The African National Congress (ANC) has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid and the transition to “non-racial” democracy in 1994. It has won more than 60 percent of vote in every national election since, though its share of the vote has been steadily declining. In a country fractured by race in which blacks—about 80 percent of the population—are much poorer than whites—about 9 percent—race is the largest factor in voting behavior. The ANC is now the black political party, despite its multiracial origins. The formal opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is white in origin but is seeking to build multiracial support. The third major party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), calls for expropriation of white property without compensation. It is entirely a black party. South Africa’s other racial minorities, specifically coloureds (who regard themselves as a separate race, not a mixed race) and those of South and East Asian origin, tend to support the DA or one of the many minor parties.
During the 2009–2018 presidency of Jacob Zuma, the ANC became increasingly corrupt. Service delivery to the poor declined, and economic growth slowed to all but a standstill. Disillusioned blacks by and large did not vote for other parties. Rather, they did not vote at all. Then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and reformers within the party finally managed to dislodge Zuma from the party leadership in 2017 and from the presidency soon after in 2018. However, Zuma and his “populist” wing of the party continues to control significant amounts of patronage and enjoys substantial support among the rural poor. The Zuma faction occupies a significant number of the higher places on the ANC electoral list, and it continues to control important aspects of the party’s machinery. This faction has successfully thwarted many of Ramaphosa’s intended reforms.
Among ANC voters, the May election is something of a referendum on Ramaphosa and his reforms. Bandied about are a number of possible scenarios. One, favored by Ramaphosa’s allies, is that if the ANC’s electoral decline is reversed and it increases its share of the vote, his hand will be strengthened against the Zuma faction. Another is that if the ANC loses electoral support, the Zuma faction will be weakened and Ramaphosa will be freer to proceed against it. Still others argue, however, that if the ANC share of the vote declines too much, the knives will be out for Ramaphosa within the party, and he could be replaced by a “populist” of the Zuma stamp. The magic number appears to be 60 percent. If the ANC’s vote share does not fall below that level, the ANC under Ramaphosa’s leadership would seem to be vindicated. If it does, the ANC will have suffered a significant defeat, and the consequences for Ramaphosa could be difficult.
However, few observers now expect the ANC’s share of the vote to fall below 60 percent, and the expectation is that the ANC will form the next government; the majority of black voters will not desert the black political party associated with Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid. However, should it fall below 50 percent, then South Africa would experience coalition government for the first time. The DA would be the likely leader of such a coalition, which would also include minor parties. While possible, that scenario remains unlikely. Nevertheless, the ANC could face black swans, chief among them a precipitous drop in black voter turnout and greater-than-anticipated popular anger at ANC corruption, from which Ramaphosa is not immune. Ramaphosa, as deputy president under Zuma, must have known about the rampant corruption, even if he was not complicit in it.
South Africa’s constitution provides for proportional representation. Voters vote for a party, not a candidate. Each party rank-orders candidates of its list. When the ANC won 62 percent of the vote in the 2015 national elections, the top 249 candidates on its party list—62 percent of 400 total seats—received a seat in the national assembly. Outside experts rate the quality of South Africa’s elections as about the same as those in the United States and Japan. Because the voters choose a party, not a candidate, should a member of parliament leave the party on whose list he was placed, he must resign his seat. Hence, it is unlikely that the ANC would split once elections are completed.