Rising Discontent Pushes South Africa Toward a Tight Poll
Rising Discontent Pushes South Africa Toward a Tight Poll
The national ballot is displayed during the opening ceremony of the National Results Operation Centre of the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, May 22, 2024. REUTERS/Alaister Russell
Q&A / Africa 10 minutes

Rising Discontent Pushes South Africa Toward a Tight Poll

South Africans go to the polls on 29 May. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Pauline Bax outlines what is at stake in the elections and why South Africa’s domestic politics are more fragmented than ever.  

What is at stake in these elections?

On 29 May, South Africans will go to the polls to vote in national and provincial elections. The African National Congress (ANC), which has dominated politics for the last three decades and has become almost synonymous with the state, is projected to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since it won power in 1994. The party that played a leading role in liberating the country from white minority rule faces a real prospect of having to form a coalition government, even as its leaders insist that it will once again win more than 50 per cent of the vote (in the last elections, in 2019, it got 57.5 per cent). Should the ANC be forced to form an alliance, it will need to act quickly after the vote. The South African political system is designed as a multi-party democracy, but the constitution allows parties only two weeks to forge an agreement in the National Assembly once elections are held.  

Pollsters admit that accurate predictions are difficult. Some business groups and investors worry that the ANC will broker a deal with populist rivals such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which they fear will hand out as many government jobs as possible to supporters, further weakening an already lacklustre economy. Others maintain that the ruling party will try to preserve stability by bringing in small partners like the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which is less disposed to derail economic reforms that are belatedly beginning to take effect. Whatever the outcome, many South Africans are eager for change. Almost 28 million of the 62 million-strong population are registered to vote; as many as 42 per cent of registered voters are aged 40 or under, the highest proportion of young voters recorded to date. One third of registered voters have not yet decided which party they will favour.     

South African voters will cast their ballots for parties that will appoint representatives to the National Assembly, who will in turn vote for the country’s president. It is then the president’s job to form a new government. Voting also takes place for members of provincial legislatures, who will take up seats in the nine provinces’ assemblies and choose provincial premiers, mirroring the national process. In a first, independent candidates can also run for public office. Few independents seem slated to win, though one who might is Zackie Achmat, a well-known AIDS treatment activist, whose candidacy has generated a lot of enthusiasm in his native Western Cape province. 

What is the mood among South Africans?

Many feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction. South Africans across social, economic and racial strata are frustrated with the state’s diminished capacity to deliver basic services. Most blame pervasive corruption for the rapid decline in critical economic infrastructure such as freight rail and ports. Mismanagement and malfeasance at the electricity utility have resulted in ever worsening power outages, although recent weeks have brought a slight reprieve. Dozens of municipalities are unable to supply safe drinking water or adequately treat sewage, possibly sparking a deadly cholera epidemic near the capital Pretoria in August 2023. The passenger railway system has crumbled, driving up transport costs for ordinary people. Sprawling shantytowns where the poor are crammed into corrugated iron shacks sit adjacent to affluent walled-in neighbourhoods, a legacy of the apartheid era’s segregation policies as well as the ANC’s failure to build sufficient affordable housing since then. Employment is a top priority for voters: about a third of the working-age population is jobless. 

Crime remains pervasive. South Africa is plagued by crime syndicates involved in drug and people trafficking, car hijackings, robbery of businesses, kidnappings for ransom and hits on armoured vehicles transporting cash, commonly known as cash-in-transit heists. The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime puts South Africa behind just six countries, including Colombia and Nigeria, when it comes to the penetration of society by organised crime, making it among the world’s most dangerous nations. The police, scorned by many citizens for their alleged passivity, have been unable to dismantle these syndicates or remedy a murder rate that has climbed steadily over the last decade to an average of 75 killings per day, aided by the easy availability of illicit firearms. Activists also decry the sky-high level of femicide, which sees three women murdered daily by an intimate partner. This number is probably an undercount, moreover, according to the country’s justice ministry, since police are failing to adequately record cases of this crime. Those who can afford it rely on private armed security, one of the largest employers in the country. 

