11/04/2017 15:17 BST | Updated 12/04/2017 09:32 BST

The ANC Could Be Facing Its Biggest Challenge From Cross-Party, Cross-Racial Coalition

Opposition parties were buoyed by the coalition strategy that won the local elections. Could they achieve something similar on Wednesday?


For many years, the African National Congress has claimed to be a leader of South African society.

The phrase pops up repeatedly in reports and speeches. At the party's national general council in 2015, President Jacob Zuma said: "We are also mindful of the fact that ANC conferences are important beyond the confines of our movement, because the ANC leads society and ANC policies affect millions of South Africans."

The party believes that it has a special role, that it is a vanguard in the fight against racism, and is at the forefront of the construction of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic society.

"Guided by the Constitution we continue to build a society that is totally free of racism. We should thus remain vigilant and fight any attempt to resurrect the demon of racism from the apartheid grave and to glorify a system of government that was declared a crime against humanity," Zuma said at the same conference.

This has been an operating assumption of the party for a long time. In fact, those who have been paying attention have also heard the beleaguered Pravin Gordhan make that assumption repeatedly in public statements since he was sacked as finance minister. "And I want to say, viva ANC viva. That is, Mandela's ANC, Sisulu's ANC and Kathrada's ANC," he said at the Ahmed Kathrada memorial in Cape Town.

Gordhan said at the Durban memorial: "If we carry on squabbling among ourselves, we will lose the confidence of people from all walks of life, from all over South Africa. We don't want to. We want to remain in government so that we can change South Africa."

This assumption -- that the ANC is the natural leader of a non-racial South Africa -- is about to meet its severest test. Whether the party rank-and-file likes it or not, the most relevant non-racial movement is now forming outside of the ANC. It still wears a "Zuma Must Fall" veneer, but it will quickly lose it for an "ANC Must Fall" one, come election season in a few, short months.

Blossoming opposition

It is not necessary to rehash how the opposition to Zuma has blossomed in recent years, and how it hardened after the removal of two popular finance ministers in the space of two years. A movement that sprang up in spontaneous, if very limited, public protests has become a country-wide movement.

Last week Friday, marches were organised in all the major cities in the country. Now, all the opposition parties (or those that matter) have united to try and get Zuma out as soon as possible, and the ANC at the next available opportunity. The multiparty approach will be kickstarted at the national day of action on Wednesday.

The marches last week rattled Zuma. The actions were big, and multi-racial. And yet, he carelessly dismissed them as racist.

The marches last week rattled Zuma. The actions were big, and multi-racial. And yet, he carelessly dismissed them as racist. "The marches that took place last week demonstrated that racism is real and exists in our country," he said on Monday, apparently in reference to certain signs held up at the march which likened him to an ape.

It was a misjudgement. Certain racist elements may have found an opportunity to air their views in public, but this was not the character of the marches in general.

The Economic Freedom Fighters were quick to denounce Zuma's comment. Cleverly, spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi acknowledged that racists may indeed have marched on Friday. "Zuma hopes the country can conflate the call for his removal with the problem of anti-black racism," he said in a press statement. "He hopes we can all start thinking the call for his removal is itself altogether racist. The reality is: it is precisely his 'house nigger' role of protecting, promoting and advancing a neoliberal economic order that has kept white privilege and black indignity intact.

"It is precisely his inability to see beyond the greed of his stomach that has produced a situation of normalized corruption and lawlessness. That it had to take these marches, where sexists, homophobes, racists and xenophobes march alongside progressive people is his creation."

What is even more dangerous for Zuma, and the ANC that is protecting him, is the formation of a national coalition. This is not something new, but rather a natural progression of the coalitions that deposed the ANC in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, according to Wits University political analyst Susan Booysen.

"What is important now is that the politics of coalition extend across the country, from small towns to metros. We have seen flashes of this in Parliament as well. This is what makes 12 April so significant, it is a relation across wider communities," she said.

The march -- and the motion of no confidence planned for 18 April -- will unite radical Marxists, liberals, black nationalists, Christian fundamentalists and other political ideologies under one umbrella. It is the next-best thing to the non-racialism espoused by the Constitution. This is the real danger for the ANC. A non-racial, broad coalition presents a serious danger to a party that has been pulled apart by factional politics and bad leadership for many years.

"This coalition is serious wedge politics. Last year, Save SA and other civic attempts could have been described as having a white complexion. Gradually, the evolution has been towards multi-racialism. Right now, mobilisation is clearly majority black," Booysen said.

At the multiparty press conference on Monday, EFF leader Julius Malema said that the parties would worry about what happens at the 2019 elections later. Right now, the hope was to eject Zuma from the Union Buildings as quickly as possible. He placed very little faith in the success of the motion of no confidence however.

Is the calculation that the ANC would hopelessly taint itself by uniting behind a ruined president? If the citizens see it that way, then regime change may well be upon us.