This post was co-authored by John Campbell and Allen Grane, research associate for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Many friends of South Africa’s post-1994 “non-racial democracy” have seen developments within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), especially under Jacob Zuma, as threatening the open political system based on the rule of law. So long as voting was largely determined by racial identity, the 80 percent of South Africa’s population that is black seemed to ensure that the party would remain in power indefinitely. The White, Coloured, and Asian minorities supported the Democratic Alliance (DA), but together they are not large enough to constitute an alternative to the ANC, except on the provincial level. (The DA has long dominated predominately Coloured and White Western Cape.) The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which calls for an assault on White “privilege,” were largely confined to the townships.
Especially under Zuma, internally the ANC appeared to be moving away from grassroots democracy and toward greater centralization under party apparatchiks, with a focus on “Lithuli House” (the ANC party headquarters in Johannesburg), rather than constitutionally mandated government institutions, often referred to as “Union Buildings” (the seat of government in Pretoria). Patronage, often with a criminal dimension, seemed to flourish under Zuma and his close associates. The disreputable Gupta brothers with their apparent goal of “state capture” (to win contracts) and business ties to Zuma’s son became the ANC’s face.
However, the August municipal elections appear to signal the end of monolithic ANC domination of South African political life, and any threat of one-party rule is receding. Post-1994 ANC rule is being replaced by the emergence of coalition politics that have the potential of opening the political process and also of imposing a greater degree of political accountability on elected officials than in the past. At least some voters appear to be moving away from voting according to racial identity and toward issues of government policy. Hence, the August elections appear good for South Africa’s “non-racial” democracy.
The chart below shows the swing to the DA and the EFF and away from the ANC. (The totals are never 100 percent because of numerous minor parties.)
South Africa’s largest cities are the heart of its economy and part of the modern world. Up to now, the ANC dominated the municipal governments in Tshwane (Pretoria), Gauteng (Johannesburg), eThekwini (Durban), and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth). The DA dominated Cape Town. Now, however, in most of the major cities, coalitions will be required to produce a majority. In Gauteng, where the ANC won the most votes but not 50 percent plus one, the EFF appears to have the upper hand, and a coalition between the center-right DA and the radical EFF cannot be ruled out. Indeed, there could be many strange bedfellows: there is talk of a possible coalition between the Freedom Front, a White, Afrikaner minor party, and the EFF in hitherto solidly ANC Limpopo province. In general, EFF spokesmen are ruling out coalition arrangements with the ANC.
There remain questions that can only be answered following in-depth analysis of the election results. Did in fact significant numbers of blacks abandon the ANC? Or, instead, did they stay home while White, Coloured, and Asian turnout soared? (This seems unlikely, given that turnout was at least 58 percent.) The DA did well, but can its rate of growth be sustained? The EFF did not do as well as had been widely predicted. Nevertheless, it did increase its share of votes. Finally, the National Union of Metal Workers, a large, wealthy trade union, has deep support in Nelson Mandela Bay, a center of South Africa’s automobile industry. It has mooted the establishment of a “responsible, left-wing” new political party for the 2019 national elections. Such a new party could have a significant impact on the future of all three of the major parties that contested in 2016.