South Africa’s election: a tainted victory

About the author

The triumph of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa's fourth democratic general election on 22 April 2009 is assured. Yet this will be the ruling party's most shoddy and problematic victory.

Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work programme, University of the Witwatersrand. Among his many books is (as co-editor) State of the Nation: South Africa 2007 (HSRC Press, 2007). He is editor of the Journal of Contemporary African Studies and contributes to the Review of African Political Economy

Also by Roger Southall in openDemocracy:

"South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

"South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?" (29 April 2008)

"The politics of pressure: the world and Zimbabwe" (28 June 2008)

"Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy" (13 October 2008)

"Zimbabwe: the death of ‘quiet diplomacy'" (20 October 2008)

The ingredients of success seem to be falling into place. The acting chief prosecutor's decision on 6 April not to continue pressing corruption and tax-evasion charges against the ANC leader Jacob Zuma - which opens the way for him to succeed Kgalema Motlanthe as the country's president - is a timely boost for the party; even if Helen Zille of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) promises to appeal to the high court against the ruling.

The ANC is intent on presenting a confident face to the voters; it announces as its goal a two-thirds majority in the national assembly. But this is bravado: in private, it worries that its showing will be considerably worse - perhaps even below 60%. This may sound impressive, though it would be a considerable decline from the near-70% of the vote in the last (April 2004) election; even more worryingly for the party, worse than its 63% in the "liberation" election of 1994.

This could be the signal that, after some fifteen years in power, the ANC is on a downward slope and could face the real possibility of defeat at the next election in 2014. At least, this is the agenda that the two highest profile opposition parties - the established Democratic Alliance (DA) and the new Congress of the People (COPE) - are working to.

The inexorable shifting of South Africa's electoral terrain in a way that renders appeals by the ANC to the electorate more problematic helps explain why a party on the brink of electoral victory can also appear to be in decline. Three aspects of this process stand out.

A new landscape 

The first is demographic. South African voters are getting younger, the result both of a high birthrate and (owing to the impact of HIV-Aids) of declining average lifespans. The ANC may claim the loyalties of first-time (18-year-old and above) voters, but the political leanings of the "cellphone" generation - which has little direct memory of apartheid - are likely to be more diffuse and less rooted than those of its parents.

The second is policy-related. The ANC's economic record since 1994 has been respectable, but a fundamental reality remains unchanged: South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The government's own fifteen-year review acknowledged that in 2005, half the population - 22 million out of 44 million - lived in abject poverty.

The government has done much to address the needs of the poor via a massive extension of social assistance, and a reasonable record in the supply of new housing, electricity connections, and water. But these measures do not automatically translate into votes. They also foster dependencies and disappointed expectations, as well as a widespread sense of relative deprivation. There is also growing resentment against perceived corruption and cronyism, especially at local level.

The third aspect that limits the appeal of the ANC is social. South Africa's social cohesion is being undermined by at least four factors: massive rural-to- urban migration; inward and largely uncontrolled foreign in-migration (notably from Zimbabwe); a perennially high level of unemployment (around 25%, currently compounded by job losses caused by the global recession); and the growing casualisation of work. A Markinor poll published in February 2009 indicated that for the first time more South Africans felt the country was going in the wrong (42%) than in the right (38%) direction.

A party corroded

The ANC might with some justification claim that these are precisely sort of problems that any government is likely to face after fifteen years in power. Yet so many of the troubles it faces are its own invention.

The most notorious is the period of internal turmoil which culminated with the replacement of Thabo Mbeki as party leader by Jacob Zuma at the ANC's national conference in Polokwane in December 2007; this in turn was followed by Mbeki's "recall" from South Africa's presidency in September 2008, and replacement by the interim figure of Kgalema Motlanthe. The official version is that there has been an internal healing of rifts, but in truth many scars remain and the wounds could easily be reopened.

