Crucial elections in South Africa

This blog has been written by Jan-Bart Gewald, Frans Kamsteeg and Harry Wels. Jan-Bart Gewald is Professor of African History and Director of the African Studies Centre Leiden. Frans Kamsteeg is Associate Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Harry Wels is Publications Manager at the ASCL.

This week South Africa will be going to the polls, in a national election where for the past 25 years the African National Congress has led the government and been in power since the first democratic non-racial elections of 1994. Hundreds of thousands of election posters have been hung up across the country, thousands of rallies held, millions of T-shirts and flyers distributed, and campaigning has reached the furthest reaches of the nation. Clearly people are prepared to pump millions of rands into these hotly contested elections.

Opinion polls indicate that the electoral contest will primarily be a three way fight between the ANC (led by ex-trade unionist, successful businessman, and current president Cyril Ramaphosa), the Democratic Alliance (led by suave and highly articulate businessman Mmusi Maimane) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (led by charismatic populist and former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema). Will the ANC prevail or be punished for previous President Jacob Zuma’s rampant corruption and unprecedented state capture? Or will President Cyril Ramaphosa pull the ANC through with an absolute, and be given a chance to continue ‘cleaning up’ the ANC and the country of the remains of the many Zuma factions and loyalists within the ANC and beyond? The power of the disgraced former President Zuma is not to be underestimated. It is said that a number of parties have been funded and established with slush funds administered by accomplices of Zuma. Parties such as the African Transformation Movement (ATM, what is in an acronym), Black First Land First, and the African Content Movement (ACM).

Will the ANC remain in pole position?
Election day in South Africa on 8 May 2019 might not be as historical as the one in 1994 that brought Nelson Mandela to power, but it is ‘arguably the most crucial election since 1994’ as Natasha Marrian wrote in the Mail & Guardian. Given the gradual decline in support for the ANC since 1994, the main question is whether the party will remain in pole position. According to various polls they will. The eNCA/Markdata poll predicts 59% for the ANC, 21,3% for Maimane’s Democratic Alliance (DA) and 12,1% for Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The SA Institute for Race Relations predicts 55% for the ANC, 23% for the DA and 11 for the EFF[1]. Even with a bad turnout for the ANC on election day with a mere 50% win, the chances are substantial that the ANC will keep an absolute majority in the national assembly, which will secure a next term for president Ramaphosa.

Discontent and indifference
The outcome of the provincial votes, however, is less certain. For the ANC, the spectre of the 2016 municipal elections, when it lost the absolute majority in Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Port Elizabeth as it had earlier in Cape Town, looms large. As the suburban turnout tends to further stay behind due to growing feelings of political discontent and indifference, this is mostly affecting the ruling party’s support base. Hence, Ramaphosa must fear that he will have to collaborate with a growing number of multi-party provincial governments. Comments stress that particularly the Gauteng province outcome is too close to call.

President's room for manoeuvre
The outcome of 8 May will certainly further change the dynamics in the South African political landscape, in which particularly the DA’s and EFF’s political positioning will affect the government’s and president’s room for manoeuvre. The two biggest opposition parties are not likely to collaborate openly, although the EFF has often silently sided with the DA locally (particularly in Tshwane and Johannesburg). Recently, however, Malema and his EFF have been moving away from this tactical alliance with the DA, which has opened speculation about possible political alliances between EFF and the ANC [2], a prospect that DA leader Maimane in his final pitch before the elections also warned against. This kind of risky political manoeuvring, is only adding to the unpredictability of 8 May.

