South Africa at the polls, and beyond.

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In this blog piece our Co-editor, Sarah-Jane Cooper-Knock, takes a look at the run-up to South Africa’s polls, and the longer-term political questions that remain for citizens in South Africa. Sarah Jane is a Fellow at the London School of Economics. 

This week, South Africans will vote in their fifth national election since the country’s transition to democracy in 1994. Twenty years ago, iconic images circulated of black South Africans joining snaking lines of citizens queuing to cast their vote for the first time, in an election that would place the African National Congress (ANC) firmly at the helm of the state. Since then, the party has continued to dominate the legislature, consistently obtaining over 60 per cent of the vote.

On 7 May, the ANC looks set to comfortably win again. However, in recent years, dissatisfaction with the party has grown within a whole range of constituencies. The real question for analysts is how this dissatisfaction will manifest itself in the years to come. Clues to help us answer this question can be found on the campaign trail…

A Better Life For Whom?

The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa was bound up with ‘bread and butter’ issues: concerns over material as well as political equality drove people to sacrifice a great deal in the push for change. In keeping with these concerns, the ANC campaigned for votes in 1994 under the slogan ‘A Better Life For All’. Twenty years on, the party has been keen to stress the progress made towards improving the lives of ordinary South Africans. The government, for example, claims to have delivered around 5.5 million formal homes since 1994, increased electricity coverage from 51% to 76% of all households, and increased sanitation access from 51% to 83% of all households.  Furthermore, in a recent speech, Zuma claimed that the range of social security grants now reached 16 million South Africans, in comparison to 2.7 million in 1994.

The government’s critics, however, highlight that there is a great deal left to do. For example, despite the government’s housing delivery programmes, the same proportion of South Africans live in shacks today as they did in 1994. And, whilst it might not be within the government’s reach to resolve all of its country’s problems, growing levels of corruption, delayed delivery and over-budget projects, and a growing privatisation of public services have severely hampered the government’s ability to provide for its people. Moreover, where delivery has occurred, recipients claim that the quality of products has been low, community participation has been limited, and, consequently, the product or service delivered has been unsustainable. This goes some way to explaining the rise of service delivery protests, which have brought more than two million people onto the streets of South Africa every year since 2008.

But South Africans are not just frustrated that the state has failed to deliver good-quality, affordable services. They are also dissatisfied with the state’s management of the country’s economy, and the high rates of unemployment that have left people so reliant upon public provision in the first place. In the lead up to the election, the ANC has argued that the economy has grown under their watch and the percentage of South Africans in absolute poverty has fallen. The opposition argue, however, that there has been a net loss in jobs, with 1.4 million South Africans joining the ranks of the unemployed since Zuma took power in 2009. They stress that whilst some reduction in absolute poverty may have occurred (although its extent is debated), extreme inequality persists. South Africa, they highlight, has one of the world’s highest Gini co-efficients:  a director in a top twenty JSE-listed company earns 1,728 times the income of the average South African worker.

Therefore, whilst a few, well-connected black South Africans may have reached dizzy economic heights since 1994, these ‘black diamonds’ are firmly in the minority. The majority of South Africa’s population are under 35, and find themselves at the sharp end of the 25% unemployment rate with a poor education. They are eager for tangible economic change and are less likely to support the ANC on the back of its anti-apartheid ‘struggle history’ alone. This is particularly true of the ‘born frees’, who have never directly experienced apartheid, and will be eligible to vote in a national election for the first time this year.

But it is not just the country’s poorest residents who are dissatisfied with the ANC. Many are also frustrated by the extent of corruption in the upper echelons of the party, and beyond. This is not to suggest that corruption is anything new in the ANC, or beyond: it isn’t. Such practices have long and tangled roots, as historians have demonstrated.  The ANC, for example, is still paying for the links it forged with criminal gangs during apartheid in order for its underground structures to survive and flourish, which brought figures like the late Joe Modise into the organisation, who was subsequently at the centre of the $4.8 billion Arms Deal that has been shrouded in allegations of corruption. But the magnitude and frequency of corruption certainly seems to be growing and spreading throughout the party’s ranks from local councillors to the national executive.