A recent Afrobarometer survey shows that two thirds of South Africans – regardless of race, age and level of education – are unhappy with how their democracy is functioning. Another survey gauging the mood among young people found that almost three quarters of citizens aged eighteen to 24 feel pessimistic about their country’s future, citing corruption and unemployment among their concerns.

Urban youth gripe that [ANC] party officials are out of touch.

Beyond resentment with what many perceive as the ANC’s inertia, urban youth gripe that party officials are out of touch. ANC stalwarts, no matter how wealthy, still call one another “comrade”. Cabinet appointments are based on party loyalty rather than merit, a practice that is alienating a generation of young voters who feel unburdened by South Africa’s troubled past. 

That said, the ANC’s track record is not all bleak. The party rightly touts a wide-ranging welfare system – easily one of the most comprehensive in Africa – among its greatest achievements. Around half of the population receives some sort of social grant, whether it is child support, disability payment, unemployment relief or a state pension. The ANC began rolling out this system in the 1990s, but crippling lockdowns during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to introduce an $19 monthly unemployment grant (known as the SRD, or Social Relief of Distress), a benefit still distributed to about 10 million citizens today. The ANC has committed to making a decision on a basic income grant within two years, despite protestations from business and the National Treasury that it is unaffordable. Party officials insist that all welfare will be taken away if it loses the elections, a claim that opposition parties deny.

On the foreign policy front, the ANC’s increasingly assertive diplomacy has also won a degree of public support and drawn a clear dividing line with the main opposition force, the Democratic Alliance (DA). The ANC’s overtures to Moscow (South Africa hosted joint naval exercises with China and Russia on the first anniversary of Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine) have annoyed important trade partners but enjoyed a warm reception among South Africans who feel grateful for the Soviet Union’s support of the ANC during the apartheid era. The ANC has also received plaudits domestically and in the so-called Global South for its decision to take Israel to the International Court of Justice on allegations of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

What options do voters have besides the ANC?

These elections are likely to reflect the continued fragmentation of South African politics, not only between urban and rural voters but also among different racial and social groups. The ANC will probably retain support in the countryside for the foreseeable future, but it will continue to lose votes in urban centres. Racial and ethnic politics are also making something of a comeback. Several of the new contenders are rallying support from among their own racial or ethnic group ahead of the elections, even if few of them are likely to get into the National Assembly. For instance, the newly formed Patriotic Alliance, led by a repentant gangster who built a career as a motivational speaker, primarily attracts support from among mixed-race voters, locally known as Coloureds,  in the Western Cape province. His campaign will likely chip away at local support for the country’s biggest opposition force, the Democratic Alliance (DA), heir to a party that opposed apartheid during white minority rule. The DA has successfully governed the Western Cape since 2009 but still struggles to shake off perceptions that it caters to white voters. Its leader, John Steenhuisen,  trades on the party’s reputation for sound local governance in the province, saying it can bring its competence to the rest of the nation. The EFF, a populist party led by the charismatic Julius Malema, claims that it will give ownership of everything from land to banks to black South Africans either directly or through nationalisation. All parties, aside from the ANC, say they will tackle corruption in government. The other thing all parties have in common is that they barely feature women leaders, except the miniscule GOOD party. 

A groundswell of discontent with the ANC among city dwellers became apparent in 2021, when local government polls in 2021 saw the party lose its majority in several large municipalities, including Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Pretoria (also known as Tshwane) as voters opted for smaller parties instead. But some of the coalitions formed to govern these cities became embroiled in bitter disputes. Jockeying for control of Johannesburg saw a succession of three mayors in three years. In May 2023, the ANC and EFF settled on an uneasy power-sharing arrangement by propelling an obscure politician from a tiny Muslim party to the position of mayor of the country’s biggest city. Many South Africans worry that such opportunistic alliances with minor political forces set a bad precedent for the country’s provincial and national leadership structures, risking further erosion of the national government’s credibility.

