Why A Planned Racist Attack Against ANC Is The Least Of South Africa’s Worries

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South African President Jacob Zuma
South African President Jacob Zuma

An alleged bomb plot will cast a shadow over South Africa’s ruling party leadership conference this week. But the foiled attacks – and the racial tensions they expose – are the least of the administration’s worries.

Four men were arrested on Sunday for planning a series of terrorist attacks across the country. According to police spokespersons, the suspects have been linked to extremist groups favoring white sovereignty in South Africa, a country of 52 million where white citizens make up about 9 percent of the population.

One of the alleged targets was the site of the 53rd national conference of the African National Congress.

"They planned to plant a bomb in one of the tents," said national police spokesman Phuti Setati, according to the Guardian.

Though the crisis has apparently been averted, heavy security was in place when the conference kicked off Monday in Bloemfontein, a city in the Free State Province in central South Africa. If all goes well by the time the parley ends on Dec. 20, the ANC will have elected its leadership for the next five years.

Given the party’s overwhelming support among the general population, it is almost certain that whoever wins party leadership this week will become South Africa’s president in the next general election. Things are looking good for Jacob Zuma, who was first elected party leader in 2007 and began his first five-year term as president in 2009.

But President Zuma will be challenged this week by his former Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who is supported by a growing faction of young and disillusioned ANC members. This is just one of many signs that the ANC – though almost certain to coast to victory in 2014 elections with Zuma at the helm – is slowly coming apart at the seams.

Not So Black And White

The foiled attack by white supremacist extremists is a cause for concern, but it has little chance of effecting any major changes in South African politics. If anything, it could strengthen the ruling party by recalling the dangerous racial tensions that were rife when the ANC first become a national force to be reckoned with.

That was in 1994, when decades of white rule in South Africa came to an end with the election of ANC leader Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president. His ascension to the highest post in Africa’s largest economy sounded the death knell for apartheid, or racial segregation, which had been in place officially since 1948.

But groups fighting for white sovereignty still exist in South Africa. The Federal Freedom Party, or FPP, is a fringe political bloc that seeks self-determination for Afrikaners, the descendants of the European settlers who first put down roots in South Africa as workers for the Dutch East India Company during the 1600s.

At least two of the four suspected terrorists who were arrested this weekend were members of the FPP, but the party distanced itself from the plot.

“We were not involved and do not associate ourselves with their actions," said FFP national secretary Francois Cloete to Reuters.

The FPP walks a fine line between political legitimacy and white supremacy. On the more extremist end of that spectrum are groups like Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Resistance Movement), or AWB, which seeks to reinstitute segregation in order to protect white citizens.

The movement’s leader Eugene Terreblanche was killed in 2010; one of his black farm employees was convicted of the murder earlier this year. The incident was part of a trend; thousands of white farmers have been killed in South Africa since 1994, and racial tension is suspected to be at the root of these crimes. AWB has weakened considerably since Terreblanche’s death, but the undercurrent of racial animosity remains. It’s a two-way street, since so many Afrikaner landowners feel persecuted and threatened by the majority black population.

Creeping Competition

Of course, extremists are unrepresentative of the broader white population of South Africa, many of whom are members of the Democratic Alliance, or DA. The party is the ANC’s most serious political contender; it is rooted in the anti-apartheid movement and now presents itself as a fresh alternative to the ANC, calling for smaller government and more economic and social freedoms.

DA leader Helen Zille admits that ANC is almost certain to win general elections in 2014. But she also predicts that the ruling party will fall apart within the next decade. Though the DA is struggling to shed its image as the party of privileged white and mixed-race citizens, its popularity has grown in recent years as it makes a concerted effort to reach out to black South Africans who are now beginning to tire of ANC leadership.

In the 2009 national election, the DA won 16.6 percent of the popular vote. In 2011 municipal elections, it came away with 24 percent, gaining control over the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town.

“The ANC only has the race card left. That's all it has, and it's becoming less and less believable,” said Zille to Reuters last month.

And that is the crux of the issue for the ANC conference this week. The ruling party rests upon a powerful legacy – it began as a movement for equality even before apartheid was officially implemented, and it continued as an underground organization until 1990. It was the party of renowned freedom fighter Nelson Mandela; the party that brought black South Africans to power after years of disenfranchisement.

But after 18 years of essentially uncontested rule, the ANC has failed to deliver on too many of its promises. South Africa today has one of the world’s largest income gaps. Poverty is widespread, and unemployment is at 26 percent. The Zuma administration has been accused of corruption, and GDP growth is lagging after years of progress. To top it all off, labor disputes culminated in a series of strikes that affected the mining, farming and transportation industries and led to the deaths of at least 50 people in clashes between strikers and security officials this summer.

The terrorist plot that was foiled this weekend shows that white extremists are dissatisfied – to put it mildly – with ANC leadership. But they are far from the only ones. A growing number of black South Africans – especially among the young and the very poor – are keen to see the ANC shape up.

For them, the ouster of Zuma would be a good start. But the president is all but certain to retain his post this week, and a second term is in the cards even though he once promised to limit his tenure to five years.

If South Africa’s ruling party keeps on failing to change with the times, white extremism won’t be the force that pulls the ANC apart – it is already falling to pieces from the inside out.

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