In South African elections on 8 May, President Cyril Ramaphosa led the ruling ANC to victory on 58 percent of the vote. This may seem like a resounding victory, but the fact voter turnout and the ANC’s share of the vote have been in steady decline for a number of years, amidst growing support for populist parties, are symptomatic of widespread disillusionment with the ANC.
The 2019 South African General Elections were hailed as a watershed moment in the country’s post-apartheid history. As South Africa celebrated 25 years of democracy, political parties set out to woo voters with promises of jobs, a better life and a commitment to advancing the people’s interests to deliver on 1994’s dream of a non-racial, equal and democratic South Africa. This is in the context of rolling black-outs, economic stagnation, high unemployment levels and continued racialised patterns of poverty and inequality.
The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s governing party, has always maintained a position of electoral dominance. This is not surprising as, during the years of the liberation struggle, the ANC generated representative power through transcending racial, class and social divisions of the black population and by constructing its ideological commitment to non-racialism and calling for a state that would be representative of all South Africans, regardless of race. By presenting a common base of struggle against white oppression and supremacy, the ANC was able to unite different race groups for one common goal: a democratic and free, non-racial South Africa where the state would advance the interests of all citizens, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The party was, after all, the liberator that held all the aspirations and promise of the dream of 1994 in the palm of its hands. It had battled the ruthless apartheid state and won. It brought democracy with a negotiated settlement and avoided a civil war. And, as Roger Southall has highlighted, this enabled the ANC to structure elections around history and identity, “with the ANC the undoubted victor as the party with the most powerful claim to have liberated the country from apartheid.” It is, therefore, not surprising that in the founding elections of 1994 the ANC received an overwhelming majority of 63 percent of the vote and at times has received as much as 70 percent of the vote.
The ANC has always campaigned on the basis of its involvement in the history of the liberation struggle and its role in bringing freedom, non-racialism and a “better life” (a key slogan in every ANC electoral campaign). Around the world, it is common for dominant parties to have a number of means at their disposal to maintain electoral hegemony. Such means can include historical legacy, the ability to transcends social divisions and become a “catch-all’ party, institutional architecture, political culture, government performance and the influence of international actors. The ANC is not uncommon then in having utilised its heritage and built its campaigns on the basis of its historical legacy as South Africa’s liberator, the advancement of non-racialism as its ideological foundation for a transformed society, its culture of “participatory democracy” to work with the people, and its successes in delivering a better life for all through the provision of basic services and social welfare.
Yet, as South Africans went to the polls on 8 May a sense of disillusionment was palatable. Voter turnout has now been in steady decline in South Africa for a number of years. From a high of 89 percent turnout in 1999, voter turnout has declined to 66 percent this year. This has much to do with the ANC. Many express the sentiment that life has not necessarily gotten better under their governance. It is telling that only 47 percent of South Africans are satisfied with democracy. The origin of this apparent disenchantment with democracy is perhaps linked to a view that the ANC, as liberator and custodian of the aspirations of those most brutalised and oppressed during apartheid, have not delivered. People’s dreams of a better life were sold for self-interest and self-enrichment amidst declining governance, increasing corruption and increased socio-political instability. Displeasure with such a state of affairs has led to destructive and violent service delivery protests. On election day, there were a number of protests around the country where communities shut down voting stations and prevented people from casting their vote in an effort to get some semblance of service delivery on the agenda.
Opposition political parties attempted to capitalise on this sense of disillusionment by creating a narrative of the ANC’s failure to provide this elusive “better life for all.” While the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party, narrated their campaign on the failure of ANC rule. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a far-left party, engaged in a more radical approach that stressed the necessity of land and freedom from the bondage of economic inequality – espousing the view that, given racialised patterns of poverty and inequality, the ANC had failed to transform society. The land reform question also formed a central part of this narrative, where the EFF is advancing expropriation of land without compensation (a policy position the ANC has also adopted).
The ANC and the EFF’s support for the expropriation of land without compensation led the DA and the Freedom Front Plus to campaign on a strategy of stopping them. The Freedom Front Plus (FF+), a conservative right-wing party that advances Afrikaner interests, campaigned on the slogan “Fight Back.” Strategically, this seems to have paid off as they are now the fourth largest party in parliament, albeit with just over 2 percent of the vote. Their strategy and their slogan were reminiscent of those used in the past by the Democratic Party (DP), the predecessor to the DA. In the 1999 general elections, the DP advanced a similar “Fight Back” strategy to successfully capture the white minority vote.
Key themes that emerged from these elections point to three interesting, although somewhat contradictory, observations. First, the ANC may be on the road to decline. This is a normal trajectory for dominant political parties, as history has shown us. The ANC is caught in a cycle of declining dominance due to increased corruption, abysmal service delivery, party factionalism and increased political mistrust of the party. Second, given the continued patterns of racialised poverty and inequality, and a sense that life has not gotten better, the political space has become vulnerable to populist and radical political discourse. The EFF regularly engages in racialised and exclusionary politicking targeting minorities, especially white and Indian population groups, to garner support. Given that the EFF increaseed its share of the vote in this year’s general elections (from 6 to 11 percent), it speaks to a sense of racial polarisation as well as the weakening of the ANC, which cannot counter this dangerous racialised narrative because of its non-racial liberation history. Similarly, the rise of the FF+ also demonstrates potential racial polarisation. Third, one cannot ignore the fact that voter turnout has declined by nearly 10 percent over the last five years. This suggests a disengaged electorate who may have withheld their participation to either punish their party by staying away or because there was no alternative they felt comfortable voting for. In considering the low voter turnout, it is also necessary to take account of the protest actions and their disruption of the electoral process, whereby voting stations could not open and people were prevented from voting due to intimidation and fear.
Ultimately the key lesson from the 2019 General Elections is that South Africa is a country at a crossroads. If this parliament does not engage in responsive and clean governance that caters to the needs of the people, the EFF may continue to grow their support base on the basis of radical, populist and exclusionary rhetoric. This could fuel further racial polarisation and one could see the emergence of political parties and movements that take hard-line positions to advance specific group interests. Should this parliament fail to effectively deal with corruption, which ultimately takes away resources for socio-economic development, voters may engage in more disruptive actions outside formal political processes, undermining political stability. The new ANC-led parliament has a responsibility to make good on their political promises. If not, the consequences for the country could be dire, potentially leading to a breakdown of democracy and political stability
Joleen Steyn Kotze is a senior research specialist in democracy, governance, and service delivery at the Human Science Research Council. She is also a Research Fellow at the Centre for African Studies, University of the Free State. Her research focusses on the socio-political and socio-economic dynamics of democratisation, political development, and political culture in non-Western post-authoritarian contexts.
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