South Africa elections: ANC retains hold over power, but new govt faces myriad challenges of unemployment, poverty

  • Elections in South Africa saw the African National Congress (ANC) retain its hold at the national level.

  • The ANC also took the majority at all the provinces, except Western Cape, where the Democratic Alliance retained power.

  • The moribund economy was the central issue for this year’s elections.

  • A second major issue which was raised and hotly debated in the run-up to the 2019 elections in South Africa was land reform.

While elections are underway, awaiting the formation of the 17th Lok Sabha in India, the sixth elections since the end of the apartheid in South Africa were conducted on 8 May, 2019. The elections to the 400-member National Assembly and nine provincial legislatures (composed of 430 seats), saw the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) retain its hold at the national level with a majority of 58 percent of the votes cast. The ANC also took the majority at all the provinces, except Western Cape, where the Democratic Alliance retained power. The vote gives the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa the much required mandate to rectify the course of the liberation party beleaguered by corruption and infighting, especially with allies of the disgraced former president, Jacob Zuma.

The results

Although the ANC secured 58 percent of the vote, the main Opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) managed to get 21 percent and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) took 11 percent of the votes cast. The balance 10 percent was divided among the 45 other parties that contested the elections. The decreasing majority for the ANC which witnessed an all-time high of 69.69 percent in the 2004 national elections has seen a downward slide since, with 66 percent in 2009 and 62 percent in 2014. The diminishing popularity of the liberation party, that dealt the final blow to apartheid in 1994, is consonant with the ‘lost decade’— a scandalous period of elite political corruption and ‘state capture’ during the presidency of Jacob Zuma.

 South Africa elections: ANC retains hold over power, but new govt faces myriad challenges of unemployment, poverty

African National Congress party (ANC) President Cyril Ramaphosa at a rally in Johannesburg, South Africa. AP

The DA lost support as compared to its previous run at the hustings, due in small part to the shift of DA’s conservative voters in favour of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), a conservative Afrikaans party. This is indicative of the white anxiety over the issue of land appropriation without compensation and the shift to minority identity politics. The radical left-wing black party EFF which started as a break-away faction of the ANC Youth League in 2013 gained ground, doubling its share of the vote since the last national election in 2014. This shift in the political landscape of South Africa reflects a larger global phenomenon of the rise of populism, with the EFF’s campaign promise to double social grants and a controversial call to expropriate land without compensation – a simplistic policy directive aimed at greater economic inclusion of the black African majority.

The election results, in the 25th year after the end of apartheid, suggest deepening and greater vibrancy of democracy in South Africa with the recession of the ANC’s dominance. The diminishing power of the ANC reflects a pervasive despondency with the government’s handling of the economy and widespread corruption within the ruling party.

Campaign issues

The moribund economy characterised by weak growth of less than 2 percent per annum over the past decade, with more than half the black-majority population of South Africa below the national poverty line, was the central issue for this year’s elections. The World Bank identified South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world with a high Gini co-efficient of .63 in 2018: the top one percent of South Africans own 70.9 percent of the nation's wealth. Unemployment rates soar at 27 percent nationally with more than 35 percent of the youth remaining without work. Despite a number of social protection programmes in terms of grants and support to the poor, the lack of progress against poverty is mired in deep-rooted corruption, patronage politics which only benefit people closely associated with the ANC, and graft and mismanagement of several state-owned enterprises.

A second major issue which was raised and hotly debated in the run-up to the 2019 elections in South Africa was land reform. Apartheid-era policies led to millions of the black majority dispossessed of their land by the white minority. The South African parliament in December 2018 had approved a report which defended a constitutional amendment that would allow expropriation of land without compensation. The main opposition DA and a few groups from civil society had denounced the move, stating that it was a direct threat to property rights and would also dissuade investors who are much needed to restart the economy. This move, however, is only one step in a long process to constitutionally carry out land reforms. The EFF are however "synonymous with land expropriation" stated the EFF leader, Julius Malema in February 2019, advocating state custodianship of all private land for redistribution among the poor black majority. The EFF’s electoral gains have come in light of this ideological stance.

A third major issue raised by the political parties was in relation to crime and crime rates in the country. South Africa’s crime rate has risen every year since the last elections in 2014. As many as 20,300 murders were recorded in 2018 alone, 3000 more than in 2014. A large number of politically-motivated assassinations especially in the province of KwaZulu-Natal have also been reported. Further, anti-immigrant xenophobia, often fomented by the ANC and DA, has divided communities in various cities.

Disappointed electorate

In the wake of these germane issues, it is critical to note that of the 26.76 million registered voters, 10 million registered voters chose not to exercise their franchise. Another six million young South Africans born after the end of the apartheid, known as the “born frees” did not register to vote. In the past two decades the voter turnout has declined from 89 percent in 1999 to 73.5 percent in 2014 to the lowest of 65 percent in 2019. Contributing to the low turnout rate is a growing disenchantment among the youth with traditional politics. The 2015-16 student-led #FeesMustFall protest movement in principle disapproved of organised political parties. This disillusionment with the political system and South Africa’s political institutions gives much fodder for the ruling party and the Opposition parties to think about.

Supporters of African National Congress (ANC) celebrate their party election victory. AP

Supporters of African National Congress (ANC) celebrate their party election victory. AP

Post-election opportunities

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s efforts since he took over the party leadership in February 2018 have been largely to rebuild the ANC’s tarnished image, bolster the functioning of state-owned enterprises, stabilise the economy and promote South Africa as a destination for global investment, while deprecating the position of ANC members aligned with the Zuma faction. He has appointed judicial commissions of inquiry into allegations of state capture (Zondo Commission), tax administration and governance in the South African Revenue Service (SARS Commission), governance and questionable investments by Africa’s largest asset management institution, Public Investment Corporation (PIC Commission) and the functioning and integrity of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA Commission). While this shows the resolve of the president to root out corruption and the "capture" of state resources in South Africa, much more needs to be done in terms of developing socio-economic policy and its implementation to advance the flagging economy and, most importantly, improve the welfare of the poorest in South Africa, especially the youth.

In continuing his programme of reforming the ANC, President Ramaphosa will have to surmount all forms of opposition from the ANC veterans who are allies of Jacob Zuma. While the onus of rebuilding institutions will lie on him and his new cabinet, their immediate responsibility will be to restore the faith of all South African citizens in a political system which is racially and economically inclusive. The 2019 mandate gives the ANC an opportunity to engage with its various shortcomings, including rooting out corruption, holding its members to account and the lack of open democracy within its own ranks. Further, it will have to revisit its liberation ideals to regain the public’s trust and respond to the challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty. Otherwise, the promise of the Rainbow Nation will remain unfulfilled.

Vivek is a PhD research scholar at the department of political science, University of Hyderabad.

Updated Date: May 18, 2019 17:02:54 IST