Electoral Success Obscures Long-Term Dangers to South Africa’s ANC

Electoral Success Obscures Long-Term Dangers to South Africa’s ANC
Photo: ANC campaign poster, Cape Town, South Africa, May 8, 2011 (photo by Flickr user warrenski, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).
South Africa’s fifth national and provincial elections were held on May 7, just after the 20th anniversary of the country’s first democratic elections and six months after Nelson Mandela’s death. The outcome bore a strong resemblance to that of the 2009 election: The African National Congress (ANC) secured more than 60 percent of the vote; the main opposition grew nationally and retained its provincial stronghold; and a newcomer on the political scene finished third with almost 7 percent of the vote. It might be tempting to conclude that in South Africa the more things change, the more they stay the same. But the national polls, and electoral outcomes in South Africa’s nine provinces, reveal subtler shifts and trends that cast the election in a rather different light and raise important questions about the ANC’s future as a dominant party. The ANC can certainly be satisfied with the result, having secured 62.15 percent of the vote and finishing almost 40 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA). The ANC also won eight of the nine provinces. But the party campaigned largely on the defensive against a backdrop of multiple failings over the past five years. In President Jacob Zuma, it had a weak and ineffectual leader who has become synonymous with scandal. Six weeks before the election, South Africa’s public protector accused Zuma of gross misuse of public funds in upgrading his private residence at Nkandla. Moreover, despite the ANC’s campaign slogan that it had a “good story to tell,” Zuma’s administration had failed to dent the country’s colossal unemployment level of at least one-third of the workforce, and was confronted by violent service delivery protests. The ANC also faced intra-party factionalism and an outright schism with the formation of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Finally, Zuma’s term was blighted by the ANC’s endemic corruption and by the fatal police shooting of 34 striking miners at Marikana in August 2012, an event with sinister echoes of the Sharpeville massacre. Yet the ANC emerged from the election relatively unscathed, its share of the vote down only 3.75 percent from its 2009 tally. The opposition could not erode the ANC’s core support, and while the breakaway EFF performed creditably in its first election, its “insurrection” was effectively contained. For Zuma, this proved the ANC was “deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of South Africans,” and it certainly confirmed that loyalty to the party transcends the shortcomings of any individual leader, however glaring. But in the details of the elections the picture becomes less sanguine for the ANC. The ANC’s vote share represented its poorest performance of the democratic era, and also the third consecutive election in which the ANC lost vote share under Zuma. The ANC’s 2004 tally of 69.69 percent was the party’s high point, followed by slow but inexorable decline. The ANC’s support also dropped across most of the provinces, even in its strongholds. The party suffered its most serious decline in the country’s economic hub, the crucial Gauteng province, where ANC control is now vulnerable. The DA heavily defeated the ANC in the Western Cape, despite the pre-election hope that the ANC might regain control of the province. The party did improve its performance in Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, where the ANC has become a dominant party under Zuma. But this has made the ANC highly dependent on that province, and it may have difficulty sustaining its numbers there after Zuma leaves office. Meanwhile the DA, long encumbered by its image as a “white” party or at least a party of minorities, has begun to build support among black South Africans, by whose votes elections are won and lost. The DA claims it attracted 700,000 new black voters in the election, and 6 percent of all black voters, compared to a mere 60,000 in 2009. While it has yet to make inroads into the poorest black communities, the DA’s support is growing incrementally, and it refuses to treat black areas as political no-go zones. As the party evolves and comes to more accurately reflect the country’s demographics, this progress should continue, and it will generate major problems for the ANC. Furthermore, three structural weaknesses are likely to continue slowly eating away at ANC hegemony. First, there is growing evidence that ANC support weakens with urbanization, which is occurring at a high rate in South Africa while the ANC’s bedrock support continues to come from rural areas. Second, the ANC’s grip weakens with improving educational and socioeconomic circumstances. While the country cannot afford enormous reservoirs of poverty and illiteracy, development may prove a double-edged sword for the ANC. The ANC’s third problem is its ability to continue relying on the waning narrative of liberation. Campaigning based upon past glories will become more difficult in the absence of tangible achievements, even while such achievements create difficulties of their own. With a new left-leaning party likely to be formed ahead of the 2019 nationwide poll, the ANC may find itself confronted by an opposition force against which it cannot so easily play the race and liberation cards it has traditionally deployed against the “white” DA. As a result, ANC celebrations in the aftermath of this poll are likely to be muted. Its performance in government since 2009 has been lamentable; its leader is widely held to be unfit for the office he holds; and a period of internal turbulence is likely ahead of 2017 elections for the ANC presidency. While still the dominant party, the ANC is showing clear signs of decline that its high vote share cannot wholly obscure. The 2014 election can be viewed as a demonstration of ANC power and resilience, but it was also a poll in which new cracks in the ANC edifice appeared and existing ones widened. The ANC still has a long way to fall, but opportunities are now opening up for the opposition; its post-election challenge is to accelerate that process and give it real momentum. James Hamill has been a lecturer in the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Leicester, U.K., since 1991. He has a long-standing research interest in South African politics, particularly in the country’s post-apartheid development, and is a frequent visitor to the country. He has published articles on South Africa in International Relations, Diplomacy & Statecraft, the World Today, Politikon: The South African Journal of Political Studies, and the Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

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