South Africans are voting today, August 3, 2016, in nationwide municipal elections that are widely regarded as a referendum on President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Economic growth has slowed to near zero, unemployment is sky-high, and the Zuma administration is mired in credible accusations of corruption. There are indications that voter turnout will be heavy; up to 77 percent of eligible voters (or 26 million people) are expected to cast their vote, up 11 percent from the last municipal elections. Nevertheless, an ANC electoral rout is not certain. (High voter turn out is encouraged by the fact that election day is a public holiday in South Africa.)
At least up to now, South Africans have largely voted according to their racial identity. Blacks, about 80 percent of the population, have overwhelmingly supported the ANC, thereby ensuring that it has been the party of government since 1994. In the 2014 national elections, it won about 62 percent of the vote. Whites, Coloureds, and Asians have favored the Democratic Alliance (DA), a party which is seeking to attract middle class black voters especially the “born frees,” those born after the end of apartheid. Also in the contest is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new party that calls for the expropriation of white property and has resorted to non-parliamentary methods. In the 2015 national elections, the DA won 22 percent of the vote while the EFF won 6 percent of the vote.
Polling data indicate that the ANC is in electoral trouble in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth. In those three cities it may lose its majority, ushering in an era of coalition building that could include various combinations and permutations involving the DA, the EFF, and even the ANC. The EFF has been especially active in social media, but it is unclear to what extent South Africa’s youngest voters will bother to go to the polls. There is also the possibility that the ANC’s share of the vote may drop below 60 percent for the first time since the 1994 end of apartheid. In either event, pressure within the ANC is likely to mount for Zuma to resign from the presidency. That would mean a new political era for South Africa.
The Council on Foreign Relations has published an Expert’s Brief on the South African elections; it can be found here. By August 5, winners and losers in this latest electoral round should be clear.