Looking after number one?

Jacob Zuma himself has been dogged by allegations that he made inappropriate use of public funds when he upgraded his home in Nklandla to the tune of R246 million, supposedly for security purposes.  South Africa’s fearless Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, concluded her investigation into the issue by arguing that Zuma had benefitted personally and inappropriately from the upgrade and should pay back some of the total budget spent. Whilst the ANC have managed to ensure that the ad hoc committee established to process Zuma’s response to the public protector’s investigation into the scandal would  not sit before the parliamentary session ended, this has provided little political salve.

In the light of such scandals, it is not surprising that some welcomed Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s attempt to unseat Zuma at the Party Conference in Mangaung in 2012.  Gaining nominations in the country’s economic heartland of Gauteng, as well as Limpopo and the Western Cape, Motlanthe seemed like he might pose a credible threat to Zuma’s tenure. But the President, who cut his teeth in the 1980s and early 1990s within the intelligence structures of the underground ANC and in mediating the bloody political battles in KwaZulu Natal, proved again that he should not be underestimated.

Zuma is a political survivor, and ultimately defeated all who stood in his path: Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the ANC Youth League who was increasingly critical of Zuma’s Presidency, was expelled from the ANC prior to the Party Conference. During the conference, Motlanthe’s bid was emphatically defeated, marking his political marginalisation within the organisation.

But the problems facing Zuma and the ANC are far from over.

There may be trouble ahead: the future of the tripartite alliance

The first potential problem, is the future of the ‘tripartite alliance’ between the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This governing alliance emerged in 1994, supposedly in recognition of the role that the SACP and COSATU played in the liberation struggle and in order to give the organised working class a strong voice in the governing of the country.

However, when the liberalising Growth, Employment and Redistribution Plan came in under then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki in 1996 without any meaningful consultation, some COSATU and the SACP members felt that they could gain better leverage outside the alliance than within it. Such rumblings have continued in the intervening years. There was some hope that the tripartite alliance would be revived by the ascension of Zuma, who positioned himself as an inclusive leader, and a man of the people. But whilst the likes of Blade Nzimande, General Secretary of SACP, remain loyal to Zuma, many others are dissatisfied. Recently, the General Secretary of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, has been particularly vocal in critiquing the ANC, becoming something of a liability on the campaign trail.

But Vavi and COSATU have other issues to tackle. The Marikana Massacre of 2012, for example, in which 34 mine workers were killed by police, rocked the unions. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had once been the biggest player within COSATU, but events at Marikana highlighted the disconnect between NUM leaders and ordinary mine workers. Attempts to understand Marikana and move forward from it have caused huge rifts within COSATU, particularly between NUM and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). The latter heavily critiqued the behaviour of the NUM, raised funds for mineworkers injured in what NUM labelled ‘wildcat strikes’, and called on COSATU to leave the tripartite alliance.

The political future of the unions, the rise of unions like AMCU outside of COSATU’s control, the viability of the tripartite alliance and the question of who truly represents the working class in South Africa are crucial issues that will shape the political landscape beyond the elections this week. Debates over the use of force in public order policing and, more generally, the ways in which political opposition is greeted by the government, are also important issues for the coming term.

Opposing Views: alternatives to the ANC

A second threat to the ANC comes from its party political opponents. Most notably, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA).

The Democratic Alliance has increased its share of the vote in national elections from approximately 10 per cent in 1999 to approximately 17 per cent in 2009. Its aim for this election was to gain 30 per cent of the national vote, and to win the province of Gauteng, whilst maintaining its hold on the Western Cape.

In February of this year, the Democratic Alliance launched its manifesto, which included the promise of six million ‘real and permanent jobs’ as well as seven million ‘public works’ jobs. This, in combination with its ‘youth wage subsidy’ was aimed at pulling in the disillusioned ‘born free’ generation. The DA continue to point to their claimed success running the province of the Western Cape, as proof of their capacity to govern efficiently and effectively.

However, the latest IPSOS poll has placed the DA’s share of the vote at approximately 24 per cent. Throughout its time in opposition, the DA’s efforts to build the party have remained hampered by the fact that – in the minds of many – the party is seen as protecting the interests of privileged, white South Africans. Their policy appeals to other constituencies, and the rise of black leaders – like parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko – are often suspected by critics of being instrumental attempts to increase their voting share, not meaningful attempts to reposition the party. The DA’s treatment of issues like affirmative action has only reinforced this perspective. When it backtracked on its support for the Employment Equity Act Amendment Bill last year, it may have reassured its traditional base, but it spurned new potential voters who had been encouraged by this turn around. The failure of the DA’s short-lived merger with Agang SA – a party led by struggle hero Mamphela Ramphele –  is due in part, at least, to her supporters’ rejection of the DA on such grounds.

That said, an interesting twist has occurred in the last few days, when the shack-dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo – which has previously been strictly non-partisan – decided to strategically support the DA in this week’s elections to weaken the ANC’s hold on power. Whilst Abahlali are clear on the shortcomings of the DA and the tactical nature of their support, this has surely encouraged the DA that it can bridge economic and racial divides, however temporarily, with relevant and credible policy commitments.

The EFF has none of the longevity of the DA, but also none of its political baggage. Emerging last year, the party is headed by ex-ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. Commentators on the South African political scene have always treated Malema with a mixture of fear and derision. Here is a self-styled revolutionary who dons a red Beret in his exclusive Sandton mansion before walking the streets of the country’s townships, promising widespread land reform without compensation and nationalisation of the mines, whilst simultaneously battling allegations of tax evasion with the South African Revenue Service. And yet, his populist promise of ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’ has purchase amongst South Africa’s economically disenfranchised, and he has managed to secure the support of numerous other smaller factions who have become disillusioned with the ANC, but cannot bring themselves to vote for the DA.

Undoubtedly, the EFF will fail to secure the 50 per cent share of the vote that Malema and his comrades have claimed. Current polling figures place him at approximately 5 per cent, but this is not an unimpressive figure in itself given the party’s recent appearance and its limited economic resources.

If it performs as expected, the EFF will raise a meaningful challenge for the ANC on the left, particularly in the provinces of Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga, Free State and Gauteng, where their support is strongest. The EFF’s relative success in Gauteng is the DA’s weakness: its ability to enter the provinces townships and convince ANC voters that they are a potentially powerful, palatable alternative. Whilst Gauteng might be the economic centre of the country, control of the province will be won or lost in its townships. If the EFF can take a substantial share of the votes here, and both the ANC and the DA obtain less than 50 per cent at the polls, they may well become a kingmaker in the province – a position that could have an important impact on political culture and political policy in the area.

The EFF, like other opposition parties, also has the opportunity to capture the large number of registered voters who are not planning to vote tomorrow. In a poll in July last year, almost 25 per cent of South Africans claimed they were not planning on voting. 44 per cent claimed that this was because ‘things would stay the same no matter who won the election’ whilst 31 per cent argued that ‘there was no party worth voting for’. The success of opposition parties should be assessed not only on the degree to which they can convert ANC voters, but also on their success in convincing otherwise apathetic or angry citizens to exercise their right to vote by providing a credible vision that is worth voting for.

To the polls, and beyond

The 2014 elections in South Africa are likely to hold few surprises for political pundits in the country, and beyond. But the politics of the campaign trail will have a significance that stretches far beyond the polls: the entrance of new political parties, growing dissatisfaction within the ANC, and widening rifts within the tripartite alliance have sparked a series of political debates and debacles that will continue to shape the South African political landscape well into the next term.

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