South Africans have voted. What did they say?

Gregory Mthembu-Salter
24 April 2009

South Africans voted in general and provincial elections on April 22nd, the fourth chance they have all had to do so since the birth of democracy in 1994. After months of increasingly feverish punditry in the domestic media about the country’s political trajectory, the people finally got their chance to speak at the ballot box. So what did they say?

The first message was that the poll mattered to them. The total number of ballots cast had not been officially released at the time of writing, but the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) reckons 77% of 23 million registered voters voted on Wednesday. That’s 17.71 million people, 13.5% higher then the 15.34 million voters recorded in 2004.

The national population growth rate, ravaged as it is by deaths from HIV/Aids, is estimated at just 0.28% a year, so the increase cannot be explained by that alone.  
The reason for the high turnout was that people cared deeply about the outcome.

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)

Roger Southall "South Africa’s election: a tainted victory (7 April 2009)

ANC supporters turned out in their masses to re-elect the party, with an estimated 12 million people voting for the party this time round, two million more then last time.  One reason for this substantial growth is the ANC’s determination to trounce a new party contesting elections for the first time, the Congress of the People (Cope). Cope was formed last November by prominent members of an ANC faction that had supported former president Thabo Mbeki, but which was routed by a rival faction supporting Jacob Zuma at an ANC General Congress in Polokwane in December 2007. Mbeki lost the ANC’s presidency at Polokwane, and all his supporters were voted off the National Executive Committee (NEC). Although he was beaten in the presidential contest, Mbeki still took 40% of the vote. If all that support could be translated into electoral support for Cope, the ANC had a real crisis on its hands.

The crisis seemed to galvanise party structures, which had become increasingly moribund under Mbeki. Zuma led from the front, wowing crowds at rallies across the country with a compelling blend of off-the-cuff rhetoric fusing English and Zulu, dancing alongside bevies of agile young performers to contemporary, cutting-edge township beats, and, every time, his controversial trademark ‘umshini wami’ song – an old struggle chant calling for him to be brought his machine gun so he can go fight the good fight. On the campaign trail, Zuma exhibited a canny way of distancing himself from government service delivery failures, which have so enraged particularly the black township electorate, at times talking as if those responsible were from another party. He by contrast, Zuma seemed to say, represented the real ANC, the one that listened to the poor and understood their victimhood. After all, had not he, Zuma, been a victim too, ruthlessly persecuted by his political enemies? Those familiar with the grubby details of the powerful prosecution case against Zuma in a recently cancelled corruption trial may scoff at the idea of Zuma as a victim. But after this election there can be no doubt that the majority of South Africans do not.

While the number of ANC voters has grown since 2004, so too has the number of the party’s active opponents. Many sympathisers have been appalled by the shenanigans of the last few years, and particularly the reckless abuse of state institutions in the waging of factional warfare within the party. Zuma’s own implication in corruption, his determination to avoid being tried for it, and his success in this matter has been disillusioning for some, as for others is his polygamy, affairs and trial for rape (he was acquitted). 90% of white South Africans are reckoned to have voted this time, the highest proportion since 1994, with nearly all of them voting for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). Turnout among Coloured (mixed race) voters in the Western Cape was over 60% this time, compared to just over 30% in 2004. These too voted almost exclusively for the DA. The DA vote rose from 1.9 million in 2004, 12.4% of the total, to 2.8 million in 2009, 16% of the total.

That suggests South African politics is still racially polarised, with black people voting ANC, and others voting against it. That is largely true, but not entirely. An estimated 1.3 million people, 7.5% of the electorate, voted for Cope. The proof is not yet there, but the available evidence suggests that nearly all of these people were black, and nearly all of them used to vote ANC. 7.5% is a long way from the 40%, but if Cope plays its cards right, it might be a start.

In contrast to previous elections, where the opposition vote has been spread across a number of parties, this year Cope and the DA won nearly all of it. All the other opposition parties lost heavily and many are in danger of extinction. Intriguingly, the country’s pro- and anti-ANC constituencies seem to have grown at roughly the same rate as each other since 2004, leaving overall proportions little changed. At the moment, it looks like the ANC will end up with about 67% of the vote this time round, compared to 70% in 2004.

But, one may wonder, if the ANC has lost 7.5% of the electorate to Cope, why is it only 3% down on its 2004 total this time round? The question appears additionally perplexing when one considers the Western Cape, where the ANC won 46% of the vote in 2004, but where this time it got little over 30%, losing the province to the DA. The answer lies in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). KZN is the country’s second most populous province, after its industrial and commercial heartland of Gauteng, and in years past has been the stronghold of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Although already in decline by this stage, the IFP won just over a million votes in 2004, and 96% of them came from KZN. The IFP won 35% of the KZN vote in that year, and the ANC 47%, but this time the ANC has secured around two-thirds of the provincial vote, with the bulk of its new support coming at the IFP’s expense.

The main reasons for this seem to be that the IFP has performed notably more poorly than the ANC in KZN’s local and provincial government, leaving the electorate unimpressed; that it has been unable to generate new leadership to succeed the increasingly elderly Mangosuthu Buthelezi; and, crucially, that KZN’s predominantly Zulu population has rallied around Zuma, who is Zulu and proud of it.    

Encouragingly, perhaps, for democracy, electoral punishment for poor delivery appears to be one of the reasons too for the ANC’s losing the Western Cape. The Western Cape provincial ANC has been particularly wracked by factional infighting over the last few years, severely compromising its governance of the province, and the party has been simply unable to mount a coherent challenge there to the DA, whose leader, Helen Zille, is mayor of the provincial capital, Cape Town. As usual in South Africa, however, there is a significant racial aspect to this, since the Western Cape is unique in South Africa in being majority Coloured, and with a large white population. The DA succeeded in scooping almost all of their votes, and at the same time Cope scored about 8%, presumably at the ANC’s expense.

At a joyful ANC victory rally in Johannesburg on Thursday night, Zuma mocked the commentariat, saying he had heard so many people say so many different things about him and his party, but that all of them seemed to agree on one point – that the ANC would win the election by a landslide. Zuma is right. The ANC has won another landslide. It is another massive vote of confidence in the ruling party. So large in fact, that it may encourage its leaders to ignore the message that Cope’s vote seems to bring, that the constitution deserves defending, and that corruption, particularly when it concerns the president, matters. The ANC will ignore this message at its peril, though this election suggests it is in little danger just yet.

But Zuma’s main challenge upon entering government is rather different. He and the ANC must show the poor and the very poor, who this election has shown once more are their core constituency, that the government can visibly improve their lives, at a time when South Africa has entered the first recession of the democratic era. Since Zuma has said different things to different people about his likely economic policy as president, pointing left or right as it suits him, the truth is we just do not know how he intends to deliver. The ANC will probably win next time too no matter what, but deliver Zuma must if he wants a crack at the presidency next time.

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