The South African Independent Electoral Commission has announced that national elections will occur on a Wednesday between May 7 and the end of the month in 2019. The three leading parties will be the governing African National Congress (ANC) led by current state President Cyril Ramaphosa; the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) led by Mmusi Maimane; and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema.
The ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, has been the governing party since the 1994 transition from apartheid to “non-racial” democracy. Ideologically, it is a broad church. It has been the party of the black majority, which comprises about 80 percent of the population. However, it is tarnished by corruption and poor governance associated with the former party leader and state president, Jacob Zuma. The DA is center-right, and in South Africa’s racial calculus, has been the party of whites, coloreds, and, increasingly, Asians. It is aggressively seeking black electoral support, and its leader Maimane is black. The EFF has radical economic and social policies; among other things, it calls for the expropriation of white-owned property without compensation. At the last parliamentary elections in 2014, of the 400 seats in parliament, the ANC won 249; the DA won 89; the EFF won 25. Six other parties also altogether hold the remaining seats, a reflection of South Africa’s system of proportional representation.
As he looks to the national elections in 2019, Ramaphosa is still seeking to consolidate his authority within the ANC in the aftermath of a bitter fight for its leadership. That effort will be helped if the ANC exceeds expectations in the 2019 elections, even if the number of seats it wins is fewer than in 2014. However, if the ANC performs below the expectations of the moment, Ramaphosa will be weakened and perhaps even exposed to possible removal. To become a credible party of government, the DA will need to expand its electoral appeal beyond racial minorities that altogether are only about 20 percent of the population. Its leaders are looking to make inroads among hitherto black middle-class support for the ANC. Despite its frequent media coverage, which is largely due to its fiery rhetoric, the EFF remains on the fringe.
This far in advance of the 2019 elections, predicting the outcome is a mug’s game. Many scenarios are possible, including a merger or alliance of the EFF with the ANC. (Julius Malema was once in charge of the ANC’s youth league until he had a falling out with Zuma.) Moreover, if the DA, EFF, and the minor parties increase their share of the vote, and if the ANC’s drops below 50 percent, then coalition scenarios become possible. Nevertheless, as in most democracies, incumbency is an advantage, and the ANC also benefits from being the party of the black majority. In South Africa, race is likely to continue to be the greatest predictor of electoral behavior, if perhaps less so than in the past.