from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s May National Elections a Watershed? Not Yet

April 23, 2014

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Elections and Voting

Civil Society

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) is in decline, but it will most likely win the upcoming elections on May 7. Many voters are angry over its corruption, symbolized by public money spent on President Jacob Zuma’s private, African-styled Versailles named Nkandla, and last year’s unresolved police brutality, labor disputes, and other issues at the Marikana platinum mine.

The powerful National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has broken with the ANC. One liberation movement icon after another has abandoned the ANC, ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Ronnie Kasrils, who was a leader of the armed struggle. South Africa has a free media, an active official opposition in parliament, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and numerous other opposition parties. Yet, ANC victory next month is all but assured, and the party will govern the country until 2019. But, whether Jacob Zuma remains as the party’s head and the chief of state will depend in part on whether the ANC’s margin of victory is substantially reduced. Meanwhile, the South African media seems besotted by the Oscar Pistorious murder trial and the political debate has been lackluster.

The ANC will win because elections in South Africa continue largely to be a racial census. Eighty percent of the population is black, and it will vote overwhelmingly for the party of liberation and Nelson Mandela. Whites, persons of South Asian origin, and Coloureds, together about 20 percent of the population, will vote mostly for the DA, with a small percentage of votes going to the numerous other small parties.

What about the “rising black middle class,” concerned about good government and a natural target of the DA? While it has certainly grown since the end of apartheid, it remains relatively small—it is not large enough to determine the electoral outcome at the national level. It can, however, throw local and perhaps provincial-level elections to the DA. But, despite the efforts of party leader Helen Zille, among blacks the image of the DA remains that it is a white party. In the black townships it is often said that the DA will “bring back apartheid.”

As for the ANC, in the past it was multiracial, and it still is in the cabinet and among the party leadership. But, especially under Zuma, it has become more “African” in its image. That is not to say that it is moving to the left. It remains middle-of-the-road in its policies. But among very poor blacks–perhaps as much as half of the country’s population – it remains the party of liberation.

There are two new wild cards this year: Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang/SA, a “good government” party that is almost indistinguishable from the DA in its policies – except that it is “black” while the DA is “white.” An effort earlier this year to merge the parties failed. It remains to be seen whether Agang/SA attracts new voters or whether it draws black, middle class support away from the DA. In any event, its percentage of the total vote is likely to be small.

Potentially much more significant is Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Malema’s rhetoric, especially his calls for expropriation of white property without compensation, resonates in the townships and among the very poor. The EFF represents a genuine left-wing, if also irresponsible, alternative in a country that has lacked one. It remains to be seen how much electoral support the EFF will attract, and whether it draws voters from the ANC or, more likely in my view, it wins the support from those who have never voted before. Electoral turnout in 2009 was only 56 percent, so there is a large reservoir of those who typically do not vote.

Rather than 2014, the elections of 2019 may prove to be a real watershed. NUMSA is forming a left-wing labor party that is likely to be far more responsible, better funded, and more politically skilled than the EFF. With another five years, the DA may make progress in shedding its “white” image, and there is the possibility that an accommodation could be reached with Agang/SA. If, if, if: but, taken altogether, the stars may align against the ANC in 2019. But, not in 2014.

In a subsequent blog post, I will share what I will be looking for in the 2014 election results.