from Africa in Transition

Times Are A ‘Changin’ in South Africa, But Perhaps Not Yet

May 06, 2014

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South Africa goes to the polls on May 7. The South African media has been describing the elections as likely to be “the closest since the coming of democracy in 1994.” Liberation icon Nelson Mandela is dead; the ruling African National congress (ANC) is associated with corruption, poor service delivery in the townships, and a cozy relationship between its leaders and big business. President Jacob Zuma is dogged with scandal. Liberation icons such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former ANC minister Ronnie Kasrils have abandoned the party. These are also the first national elections in which the “Born Frees”–those born after 1994–can vote. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is energized, and for the first time there is left-wing alternative, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). All this makes for a crowded playing field.

Yet polling data, such as it is, suggests that little will change. The ANC currently holds about two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. It is likely to retain a huge majority, even if not two thirds of the seats. The DA may increase its number of seats, and the EFF may enter Parliament. If it does, it will be the first time there has been a genuinely left wing party in Parliament.

Observers will be watching voter turnout, which has been slowly falling; low turnout is likely to hurt the ANC. The DA remains a party predominately of whites, Coloureds, and Asians; it has been reaching out to the black middle class, necessary if it is to reach a higher threshold, but its infiltration there is as yet unknown. Observers will be paying close attention to how the party does in black middle class neighborhoods in Johannesburg. The EFF remains a wild card; its most prominent leader, Julius Malema, is irresponsible and has been expelled from the ANC. But, he advocates expropriation without compensation of white-owned property. Up to one-third of South African blacks support such a position–according to polls. But the overwhelming majority of all races favor any redistribution of property to be conducted according to the rule of law–not the way Robert Mugabe seized white-owned farms in Zimbabwe.

The Metal Workers Union could be a key to significant political change during the next round of national elections, in 2019. It has withdrawn its support from the ANC. It is wealthy and strong. It appears to be moving toward establishing a genuine labor party. If it does so, there would then be a responsible left-wing party that could pose a significant challenge to the ANC in the townships. Over the next five years the DA may be able to attract more black voters by choosing more black leaders. And, after five more years in office, the ANC may become more sclerotic. But, for now, my bet is that the ANC will not fall below 60 percent of seats in Parliament, the DA will increase it seats but only by a small margin. The EFF will enter parliament, but with only a handful of seats.

But, as Rebecca Davis writes in the Daily Maverick, “anybody claiming to be able to predict with certainty how this country’s citizens are going to vote should be treated with more than a little skepticism." So, she consulted three astrologers. Predictably, they were all over the map.