from Africa in Transition

A New Generation of South African Politics?

May 19, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The African National Congress’s (ANC) electoral support is slowly eroding. Its share of the national vote has declined to 62.2 percent in 2014 from its high water mark of 69.7 percent in 2004. Its leader, President Jacob Zuma, is much more unpopular than the party, and outside his Zulu core constituency, many see him as corrupt and incompetent.

The ANC remains South Africa’s largest political party, in part because of its crucial role in the struggle against apartheid but also because of its education, health, and housing policies. In addition, more than 16 million of South Africa’s 53 million citizens receive government allowances that have reduced the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty, tieing those recipients to the ANC. Nevertheless, after twenty-one years in power, discontent with the ANC is growing, and the party is seen in some quarters as increasingly out of touch. The party’s leadership is also aging: President Zuma is seventy-three; National Chairman Baleke Mbete is sixty-five; Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is sixty-two. By contrast, the leadership of the two opposition parties, Mmusi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), are both thirty-four, a generation younger.

With the slow waning of the ANC, the official opposition, the DA, is moving to broaden its electoral base beyond whites, coloureds, and Asians. It has enjoyed some success; in the 2015 elections it increased its vote share to 22 percent, and perhaps 20 percent of its voters were black. Now, it has selected Mmusi Maimane, a black man born in Soweto, as its new party leader, succeeding Helen Zille, who is white. Maimane ran for mayor of Johannesburg in 2011. Defeated by the ANC candidate, he has served as the leader of the DA on the Johannesburg city council. He has been leader of the DA in the National Assembly since May 2014. In the 2016 municipal elections, Maimane is targeting Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth, in addition to Cape Town, which the DA already controls.

Maimane has a BA in psychology from the University of South Africa, a MA degree in public administration from the University of the Witwatersrand, and a MA in theology from the University of Wales (Bangor). A business consultant, he preaches at a protestant church in suburban Johannesburg, though he was raised a Roman Catholic. His church, Liberty Church – Roodeport, appears to be multiracial, and, based on its website, is evangelical, even Pentecostal in its style of worship. (Pentecostal worship styles are growing very rapidly among black South Africans.)

Some critics of the DA charge that the party seeks to bring back racial segregation, an ironical accusation as it is the direct descendant of white liberals who fought against apartheid. Critics will accuse the DA of cynically trolling for black votes by acquiring a veneer of black leadership while the real power rests with whites. University-educated Lindiwe Mazibuko, the former DA leader in the National Assembly, was regularly accused of being a “coconut,” white on the inside and black on the outside. With his multiple academic degrees, a background in business, a preacher to an apparently multi-racial congregation, and with a white wife, Maimane is also accused of not being black “enough.” (Interracial marriage between whites and blacks in South Africa is relatively rare, of about the same magnitude as in the United States.)

Breaking the racial box of South African politics will be difficult. There is anecdotal evidence that middle-class blacks disillusioned by the ANC still cannot bring themselves to vote for the “white” DA. So, they support the EFF, which advocates policies directly contrary to their presumed economic interests. However, South African politics are opening up in that they are no longer the exclusive purview of the ANC. Before the national elections in 2019, it is widely anticipated that the National Union of Metalworkers, South Africa’s largest and wealthiest trade union, will establish a “responsible” left wing party that might deprive the EFF of its oxygen. The day may not be too far distant in which South African politics become multivalent, with the DA on the right, the ANC in the middle, and a social democratic party on the left. When that day comes, political identification is likely to owe much less to racial identity than it does now.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Civil Society

Heads of State and Government

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