It's true that Jacob Zuma has emerged as his own man during the course of the campaign - rather than as the creature of the coalition of trade unions, Communist Party and ANC Youth League which propelled him to the leadership at Polokwane. But his appeal is divisive, and his ascendancy to the presidency will be of someone tainted by suspicion who - but for the ANC's politicisation of supposedly neutral state institutions - might otherwise be in jail.

At a deeper level, the reason why the ANC's forthcoming victory will be so qualified is the widespread sense that the party has lost its sense of decency. It arrived in power in 1994 as the champion of human rights; the government it formed was invested with the hopes of most South Africans for a fairer, more equal, more caring society. There is little of such idealism today: instead of the iconic Nelson Mandela, the ANC is led by a man whom the majority (even of black Africans, who form the main body of the ANC's support), believe is guilty of corruption.

Indeed, there has been a series of scandals. Many have revolved around the ANC's misuse of state power to fund its party budget, others have exposed dodgy deals with shady businessmen. The saddest aspect is that the expectation and even acceptance of corruption at all national, provincial and local levels have become the norm.

The ANC's money-obsession means that it is awash with money from unstated sources - much of it appearing to come from fellow ruling parties in countries such as China, Equatorial Guinea, Libya and Angola. But there is a cost: the party machinery, even at a time of electoral mobilisation, is creaking. Kgalema Motlanthe, when he was still secretary-general of the ANC in 2007, admitted that the rot was "across the board": every project was considered in terms of its opportunities for people to make money.

The saga of Carl Niehaus - whom the leadership employed as ANC spokesman for the electoral campaign, despite privately knowing of his background of extensive fraud, then dismissed when the media revealed his deceit and indebtedness - is symptomatic of the party's disarray. Few South Africans believe that a party headed by Jacob Zuma will prove able to recover its compass. The refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend a peace conference in South Africa, in order that comradely relations be maintained with China (admittedly to the anguish of significant elements within the party), confirms that mammon has trumped morality.

An empty victory

The ANC's predicament could well have been worse if the Congress of the People (COPE) - launched in late 2008 by ANC dissidents (especially those opposed to Jacob Zuma and inclined to Thabo Mbeki) - had managed to get its act together. It now looks as if COPE will no longer present a strong challenge to the ANC. Its own early life has been marked by a series of setbacks - limited funding, lack of patronage, failure to secure backing from enough high-profile ANC figures, all reinforced by internal division and incompetence of its own.

COPE had initially hoped to win as many as 20% of the vote; now 5% is more likely - though most of this should come from the ANC rather than from other parties of opposition. COPE and the Democratic Alliance could also benefit from a squeezing of the smaller opposition parties as voters determined to make their votes count turn to them. For its part, the DA may find it difficult to move much above its respectable 12.37% share of the vote, but could emerge as the largest party in the Western Cape (weathering a challenge from  COPE in the process) and be able to lead a governing coalition in the province after ejecting the ANC from power.

The current election is the most fluid and unpredictable in South Africa since 1994. Jacob Zuma's ANC will win, and could yet win big. But even if it manages again to defeat the opposition threat with apparent ease, the perception of its inviolability has been broken. The signs are there that the ANC's dominance of the electoral arena is crumbling. Some believe, and even more hope, that that could be good for South African democracy.

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Also in openDemocracy on South African politics and society:

Gillian Slovo, "Making history: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission" (5 December 2002)

John Matshikiza, "Johannesburg: shanty city, instant city" (13 December 2002)

Paul Kingsnorth, "Apartheid: the sequel" (20 May 2003)

Nahla Valji, "South Africa: no justice without reparation" (2 July 2003)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome" (15 June 2006)

Achille Mbembe, "Whiteness without apartheid: the limits of racial freedom" (4 July 2007)

Faten Aggad & Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, "South Africa's tipping-point" (2 June 2008)

Tom Lodge, "Nelson Mandela: assessing the icon" (18 July 2008)

Elleke Boehmer, "Beyond the icon: Nelson Mandela in his 90th year" (12 November 2008)