SOMETIMES even a revolutionary government can seem out of touch. The African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since 1994, feels this problem acutely. In the bad old days of apartheid its leaders were unjustly imprisoned and widely admired, even as they broke rocks on Robben Island. Now they are more likely to be fighting corruption charges (like President Jacob Zuma) or living it up in a way their constituents could never afford. At a party in 2012 the then-deputy president of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe, told the crowd: “The leaders will now enjoy the champagne, and of course they do so on your behalf through their lips.”
To take voters’ minds off the present, the ANC likes to invoke the memory of struggle heroes such as Nelson Mandela. But amid fierce campaigning ahead of local elections that are planned for August 3rd, control of history is a competitive business.
A newish left-wing opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), is keen to align itself with the icons of the past. Last month it held a lecture on the life of Solomon Mahlangu, a member of the ANC who was hanged by the apartheid government. The ANC was outraged. Mahlangu’s family asked a court to stop the event, accusing the EFF of using his legacy as “an election tool”. The South African Communist Party, a political ally of the ANC, said the EFF was “stealing” revolutionary symbols.
For its part, the ANC is happy to claim heroes from other parties. Last year its leaders flocked to the grave of Steve Biko, who founded the Black Consciousness Movement (a rival to the ANC) to commemorate his death at the hands of apartheid police. They were outdone, however, by the EFF, which arranged a more exuberant rally nearby. The EFF’s firebrand leader, Julius Malema, claimed to be Biko’s true ideological heir.
The jostling over the past involves not just the recruitment of dead heroes but also their scions. The DA scored a coup in April when Ghaleb Cachalia, the son of two prominent anti-apartheid figures, quit the ANC. He joined the DA and said he would run as its mayoral candidate in Ekurhuleni, a huge industrial city near Johannesburg that is currently controlled by the ANC.
After more than two decades of rule by a single party, South Africa is at last seeing the emergence of competitive politics. The battle for votes is fierce: the ANC may lose control of several big cities, including Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. If past polls are any guide, even Nelson Mandela (who died in 2013) will be caught in the fray. He was a devoted member of the ANC, but a leaflet in 2014 for the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, showed him embracing Helen Suzman, a staunchly anti-apartheid member of parliament for a party that preceded the DA. The ANC retorted with a snarky poster pointing out that it had “so many” of its own struggle heroes that there was “no need to borrow”.