As you were then? South Africa’s 2019 election

For now, South Africa can chalk up the 2019 elections as another win for democracy.

Gregory Mthembu-Salter
14 May 2019, 2.46pm
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa greets voters at a polling station in Johannesburg, South Africa, on May 8, 2019.
Chen Cheng/PA . All rights rserved.

2019 was the most apathy-dominated South African election of the post-apartheid era. There are 35.9 million eligible voters in South Africa, but this year only 26.7 million of them – 74% - took the trouble to register for national and provincial elections. Worryingly, in a country with a youthful population and where democracy is still pretty new for most people, 6 million of these 9 million unregistered potential voters are under 30. Also troubling for democrats was that only 65% of registered voters bothered to vote.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) secured 57.5% of the votes in the national election, 3.6% higher than it managed the last time the country went to the polls, which was for municipal elections in 2016. In 2016, the disastrous Jacob Zuma was still president and public revulsion at his government had reached the point where the ANC managed to lose Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) to coalitions led by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). Cyril Ramaphosa’s subsequent ascendancy to the presidency has arrested the ANC’s decline in support. But the ruling party’s share of the vote was still nearly 5% lower than in the 2014 general election, and means the ANC loses 19 seats in the National Assembly, bringing it down to 230.

All in all, it was hardly a great result for the ANC.

All in all, it was hardly a great result for the ANC.

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Yet the ANC leadership knows full well that had Ramaphosa failed in his bid to lead the party at its 54th national conference in December 2017, and his rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had won instead, which would have likely meant no proper investigation into what South Africans call ‘State Capture’ during the Zuma years, no much-needed changing of the guard at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the power utility Eskom, the transport utility Transnet and the cabinet itself, there would have been a meltdown in the ANC’s vote this year.

A meltdown would have meant not only heavier seat losses for the ANC in the National Assembly, but also the loss of key provinces, and especially Gauteng, which as it was the ruling party only won by a whisker. Losing provinces would have meant the ANC waving goodbye to multiple, valuable patronage opportunities. Instead, however, the party managed to retain control of every single province it previously held, with the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) holding on too to the Western Cape. So thanks to Ramaphosa, the ANC dodged the bullet the electorate had been preparing to fire in punishment for the scandals and corruption of the Zuma era.

Thanks to Ramaphosa, the ANC dodged the bullet the electorate had been preparing to fire in punishment for the scandals and corruption of the Zuma era.

Encouraging as this should be to Ramaphosa, what happened in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) should give him pause for thought. In KZN, the ANC’s support dropped a full 10% from 64% to 54%, suggesting considerable disgruntlement among the party’s rank-and-file there at how the province’s first national president, who’s ability to play the victim is almost unparalleled, has been treated. 90 year-old Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) picked up most of the ANC’s lost votes, and is now the official opposition in KZN, replacing the DA. The other big winner in the province was the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose share of the vote leapt from 1.85% in 2014 to 9.7% this year.

The DA, which is today a broadly liberal democratic party but with some surprisingly Thatcherite tendencies, had a poor election. 2019 was the first time in over twenty years that the DA has polled fewer votes than in the previous one, which has been an uncomfortable experience for a party grown accustomed to the pleasures of continuous growth in support each time round. Several hundred thousand predominantly white voters deserted the DA this year, with many of them opting instead for the openly pro-Afrikaner Freedom Front Plus (FF+), which had its best election since 1994. While some of the white voters who left the DA were made up for by new Black supporters, it was not enough and the DA ended up with 3.6 million votes, down from over 4 million in 2014. The party will now have to decide whether to try to win back its lost white voters and risk alienating Black ones in the process, or else to continue on its declared journey towards becoming a more social democratic type party “for all South Africans”. Party leader Mmusi Maimane is already under pressure from his unhappy conservative rank-and-file, but criticism is also being levelled at others, including the former Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip and the former Western Cape premier Helen Zille, who have at times essentially blamed South African voters for not voting DA and sticking with the ANC instead.

The centre is holding

The EFF’s vote increased 3.5% in 2019 compared to 2014, bringing the party’s share to 10.8% of the total. 1.8m people, 700,000 more than last time, this year voted for a party whose leader Julius Malema has openly attacked ethnic minority groups and promises at rallies that “if we cannot be at the table, we will destroy the table”. The EFF wants all land, including urban land, to be nationalised and then parcelled out by government-appointed land commissars, and has also promised to double social grants, increase everyone’s salaries, and improve state health care, all to be paid for, apparently, simply by “eliminating” provinces and cutting down on waste. Many of the EFF’s supporters are first-time voters (the party has a strong following on university campuses) and others have come from the ANC, disillusioned, it seems, both by the corruption and self-serving that has beset the ruling party and by the time it is taking to realise the dreams Black people nurtured during apartheid of future emancipation and prosperity.

In that way, the ANC’s loss of support to the EFF mirrors that of the DA’s to the FF+, with disaffected voters in both cases peeling away from the centre to the extreme. But, importantly, the centre is holding. Between them this time, twenty-five years into democracy in South Africa, the two centre parties won 78% of the vote, markedly down from the 84% the two achieved in 2014 but still pretty high nonetheless.

The EFF’s formidable and vituperative social media army is already up and running, spinning the 2019 result as a resounding success for the party.

The EFF’s formidable and vituperative social media army is already up and running, spinning the 2019 result as a resounding success for the party. Perhaps. But nine out of ten South Africans remain unconvinced and at this rate it will take decades before the EFF gets genuinely close to power. In the meantime, just like many Zuma acolytes in the ANC, the EFF must contend now with a newly empowered NPA, which is under intense pressure not only to bring prosecutions but to secure convictions for high-level corruption. The EFF now has 44 MPs in the National Assembly, who are sure to keep it a noisy place and sure also to walk out regularly and probably again, at times, to be dragged out too, especially if they do not get their way on land reform.

Another win for democracy

Heartening footnotes to the main narrative of this year’s election include the failure of former South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s African Content Movement (ACM) and Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First (BLF) to win a single seat in the National Assembly. In return for ensuring the SABC broadcast pro-Zuma propaganda, Motsoeneng, who brags and lies about himself almost as much as does US president Donald Trump, was allowed to run the public broadcaster into the ground, and his dismissal from the corporation in 2017 raised many a cheer. Voters have now spared South Africans from having to endure Motsoeneng’s ranting in the Assembly and have saved them too from Mngxitama, an abrasive former EFF MP. The BLF, which styles itself as a “black consciousness, pan-Africanist and revolutionary socialist party”, was long-funded by the notorious Gupta family, who used it to attack and abuse many of those who dared stand in their way, managed only 19,900 votes nationwide and Mngxitama, laughably, alleges it was robbed by the Independent Electoral Commission.

The BLF has, however, declined to take the IEC to court, and nor too are any of the other small parties currently complaining about the elections process pursuing legal action. This gives credence to the IEC’s claim that the 2019 elections were free and fair, but there did seem to be more glitches and irregularities on polling day than in previous years, and the Commission would be unwise to take its credibility for granted the next time round.

For now, however, South Africa can chalk up the 2019 elections as another win for democracy, and the ANC, whose closest challenger remains 37% behind it, can rightly claim another emphatic electoral victory. Yet the party still only secured the support of 28% of eligible South African voters, just over half the 55% it won twenty years ago, bringing into serious question Zuma’s famous prophecy that the ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus Christ comes.

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