Inside the ANC: The leaders, the policy, and some things to consider when voting

Is this the 'non-racial and non-sexist and democratic' party for you? Here's why the ANC thinks you should vote for it, and some 'smallanyana skeletons' to consider.

Picture: @MYANC/Twitter.
Year Votes Percentage Seats
1994 12,237,655 62.65 252
1999 10,601,330 66.35 266
2004 10,880,915 69.69 279
2009 11,650,748 65.9 264
2014 11,436,921 62.15 249
2019 predictions 54.7* to 61**
*IRR, February 2019
** Ipsos, December 2018


A broad church full of saints and sinners with a fair smattering of smallanyana skeletons and big dreams, the ANC has governed South Africa since the end of the apartheid government in 1994. It lays claim to being the oldest liberation movement in Africa, having been founded in 1912 in a church in Bloemfontein as the South African Native National Congress (becoming the African National Congress in 1923).

The ANC started out as a black, men-only organisation led by reverends, lawyers and teachers, fighting for racial equality after the 1910 formation of the Union of South Africa reduced black people to second-class citizens. Women were admitted as full members in 1943 and white people in 1969, and today the ANC’s constitution defines it as a “non-racial and non-sexist and democratic liberation movement”.

After the formation of the ANC Youth League in the 1940s, the party became more radical, and formed its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961 to pursue an armed struggle against apartheid, with Nelson Mandela as its first commander.

The ANC was banned from 1960 to 1990, which meant the ANC operated underground in South Africa, or through mass-based organisations like the United Democratic Front, while ANC leaders in exile helped keep the party alive and lobbied other governments and groups to show solidarity.

Divisions in the ANC are nothing new. There have always been differences over ideology and strategy, and the first breakaway happened in 1959 when Africanists objected to the Freedom Charter and founded the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania.

Today, the ANC is a party of diverse views and styles, from businessperson Patrice Motsepe, to trade unionist Zingiswa Losi, from President Cyril Ramaphosa to his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, from the rebellious firebrand Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to the iconic statesman Nelson Mandela.

The past 15 years have been a particularly rough ride for the party, with a decrease in its electoral support almost directly proportional to an increase in infighting.

The trouble started when Jacob Zuma’s financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of corruption and Zuma was implicated. Then president Thabo Mbeki sacked Zuma as his deputy in 2005, but Zuma fought back and unseated Mbeki, and became president himself after the 2009 elections. Together with Zuma came the Nkandla scandal, when some of the more than R240 million in state money was found not to have been for the security upgrades he claimed it was, and shortly thereafter followed state capture revelations, and his close friendship with the Gupta family, and the #Guptaleaks, which eventually led to his downfall.


Cyril Ramaphosa was a trade union leader in the struggle and became party secretary general in 1991, but then disappeared from the political limelight into the world of big business after he contended to be Mandela’s deputy (some say Mandela preferred him) but was outpaced by Mbeki in 1994. He made a surprise comeback in 2012 when he was roped in to be Zuma’s deputy, but later became outspoken about the corruption that flourished under Zuma. The ANC’s leadership contest at its 2017 conference in Nasrec was fiercely contested where Ramaphosa emerged as president.

In February 2018 the ANC forced Zuma to resign, and Ramaphosa was appointed in his place to pick up the pieces of the decimated state-owned enterprises and a limping economy. Ramaphosa took some bold steps such as shuffling most of the ministers involved in the state capture project out of his Cabinet, shaking up the security cluster, including the appointment of a new prosecutions head Shamila Batohi, and making peace with big business to attract investment.

But it hasn’t been all plain sailing. Although polls suggest that Ramaphosa is even more popular than the ANC (unlike Zuma, whose personal ratings were lower than the ANC’s), his task inside the ANC is huge with Zuma’s supporters pushing back. The former president still has a sizeable following in the party, and almost half of the party’s top leaders still don’t quite buy into Ramaphosa’s New Dawn. Some have been implicated in wrongdoing (like the very powerful secretary general Ace Magashule himself) and fear prosecution in Ramaphosa’s corruption clean-up. The former president himself has since discovered his inner millennial and has kept himself occupied by spreading his conspiracy theories and deep thoughts on Twitter.

A vote for the ANC could strengthen Ramaphosa’s hand to deal with corruption in the party and in government, but it’s also possible that leaders proved to have been incompetent, like Bathabile Dlamini, could return to Cabinet.


Almost half of the ANC’s support comes from rural areas, according to a 2014 supporter profile study by Ipsos. Most of its supporters are black, although a recent ANC poll showed that white voters are buying into Ramaphoria, with as many as 23% of white voters in Gauteng considering to vote for the party. The ANC’s strongest provinces are Limpopo and Mpumalanga, with almost 80% of the votes in those provinces cast in favour of the ANC. They also have some education – just over 70% of ANC voters have a high school education but no tertiary qualification, while only 7% went on to get a qualification from a university or technikon.


  • Land reform: “We will support the amendment of section 25 of the Constitution to clearly define the conditions under which expropriation of land without compensation can take place. This should be done in a way that promotes economic development, agricultural production and food security.”

  • Compulsory Early Childhood Development education: “We will work to achieve universal access to two years of ECD, which would be two years of compulsory quality pre-school enrolment for four and five year olds before grade one.”

  • Free higher education: “We will continue to strengthen measures that will improve access to higher education with the goal of achieving free higher education for the poor and the ‘missing middle’.

  • Corruption: “We are committed to consolidating our resolve to crack down on corruption and state capture involving the public and private sectors, including collusion, price-fixing, tender fraud, bribery, illicit financial flows, illegal imports and misuse of tax havens. We will comprehensively fight corruption, combining both prevention and punishment.”

  • Social cohesion: “We will work to unite all South Africans to overcome the divisions of the past and build a country in which all belong and in which all feel at home.”

  • Read the full ANC manifesto.


  • Jacob Zuma.

  • The same people who kept Jacob Zuma in charge, are still in charge. “One of our generation’s most intelligent leaders,” Jackson Mthembu – now the party’s chief whip – said about Jacob Zuma on 22 March 2012. The party’s elections organiser, Fikile Mbalula, said in 2009: “Zuma is not a factory fault. [Corruption] case or no case, we will put him in the Union Buildings!"

  • Corruption: “This rot is across the board. It’s not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money. A great deal of the ANC’s problems are occasioned by this,” then ANC secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe said (19 January 2007); and: “All of us there, in the NEC, have our smallanyana skeletons,” said minister Bathabile Dlamini during the 2016 local government elections campaign.

  • Security and facilities management company Bosasa got billions of rands worth of state contracts in the past 15 years or so, and channeled millions of that back into the ANC via campaign donations and kickbacks to a range of party leaders. A Special Investigating Unit report implicated correctional services officials in wrongdoing in 2009, but for a decade nothing was done about this. It’s likely that there are many more, smaller “Bosasas” propping up the party.

  • The ANC is finally in the process of adopting a sexual harassment policy - in 2019. It only took the party 107 years (or, to be kind, 25 years since it became operational in a constitutional democracy) and a charge of sexual harassment against spokesperson Pule Mabe (he was cleared by a committee) and another charge of rape against acting spokesperson Zizi Kodwa, for the party to be spurred into action.