2014 elections in South Africa. Demotix/Zilba Raubach. All rights reserved.For the African National Congress (ANC), May’s general elections in South Africa brought both victory and defeat. The results mark the ANC’s lowest electoral performance in the history of democratic South Africa, continuing the slow but steady decline in voters’ support from an all-time high in 2004, when it held an absolute majority in parliament. Yet, to take over 60 percent of the total vote is a mammoth victory by any standard. In the sphere of party politics the ANC may still be seen as the best option for progress. And with a difference of less than one percentage point from the historic 1994 victory that ended apartheid, the 2014 outcome can only affirm the political dominance that the ANC still holds after 20 years in government.
But social transformation is increasingly sought outside the party-political field. In this light, the ANC's victory should be qualified. The sustained electoral support for the ANC cannot be taken as an unreserved vote of confidence. That would not only invalidate considerable inroads made by an increasingly credible opposition, it would also falsely assume that in liberal democracies political realities consist of electoral performances alone. The relatively stable and predictable distribution of parliamentary seats masks a much messier and more complex situation outside the party-political arena. Deep-seated concerns over people’s position in the ‘new’ South Africa, compounded by a long series of political and private crises within the ruling party, evoke powerful expressions of indignation, frustration and outrage through labour strikes and other kinds of protest action. This growing sense of discontent, however, has not found its reflection in the election results.
We are then left with something of a paradox in South African politics. Reports of the 2014 elections cannot help but give an impression that indeed there is in the first instance, something surprising and confusing, even illogical and irrational, about the voting behaviour of the South African electorate. This no doubt has much to say about the public culture our media forms part of, imbued as it is with liberal assumptions about what political behaviour and democratic participation should look like. But since that is a space we all inhabit, we should seek to unpack that paradox and examine the bases of tension which make the ANC’s victory seem unlikely.
Sources of instability
The ANC and its leaders have never been exempt from public and private scandal, but in recent years accounts of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement have intensified. The Nkandla debacle, in which President Zuma has been accused of misleading parliament on publicly funded ‘security upgrades’ to the tune of 246 million rand (23 million US dollars) on his private homestead in Nkandla, stands out as a particularly controversial case. Zuma, with a by now characteristic mix of denial, ignorance and indifference, shrugged off accusations with the same opportunistic ‘swart gevaar’ (black threat) strategies used in apartheid days to undermine the ANC. Nkandla may be the most recent, prolific and politicised scandal, but it is far from an isolated event. Against the President alone, over 700 cases of corruption and fraud have been filed. These charges have been dropped on technical grounds, but the blemish on Zuma’s already dubitable integrity is not as easily erased.
More worrying sources of instability are rooted in a set of deep-seated structural cleavages in South African society. More than half of the population live below the national poverty line. A quarter of the total labour force is without work and South Africa’s youth unemployment ranks third highest in the world. In fact, the use in these statistics of a narrow definition of unemployment, which excludes discouraged work seekers and the underemployed, renders these rates conservative. Inequality also remains one of the highest in the world, and the gap between rich and poor has only widened since the transition to democracy. The brutal reality of these numbers is found in the squalid living conditions in the underdeveloped rural areas and urban townships, where basic infrastructure and services are commonly deficient or wanting, and violent crime is rampant.
Popular anger over these conditions has made South Africa an epicentre of global protest. Over a 90-day period, from 2013 to 14, nearly 3000 cases of protest action were reported. The violence arising at these protests draws attention to more spectacular forms of public mismanagement, with a government taking increasingly repressive measures to clamp down on dissent and protest. The Marikana Massacre of 2012, in which police shot and killed 34 protesting miners, stands as the most dramatic example of post-apartheid state violence, but tense labour relations have become commonplace across and beyond the country’s economically strategic mining belt.
The legacy of struggle
These pressures give ample reason, one could assume, to think an ANC victory unlikely. And yet, as we have seen, the ANC has comfortably secured another term in Pretoria. Any explanation must start with the idea that in South Africa, democracy and its most basic practical manifestation, the act of voting, come with a powerful emotive force. Voting is as much a symbolic, deeply emancipatory act of affirming the 1994 victory - a celebration of democracy itself - as it is the expression of a rationally informed choice made by an independent individual in a marketplace of political positions, as a liberal democrat would have it. The cracks and weaknesses in the moral and political legitimacy of the ANC and its leaders do not outweigh the sentiment, the affect of liberation and democracy that the ANC remains able to instil, and the deep reservoir of collective memory and imagination that it can generate electoral support from. The value of that shared history of oppression, discrimination and exploitation is, of course, not lost on the ANC itself. South Africa can with justification be called a country obsessed with nation-building, and politicians do not shy away from using their ‘struggle credentials’ as a form of political legitimation.
It is easy to read in this explanation of ANC success a culturalist argument of blind loyalty or political apathy. A particularly tenacious tendency views democracy in South Africa as still reaching for full maturity. This line of reasoning is not only evidently paternalistic and Afro-pessimistic, it is based on a misplaced evolutionist assumption about the teleological progression of all political systems towards liberal democracy, regardless of their specific cultural histories. Until it has reached that stage, it is implied, political behaviour remains mired in all sorts of vague and less-than-valid sentimental attachments of race, ethnicity, language, history or any other dimension of social difference. Should we assume that South Africans are ‘stuck’ in their nostalgic memory of liberation? Do they really close their eyes to the current crises? Obviously, the answer is no. Government support in the voting booth, but fierce and frequent protest outside of it, are thereby not considered contradictory, but both as legitimate means of political engagement. This may have a lot to say about a general mistrust of party politics, but this is not synonymous with a lack of political agency on the electorate’s behalf.
It should also be noted that ‘liberation sentiment’ as an explanation for the ANC victory does not do justice to the myriad ways people connect to and associate themselves with the ANC and its struggle legacy, coming from their own life histories and experiences, and informed by their own projects, dreams and expectations. But grouping them together does draw attention to a crucial element of the powerful imagery of the apartheid struggle, namely that it is framed as a collective national history which can be transmitted relatively freely across class positions. The sense of solidarity, of shared experience, of being ‘proudly South African’ that is generated is central to the affective politics of the ANC.
The struggle legacy remains a vital element of the electoral success of the ANC. But it is a tricky strategy too. The ANC is becoming increasingly dependent on those segments of the population which in objective terms have benefited least from the fruits of freedom and democracy. Its power base thereby moves even more strongly from the cities to the poor and underdeveloped rural areas, where liberation sentiment has widespread popular currency. But among that same group of people there is a growing realisation that the symbolism and rhetoric of the new South Africa has been surpassed by its reality.
Some eager commentators have already claimed the 2014 elections to have been the last ones based on liberation sentiment, thereby seeming to forget that these elections were already predicted to be about ‘real issues’. Five more years of ANC rule will surely come with increased oppositional pressure, threats from new extra-parliamentary formations, and a further politicisation of protest movements. And a political strategy that is parasitic on the bases of its own support has by definition an expiry date. But we should not be surprised if the ANC is able to regenerate its power base; it has over the years demonstrated a remarkable resilience. One thing we can say with certainty is that the political role of the ANC is nowhere near played out.