the government’s effectiveness also view corruption as a less important issue.
Firstly, according to Pew Global’s study, ANC supporters are 25% more likely than DA supporters to believe that young people should stay in South Africa for a good life. Optimism is also divided along racial lines, as black South Africans are 12% more optimistic than other races that economic and social conditions will improve. Given the racial composition of the ANC, this difference translates to a difference between major parties. At the same time, ANC voters are 14% less likely than supporters of the DA to view government corruption as a “very big” problem, ranking other issues as more important. Whether they believe in a corruption problem or not, ANC voters often do not view it as more important than the party’s successful pursuit of its mission of empowerment.
For many voters, the corruption of particular ANC leaders is not enough to overcome the party’s legitimacy. Evidence from Zuma’s most recent election demonstrates this well. Exit polls conducted after the 2014 election confirm that Zuma’s unpopularity did not influence voters’ support for the entire party, which in turn put Zuma in the presidency. In fact, before the 2014 election, pollsters recorded that Zuma was significantly less popular than was his party. His leadership was legitimized, however, by voters’ faith in the party as a whole. If their support for the party waned, voters would be more likely to hold Zuma accountable.
A look into Zulu political culture also helps reveal why even corrupt leaders can maintain their legitimacy. As political analyst Protas Madlala noted of the corruption scandal in 2005, “Africans look at the bigger picture, not because they condone corruption, but because they weigh other things in the balance.” The Zulu understanding of empathy leads many ANC supporters to view corruption as a problem to be helped without withdrawing support from the party and its leaders.
It is up to voters and officials in Zuma’s own party to remove him and to root out corruption—they are slowly starting to do so. But so long as they see corrupted officials as the most legitimate options, democracy will continue to backslide. South Africa is an important lesson to all countries experiencing scandals. Legitimacy can be any unaccountable regime’s cloak of invisibility.