On 8 May, South Africa will be going to the polls for the
sixth time since the dawn of democracy in 1994.
The last 25 years have been anything but smooth sailing. This was, however, to be expected. Liberation from an oppressive apartheid regime, which excluded the majority from partaking in the social discourse, has come with a host of growing pains.
Still, it would be unwise to starve our optimism and focus solely on the nation’s grievous misgivings. South Africa’s democracy, only just entering its adulthood, has achieved some remarkable accomplishments.
Most of these feats, fostered from positive ideology centred on nation-building, forgiveness and hope, have been spearheaded by the average South African, who, despite their generally dire socioeconomic circumstances have refused to become enveloped by bitterness.
Generally speaking, citizens have confronted uncomfortable issues of race and inequality with limited malice, choosing, for the most part, to try and find some common ground.
South Africa’s current outlook
This social cohesion has, however, begun to lose its mailability;
the last decade has proven to be especially grim. Is this because South
Africans have become acutely aware and, subsequently, more resentful of their
differences? With the latest Gini Index pointing to South Africa as being one
of the most unequal countries in the world, this is indeed possible.
South Africa’s dire social inequality leads us down a labyrinth of interpersonal interrogations with most resolutions resting squarely at the feet of government – both on a national, provincial and even municipal scale. Has the government done enough to inspire and equip the disenfranchised masses and, in so doing, mitigate social ills including crime, unemployment and homelessness? We should judge publicly elected officials on their performances, but we also need to understand the damage done in the dark days from whence we come.
It would easy to place cause for the country’s monumental failings at the feet of the African National Congress (ANC). The mighty liberation movement, which, in 1994, was entrusted to drag South Africa out of the darkness and into the light of a New Dawn, has been judged harshly, but maybe not unfairly. As South Africa readies itself for a momentous ballot, it’s important, and natural, to critically cross-examine values and promises with a fair amount of cynicism. After all, elections afford citizens a rare opportunity to actively change the course of the country. The ballot box provides a revolutionary outlet, fundamental to the very heart of a free and fair democratic state.
In many ways, South Africa is at a crossroads; an intersection
vastly different to the ones which confronted us in the early 2000s. During the
90s, South Africa’s new political landscape was still searching for its footing
– the ANC was strong, led by the Father of The Nation, Nelson Mandela – while other
parties waxed and waned. Thabo Mbeki took over the reins in 1999 and the ANC
increased its voter share, solidifying its position as the ruling party.
A trip down memory lane
Under Mbeki’s leadership, the ANC enjoyed its golden years.
For almost a decade, the party managed to rebuff breakaways and minor scandals;
its detractors’ moans drowned out by a willingness to give the party a chance. Mbeki’s
time at the helm came to a controversial end in 2009. The ANC would now enter a
new era, led by Jacob Zuma.
At the same time, the Democratic Alliance (DA) cemented its position as the official opposition party. Since the early 2000s, the DA had made steady and impressive gains, almost doubling its voter share within a decade. While its unlikely that the DA robbed the ANC of vital votes, its administrative prowess, particularly in the Western Cape, proved that a functional alternative was available.
It’s arguable that Mbeki’s departure, and Zuma’s ascension
to the throne, hurt the ANC more than any opposition party ever did. If the
last decade has proven anything, its that the ANC has been its own worst enemy.
The first breakaway, which coincided with Mbeki’s departure, saw Mosiuoa Lekota form his own political party; the Congress of the People (COPE). Disillusioned with the ruling party, Lekota, and a host of other former ANC members,
The second semi-breakaway came shortly before the 2014 elections. A disgraced former ANC Youth League leader, who had once said he would kill for Zuma, was ejected from the party. With vengeance in his heart, Julius Malema would go on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF); a party, more radical in its rhetoric and relatable to the subjugated South African youth, which would rattle the ANC to its very core.
The latter half of the last decade has been painful for the
ANC. Fierce political infighting and factionalism along loyalist lines has
drained morale. The fact that the EFF garnered 6.35% of the national vote in
2014 – while the ANC dropped to its lowest ever 62.15% – didn’t help matters.
But the most damaging, and possibly untreatable, wound
inflicted on the ANC was at the hands of Jacob Zuma. Corruption within the
ranks of public officials soared along with irregular expenditure at governmental
departments and state owned enterprises. The rot of state capture, in which
Zuma has been implicated, spread throughout the country like a plague. It’s
estimated that Zuma’s dubious tenure cost the country R1 trillion; a country
already crippled by economic struggle.
Facing fierce political and public pressure, Zuma handed in
his early resignation 15 months ago. Unfortunately for the ANC and the country
as a whole, the full impact of his time at the helm will be felt for years to
Nobody knows this better than Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa. After taking over the presidential reigns, Ramaphosa, a consummate businessman, was touted at the country’s saviour. The president promised to usher in a New Dawn for the country and unify warring factions within the ANC. Behind the scenes, however, belting out his infamous chuckle, Zuma still pulls some political strings.
Things haven’t been going well for Ramaphosa. His own son
has been implicated in corrupt dealings and disunity amongst ANC members seems
to be at an all time high. It’s not looking much better for the rest of the top
Malema has intensified his radical rhetoric, calling for
illegal land grabs and endorsing racially divisive ideologies. His dubious
connections to recent corruption scandals have also done little to help his
cause. As a result, investigate journalists, publishers and media houses have
been attacked by Malema and EFF supporters for seeking to espouse the truth.
The DA, led by Mmusi Maimane, is also experiencing some uncomfortable growing pains in the arena of local governance. Political infighting – particularly in the Western Cape – coupled with some poor coalition strategies in other municipalities, has cast doubt on their competence for national governance.
Latest voter opinion polls
Latest voter opinion polls show similar findings. Judging from the latest Ipsos poll, conducted in March 2019, the ANC will struggle to improve on its 2014 showing. Ipsos surveys show that, out of those questioned, 60% would vote for the ANC on 8 May. Afrobarometer, which conducted its own survey, puts the number much lower – at 48% of the vote.
According to the same voter surveys, the DA could also see a
dip in support at this year’s ballot. Ipsos puts their national count at 16% –
almost 6% less than the 2014 result. Afrobarometer’s estimates for the DA are
even lower, totalling only 11% nationally.
The EFF is the only major political party which is,
according to the surveys, going to increase its voter share. Ipsos puts the figure
at about 9% while Afrobarometer puts it at almost 11%. This an estimated
increase of 3% and 5% respectively.
Political analysts have also noted that minority parties may
see a slight increase in support at this year’s election, due to the growing
sense of discontent with all three major parties.
While voter polls are by no means prophetic, the results,
relative to the general political malaise, point to a notable voter shift on a
national level and an even greater challenge in the provincial arena. While it
seems likely that the ANC will hold onto its national position, a further drop
in votes could prove catastrophic for the ruling party.
By all accounts, this year’s upcoming election will prove to
be the closest ballot to date.
Elections in South Africa, choice and accountablity
The pillars which support the structural integrity of a healthy democracy include two interdependent political mechanisms; that of choice and accountability. On 8 May, South Africans will be able to cast their vote for any one of the 48 parties present on the ballot paper. Through the Proportional Representation (PR) system, South Africa’s National Assembly will then be decided.
Citizens should, in theory, be able to hold publicly elected officials accountable for their performances in office. In practice, accountability is a mechanism of consequence attached to parliament and political party protocol.
Two things are clear; a political monopoly is generally
considered unhealthy in a democratic state, unless, of course, that monopoly improves
the lives of all citizens.
Unfortunately, a lack of proper accountability – especially concerning, but not limited to, the ANC – has bred frustration and anxiety amongst the electorate. In our parliamentary system, it’s up to the elected politicians to hold one another accountable. Naturally, the larger the Proportional Representation in the National Assembly, the more power a political party wields, the more power a political party has to hold others accountable. In this sense, accountability is two-fold.