On May 8, South Africans will vote in national elections for the sixth time since the end of apartheid and the transition to “non-racial” elections in 1994. Most observers judge the quality of South African elections as on par with those in Japan and the United States. Hence, issues about the conduct of elections are not about the possibility of rigging or voter fraud. Rather they are similar to those in the United States, such as transparency around campaign finance and concerns about declining voter turnout.
The constitution mandates a proportional system of parliamentary representation. Voters will cast ballots for parties at the national and provincial levels, not individual candidates. There are four hundred seats in the National Assembly. Each party’s leadership draws up a list of candidates and then rank orders them by name. If, say, a party wins 25 percent of the vote, it wins one hundred seats in the National Assembly, and the first hundred names on the list of candidates take seats in the National Assembly. If a minor party wins 1 percent of the vote, it would still get four seats in parliament, and several did so in 2014 and are likely to do so again on May 8.
This system is designed to promote party unity and concentrate power in the party leadership, who rank-orders the party’s candidates. Moving up the rank order list requires a candidate to be in good graces with the party leadership. If a MP breaks with their party, they must resign their seat; voters did not vote for them, but for the party to which they belonged.
While voters vote for a party, not an individual, the party leader is the “face” of the party. Ballots in fact have a small photograph of the party leader as well as the party symbol by each box that a voter would check. Once new members of the National Assembly are in place, they elect the president. If one party has a majority of seats, it will elect as president the first person on its electoral list.
While there are forty-eight political parties contesting, only three have a reasonable chance of forming a government. They are the African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA), and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). But proportional representation provides for representation of very small parties, so an additional seven might win up to three or four seats each.
South Africa is a constitutional democracy, not a parliamentary democracy. Therefore, while the ANC has had a large majority in the National Assembly since 1994, and each president has been the party leader, South Africa’s constitution limits what the National Assembly and the state executive can do.
The African National Congress
The ANC is the party of Nelson Mandela and is seen as the leader of the anti-apartheid struggle. It is an umbrella coalition, comprising the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). They field parliamentary candidates that run on the ANC electoral list. The SACP is a clandestine organization, so it does not publish the names of its candidates. However, many of them are widely known. Where their candidates are placed on the ANC electoral list is the result of horse-trading.
In theory, the ANC is a non-racial party, and its leadership includes a few whites (mostly from the SACP) and a few more Asians. But its electoral support is overwhelmingly black. It is centrist on economic policy, despite the SACP and COSATU component. Much of its senior leadership is suspicious of the United States, seeing it as a fundamentally racist society. Race is the greatest predictor of how a South African will vote. About 80 percent of South Africans self-identify as black—hence the ANC’s substantial margin of victory in every national election. However, by no means all blacks vote for the ANC. In the last elections it won 249 seats with 62.15 percent of the vote.
The party leader and state president is Cyril Ramaphosa, a close colleague of Nelson Mandela. Within the ANC he is opposed by the supporters of the former party leader, Jacob Zuma, who presided over a semi-criminal government until he was removed by the ANC from office in 2018 in a move orchestrated by Cyril Ramaphosa. The Zuma wing is populist in rhetoric and makes successful use of patronage to retain power even after Zuma’s departure. Ramaphosa is trying to reform the party and state-owned enterprises (SOE), such as South African Airways and the electricity utility Eskom, but faces serious pushback from Zuma’s allies dependent on SOEs for patronage. According to polls, Ramaphosa is the most popular of the party leaders, and because he is the “face” of the ANC, that will benefit the governing party. Nevertheless, because memories of the Zuma administration’s poor governance are fresh, most observers think the ANC’s percentage of the vote will decline, perhaps to the mid-50s.
The Democratic Alliance
The official opposition is the DA. Formerly a party of whites, its electoral support comes from the racial minorities: whites, Coloureds (not a pejorative label in South Africa), and Asians. It is seeking to shed its predominantly white image and appeal to blacks, especially those that are urban and middle class. Its party leader is Mmusi Maimane, a black African and former member of the Johannesburg City Council. However, thus far, the DA does not appear to be successful in its racial rebranding. That effort has been set-back by episodes of blatant white racism from individuals who identified with the DA. The party is center-right in economic policy and strongly emphasizes the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and good government. It governs the Western Cape (including Cape Town), generally regarded as the best governed province in the country. The DA is viscerally pro-American. In 2014, it won 22.23 percent of the vote, or 89 seats. Most observers—including this one—think it will get about the same number of votes on May 8, while others predict a DA electoral collapse if the EFF surges.
The Economic Freedom Fighters
The EFF is headed by Julius Malema, who left the ANC when he split with Zuma in 2012, largely the result of personal rivalries. He formed the EFF shortly after to contest the 2014 elections, in which it won 6.35 percent of the vote. The party bills itself as radical and left wing. It advocates expropriation of white wealth without compensation and its distribution to blacks and Coloureds. It calls for a greatly expanded role of the state in almost everything. It views itself as the advocate for the very poor, especially in the townships and urban areas. The party has used anti-democratic tactics on the floor of the National Assembly, and its stock-in-trade is anti-white rhetoric. Some observers characterize it as Afro-populist. The irony is that despite the feud between Malema and Zuma, their policies and approaches to governance have similarities. Malema, however, does like to say that he “loves white people.” Other than Malema’s support for Zimbabwe’s former dictator, Robert Mugabe, it does not seem interested in foreign affairs. Most observers think the EFF will increase its parliamentary representation—the question is by how much. The EFF tried to make land expropriation without compensation a central issue of the campaign, but despite domestic and foreign media hype, the effort has apparently largely failed. Instead, the issues appear to be corruption, jobs, and crime.
Opinion polling in South Africa is not strong, and moreover polling results are not consistent. For example, polls from different organizations predict outcomes in some cases ten percentage points apart. Nevertheless, a plausible hypothesis is that the ANC will win 56 percent of the vote, the DA about 23 percent, the EFF about 11 percent, with the remainder divided among the minority parties. That outcome would mean that the ANC could govern without coalition partners. Most observers think that about 70 percent of eligible voters will go to the polls. This may be overly sanguine. In the recent Nigerian elections, only 35 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Nigeria is of course different from South Africa, but in both countries a substantial part of the electorate, especially the youth, are disaffected from the political system and, as in Nigeria, many South African youth may stay away.
Despite media hype that these elections are potentially “transformative,” they are unlikely to change dramatically the South African political landscape. Nevertheless, if the EFF gets more than 10 percent of the vote, if the DA gets 20 percent or less, and if the ANC percentage falls to near 50 percent, there will be apocalyptic headlines, even though the ANC will continue to govern. It is expected that new EFF votes will likely be at the expense of the ANC. If the EFF “does well,” receiving between 12 and 15 percent, Ramaphosa’s critics within the ANC will be emboldened to move against him, and his reform program will likely be set back.
Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, poverty in South Africa is still mostly black and Coloured—who together make up almost 90 percent of the population—and they are the electoral target of the EFF. Yet in the townships and rural areas, there appears to be skepticism about the EFF’s ability to govern, and the ANC is given credit for the system of welfare payments that have greatly reduced extreme poverty. There has been no erosion of the economic privilege of whites, who are about 9 percent of the population. Nevertheless, the country does not appear to be close to a revolution, even at the ballot box. Racial minorities will continue to vote for the DA, while blacks will continue to make up the bulk of the ANC’s support, and virtually all of the EFF’s.