The biggest surprise of this electoral cycle has been the entry of former President Jacob Zuma and the ensuing legal dramas around his eligibility.

Yet the biggest surprise of this electoral cycle has been the entry of former President Jacob Zuma and the ensuing legal dramas around his eligibility. Zuma is 82, suffers from poor health and has an axe to grind with Ramaphosa, whom he blames for his 2018 ouster from the presidency following a slew of corruption scandals. In December, Zuma said he would be the face of the newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe Party (“spear of the nation”, in English, known as MKP), which bears the name of the ANC’s former armed wing. The ANC subsequently suspended Zuma’s party membership, while the electoral commission rejected his candidacy because of a previous fifteen-month prison sentence for contempt of court. (Zuma refused to attend court hearings about corruption during his term in office.) In April, an electoral court overturned the commission’s decision, only for the Constitutional Court to rule several weeks later that Zuma is indeed ineligible to run for parliament. 

These legal wranglings have had no bearing on Zuma’s popularity, however. His man-of-the-people attitude particularly appeals to voters in the majority-ethnic Zulu province KwaZulu-Natal and to the many Zulus who live in the wealthy Gauteng province. His party is projected to capture a considerable share of the vote from the ANC, the EFF and the IFP, a Zulu nationalist party, even if the man himself is unable to take up a seat in the National Assembly. Threats from members of his MKP party to stoke anarchy if Zuma cannot assume public office have thus far not led to unrest.               

What are the main risks associated with these elections?

Once the elections are over, many political analysts say, the ANC should look to work with small, single-issue parties that can guarantee policy continuity rather than bigger opposition forces whose main objective is ousting the ANC. One likely coalition partner is the IFP, which was a bitter rival to the ANC in the early 1990s but is now headed by the well-respected moderate Velenkosini Hlabisa. Yet such an alliance is only possible if the combined vote tally of the two parties reaches at least 50 per cent or if even smaller parties are co-opted to join them. For its part, the Democratic Alliance has repeatedly evoked a supposed “doomsday scenario” under which the ANC forms an alliance with either the EFF, the MKP or both. A coalition between the DA and the ANC, the country’s two largest parties, would arguably offer the best prospects for economic stability, but it seems unlikely given the suspicions between the two.         

A further pressing concern is that all politicians are tapping into the sombre national mood by blaming not only the ANC but also undocumented migrants for the country’s high crime rate and economic woes. Antipathy toward foreigners from other African countries escalated into deadly mob violence and public lynchings in 2008, 2015 and again in 2017 and 2019, gravely damaging South Africa’s moral authority across the region. Many politicians tend to conflate undocumented migrants with criminals, while Herman Mashaba, the leader of ActionSA, has labelled them “international terrorists”. Calls to kick out all migrant workers without papers and erect a border wall are commonplace and rarely met with indignation. Human Rights Watch has called for politicians to tone down this toxic rhetoric, lest it fuel another round of xenophobic violence.    

The period when violence is most likely to erupt will be the fortnight after the elections, should the ANC have to enter coalition talks. If there are no clear winners in the provincial legislatures, politicians may rally their supporters for a public show of strength that bolsters their standing. Some worry about unrest in KwaZulu-Natal province, which was wracked by mob violence that killed over 300 people in 2021 after Zuma was jailed. Those left out of eventual negotiations might resort to protest or rioting in order to press for concessions. All political forces should show restraint and refrain from inflammatory rhetoric, scaremongering and disinformation, turning to the courts rather than the streets if aggrieved. It is critical that political parties support the electoral commission and show their confidence in the institution’s independence, since only by doing so can they protect South Africa’s hard-won reputation as one of the few countries on the continent that has regularly held free, fair and credible elections.

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