South African polls & Future Challenges

The African National Congress, which has governed since the end of apartheid, won again in May’s national election. But a growing opposition will watch to see whether it can revive the economy and curb corruption. Ramaphosa can now claim that he has halted the party’s decline, which began under his predecessor, President Jacob Zuma, and that his reform agenda is starting to pay off.
Since Zuma was forced out in 2018 amid numerous corruption allegations, Ramaphosa has led efforts to clean up the party and state-owned enterprises, as well as to marginalize ANC members who continue to pledge allegiance to the disgraced Zuma. Among the party leadership Ramaphosa faces stiff opposition; among the public he is more popular. The continued decline in voter participation is a bad sign for South African democracy.

The ANC won 62.2% share of the vote in the 2014 national election, giving the party 249 seats and a clear majority in the 400 seat parliament. However, the vote share was significantly down on the record 70% it took 10 years earlier. In 2016, voters rebuked the ANC in municipal elections, when it took 55% of the vote, down more than 10 percentage points on 2006. Opposition parties consolidated their hold in major cities including Tshwane, the administrative capital, and Johannesburg, the commercial centre.

Now The ANC continues to dominate politics, and the results were mixed for the opposition party and smaller parties that also sought seats in South Africa’s National Assembly, but next five years may be a test for ANC as it will have to come up to the expectations of the people. Ahead of the election, the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF, tried to capitalize on some of the disillusionment with the ANC. It embraced a far-left platform of state control of the economy and revolutionary rhetoric, and it has managed to push the ANC left on economic issues, including the thorny issue of land reform.

The EFF won a little more than 10 percent of the vote, That’s a big jump from its first national election (6.35 percent), but its 2019 showing fell short of some predictions. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), won more than 20 percent of the vote, a decrease from 2014. The DA made big gains in local elections in 2016 under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane, the party’s first black leader, who took charge in 2015. But the party still has an image of mostly attracting liberal white voters, and though it’s changing, internal squabbles over that transformation have hampered the party.

But the DA may have also lost votes to a right-wing, conservative, and mainly white party called the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), which received about 2 percent of the vote. The party more than doubled its support since the last election. Support for the FF+ likely grew over the issue of land reform in South Africa programs that would redistribute land owned by the white minority, which many see as critical to remedying South Africa’s economic disparities. The issue has become a pet cause for the alt-right worldwide, and FF+’s small surge mirrors the rise of the right-wing in other countries in Europe and elsewhere.

These smaller parties, like the EFF on the left, or FF+ on the right, are influencing South Africa’s political landscape, at least for now. But the ANC remains strongly in power though the next five years will be a test for it, and its leader, Ramaphosa. Correction: An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated the name of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). It has been corrected, and we regret the error.

The continued decline in voter participation is a bad sign for South African democracy. And, for the first time since the transition to democracy, there was serious criticism by minority parties of the electoral commission’s technical conduct, though most South Africans see the elections as credible. The EFF’s racist rhetoric and calls for the expropriation of white property, which has received outsize media attention, will likely discourage domestic and international investors, who could help jumpstart the moribund economy.

Ramaphosa can continue his program of reforming the ANC, tackling the state-owned enterprises that became nests of corruption under Zuma and strengthening his hold on the party machinery, much of which is still beholden to the former president. Ramaphosa has also indicated he will seek to restore the country’s regional role, which atrophied under Zuma, who curried favor with authoritarian regimes. South Africa’s democracy is becoming ever more vibrant as the ANC’s political dominance recedes. Ultimately, though, this year’s election did not set a fundamentally new trajectory for postapartheid South Africa.

This is a vote that reminds us of 1994, said Cyril Ramaphosa as he cast his ballot in Soweto, a township on the edge of Johannesburg. According to South Africa’s president, voters were just as excited as this 25 years ago. If so, they have a funny way of showing it. The first election after the end of apartheid in 1994 saw 86% of adults go to the polls. In his autobiography Nelson Mandela recalled the mood of the nation during those days of voting was buoyant. But in 2019 just 46% of South Africans over the age of 18 bothered to vote. The overwhelming emotion was neither excitement nor buoyancy, but despondency.

The dominant issues during the electioneering were macro level but South Africans are most concerned about those to do with the quality of their daily lives: approximately half of the adult population live below the poverty line; violent crime is a concern for everyone, but the poor suffer most; unemployment is extremely high at 27%; income inequality is the worst globally.
The African National Congress has been the dominant force in South African politics since Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. ANC head President Cyril Ramaphosa has campaigned on promises to clean up his party, an acknowledgement of the problems that forced his predecessor – Jacob Zuma – to resign last year. The widespread corruption scandals and a national unemployment rate of 27% have left many voters disillusioned giving hope to the main opposition – the Democratic Alliance, led by Mmusi Maimane. It has campaigned vigorously against corruption but its support among the country’s black majority is limited because it is perceived as a white-run party.

The country’s young voters, who make up about 20% of the electorate, largely support the EFF, which is led by charismatic firebrand Julius Malema, who broke from the ANC six years ago.
More than 40 smaller parties are also vying for power in the balloting. Corruption: Jacob Zuma was forced to quit last year following a steady stream of corruption allegations. Zuma is facing 16 charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering and some of his closest allies still hold senior positions in the party.

Ramaphosa has been questioned repeatedly why – if he’s as serious about tackling corruption as he says he is – he hasn’t sacked them. Over the years, millions of dollars intended to provide housing and healthcare have been diverted into the hands of corrupt government officials and yet no one has been charged. The unemployment rate is running at more than 27% and among young black South Africans one in two is out of work. The economy is also stuttering, with GDP hovering around the 2% mark for years, well below what most observers say is needed to generate jobs, boost healthcare and education levels and haul the tens of millions out of poverty.

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Writer is Staff Reporter Mélange for Europe & Coordinator Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR).