South African elections in perspective


These are busy weeks at the election front.  Some of the largest democracies in the world have gone or are in the process of going to the polls.  In India, 960 million people are expected to cast their ballots, in Indonesia 185 million recently voted, in Europe 360 million are eligible to cast their ballots for the European Parliament and tomorrow, May 7th, 24 million registered South African voters are expected to cast their ballot in the 5th elections since the epic 1994 elections (‘free at last’) that ended apartheid.  The elections tomorrow will at the same time be the first in the post-Mandela period.  Will it be business as usual with ANC winning almost 2/3 of the votes and continue its 20-year long governing record with another 5 years?

No one doubts that ANC will win another majority in parliament tomorrow but opinion is divided about two crucial questions:  Will the percentage drop below the 60% level and, if so, by how much?  In the last elections in 2009, ANC won 65,9% of the vote.  An outcome below the 60% will seriously erode the position of President Jacob Zuma within the ANC itself.  The lower the percentage the sooner he may be ‘redeployed’ (ANC speak for moving someone into a new position) to his comfortable Nkandla estate, even before his new 5-year term in office shall have ended.

The second question is whether ANC will loose its majority in the important Guateng province or any other province?  Currently only the Western Cape is governed by the DA (Democratic Alliance), losing more provinces will again be held against President Jacob Zuma.

The answers to both questions will determine to a significant extent the political dynamics in South Africa in the period to come.  How long will ANC be able to continue to dominate governance in South Africa? The ground under the feet of ANC is shifting, change is in the air.   But will this already play out in tomorrow’s election of only in the next in 2019?  Although President Zuma keeps saying that ANC will govern until, no less, the ‘Second Coming’, referring to the return of Jesus Christ, my observation as an outsider is that it is no longer ‘business as usual’.

Why?  Trends which are relevant:

  • The ANC alliance under pressure:

ANC is a unique alliance of three formations, the ANC, the SACP (communist party) and COSATU, the confederation of trade unions in South Africa.  COSATU is in a process of disintegration since a sizable number of unions want to be free to set policies and action independent from government.  They are restricted in pursuing their objectives by ties and loyalty to the ANC government.  A break-up in the labor movement is imminent.  Scenario’s for a left-of-centre new political party are on the drawing board.  The conflicts within the labor movement, the not yet explained killing by policy of 34 mine workers in Marikana in 2012, have all weakened the support among the labor constituency for ANC.  Furthermore, it is telling, that the movement of shack dwellers Abahlali, representing the poorest of the poor in South Africa, has endorsed the DA for the elections tomorrow.

  • Controversial style of governance:

Twenty years into democracy, casting one’s ballot has become an agonizing event.  People who have wholeheartedly supported the anti-apartheid struggle and voted ANC into office in large majorities during the first 20 years, are profoundly shocked over cases of corruption and a haughty style of governance of the current ANC leadership.  ANC for them was not just a political party, it was a vision for a new transformed democratic and non-racial society to which people committed themselves and many sacrificed their lives.  Today, personal power politics appear to have overtaken policy debates within ANC leaving many dedicated ANC-ers alienated lost.  The Rev Frank Chikane, a man of high moral standing and outstanding ‘struggle credentials’, called these elections a ‘nightmare’.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu let it be known that he shall not vote for the ANC tomorrow.

The ANC has been campaigning these elections on a ticket that ANC has ‘A Good Story’ to tell, pointing at the achievements of the last 20 years, in particular the houses built, the electrification, health services, education and infra-structure.  South Africa is a better place than it was.  True as this may be, people don’t recognize the ANC of today with the ANC under Mandela.  The commemorations of Nelson Mandela after his death in December, revived the memory of the history of ANC and the values and principles for which it struggled.  Although the current ANC leadership is prone to invoke Mandela’s memory in the election campaign, people recognize the contrast between the high standards of ANC leadership in the Mandela era and the incumbent leadership.   None of the politicians associated with the scandals that played out over the past years, has taken personal responsibility or appear to be inclined to do so.  All scandals are buried in political and legal delaying tactics, shielded by the compliant ANC majority in parliament.   It is a mistake to underestimate people’s yearning for accountable, responsive and assessable governance, to feel respected and taken seriously by those who govern on their behalf.  A ‘devalued’ style of governance may off-set the deliverables in a democracy.

  • More assertive opposition

29 parties will context the national elections tomorrow.  The ANC is the elephant in the room.  The biggest opposition party, the DA, which had 16,7% in the last elections, is steadily increasing it share of the vote.  The ANC likes to label the party as the ‘white men’s’ party.  It is true that its leader, Helen Zille, is a white South African.  However, DA has attracted very talented black and coloured South Africans in its leaderhip, notably the leader of the party in parliament and the candidate premier for the Gauteng provincial government.  Yet, for many progressive South Africans, voting for the nowadays liberal DA remains an emotional barrier difficult to cross.  This became very visible in the botched attempt by DA and the new party Agang to make Mamphele Ramphele, the founder and leader of Agang, the joint presidential candidate for these elections.  Within days after this deal was proudly announced and highly publicized, Ramphele withdrew not wishing to become member of the DA.  This has not done the campaigns of both parties and election chances any good.  Nevertheless, it is expected that the DA will continue to increase its share in the elections into the 20% range.  Agang has remained mostly invisible in the campaign.

The new kid on the bloc is the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) from the by ANC expelled Julius Malema.  He is credited to have been instrumental in bringing President Thabo Mbeki down in 2008 and handing Jacob Zuma the presidency.  He has since turned against President Zuma and in a remarkable short space of time established a noisy and colorful red beret election campaign.  Hence, Mao-lema as he is lately referred to.  He draws big crowds and makes big promises to raise about everyone’s salaries and to fight corruption.  A populist in the true sense of the word.  How many votes he will draw tomorrow is the big unknown factor.  But it is likely that the EFF will draw its votes predominantly from the ANC constituency and shall bring the ANC share down close to or under the 60% threshold which determines President Zuma’s shelf-life.

In the 2009 general elections, the turn-out of eligible voters was 56,6%.  The turn-out tomorrow will be significant.  Will the ‘nightmare’ keep people in greater numbers away from the polls or has it awoken people about the value of their individual vote in sending a message to the party which is expected to win once again about their style of leadership?

6 mei 2014