Fading hope
The glorious hope of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, that followed 1994, appears to be fading ever further, as racial and ethnic identities are once again coming to be essentialised and instrumentalised in the political discourse and elections (listen to this radio interview, in Dutch). The sentiments expressed on election posters make a mockery of the idea of a Rainbow Nation. The Freedom Front +, which fought the last elections with the slogan, ‘Vang Hulle, Hang Hulle’, continues in a similarly aggressive vein with the illuminating ‘Slaan terug; nu of nooit’ and the subsequent appeal ‘Dis Mos Jou Mense’. EFF posters extol Julius Malema, as a son of the soil with calls for ‘Our Land and Our Jobs Now’; the inconvenient truths of the Commander in Chief’s Breitling wristwatches and millions of unpaid taxes conveniently forgotten. Predictably the DA had its posters: ‘Keep the Lights on’, and ‘A Job in Every Home’. In addition there were the posters of ACDP, the Inkatha Freedom Party (slogan ‘Trust Us’, next to a remarkably photoshopped picture of Mangasotho Buthelezi); Bantu Holomisa’s UDM ‘Prosperity and Dignity for All’, and even Terror Lekota’s COPE with its desperate attempt to restart history in 1994: ‘South Africa Needs a Fresh Start’. And finally there were handmade posters, posters for the separatist Cape Party, and the extremely flashy and highcost posters of parties never heard of before, the ‘African Content Movement’ and the ‘Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party’ (SRWP).

Get the South African economy going
For most people of South Africa the real meaning of the coming elections has to do with what needs to be done to get the South African economy going. According to many it is not possible to distinguish economic issues from political ones, which means that economic challenges are political challenges: ‘Politics is at the heart of the country’s economic woes’, according to a policy review of the Reserve Bank for April; ‘the damage done by “state capture” is worse than previously understood’. The protests that have swept across the country on the eve of the elections show that people in South Africa are well aware of the link between economy and politics. Protests from Gauteng to the Western Cape all demand that politicians take their responsibilities and finally provide the often promised ‘housing, jobs, land, running water and electricity’ (Sunday Independent, ‘A season of discontent’, 14 April 2019). Instead of trying to do something about it, the ANC and the DA ‘are pointing fingers at each other (and the EFF to both of them). ‘(P)arties are mobilising against their opponents to expose their inadequacies’ to the level that they accuse each other that they are even behind the service delivery protests where the other party rules. According to some the protests were ‘reminiscent of the apartheid era when the country was rendered ungovernable’ (Sunday Independent). This leads to nowhere, or to situations, such as when floods ravaged Durban in late April, with a death toll of 70, where essential emergency services could not be mobilised as the municipal workers were on strike, as The Mercury wrote (25 April 2019, ‘Floods: Strike cripples essential services’). It could lead one to the conclusion that there is hardly any hope for the economy without a structural political climate change.

'Clean-up after Zuma'
Barry Gilder, guest at the seminar organised by the African Studies Centre Leiden on 1 May on the upcoming South African elections, suggested that it would be best if the ANC would win, not only because he is part of the party himself, but mainly because of TINA: ‘There Is No Alternative’ for the ANC at the moment. If he is right, it is to be hoped that current President Cyril Ramaphosa gets a firm majority mandate to continue the ‘clean-up’ he has started after taking over from Zuma in February 2018. If not, Gilder fears huge political mayhem may break loose that will fatally damage the country that is already economically balancing on the edge. If the Bloomberg Misery Index in its rating of South Africa’s economy as ‘the most miserable economy in the world after Venezuela and Argentina’, comes anywhere near the truth, Gilder’s TINA suggests South Africa simply cannot afford a major political loss of the ANC.

[1] The Witness, 25 April 2019, 'EFF rise will hit ANC hard'; Mail & Guardian, 3 May 2019, 'The art of polling'.

[2] The Witness, 25 April 2019, 'EFF rise will hit ANC hard'; Mail & Guardian, 3 May 2019, Elections 2019: 'It’s all a little below par'.

Photo credits:
Top photo: A GOOD party campaign bus in Cape Town during the 2019 South African elections. An African Christian Democratic Party election poster can be seen on the lamp post in front of the bus
(DI Scott [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]).

Middle photo: An EFF election poster in Cape Town during the 2019 South African elections.(DI Scott [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]).

Lower photo: A DA poster in Cape Town stating "keep the lights on" in reference to the energy crisis affecting the country due to problems at the state owned electricity monopoly Eskom (Discott [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]).

This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog. Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts? Subscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments.


South Africa

Add new comment