South Africa elections: A new ANC victory, then what?

The Zuma government, with its ‘fat cat’ tendencies, has failed to define a coherent economic policy.

Julius Malema's populist discourse on economic redistribution may sound like music to the ears of some destitute African youth, writes Darracq [EPA]

South Africa is holding its national and provincial polls on May 7, a symbolic date: These elections will mark the 20th birthday of South African post-apartheid democracy. However, the election campaigns have been very subdued and have elicited little passion, far from the enthusiasm and hope that accompanied the first democratic polls in April 1994. A mix of moroseness and anger seems to have dominated this election season.

Youth, newly eligible to vote, display apathy: Only one third of the “born-free” – those born after the end of apartheid – have registered to vote. The campaign has been largely uninspirational, dominated by the saga on public funds unduly used by President Jacob Zuma for the refurbishment of his private residence. In the meantime, groups of angry miners threw stones at a minister from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) doing some door-to-door campaigning; and a group of ANC veterans have launched a campaign calling for a vote for the opposition as an “act of love” for the ANC and its ideals from which the current leadership is accused of having departed.

This lack of interest and enthusiasm for the campaign seems to rely on two premises: Whatever happens, at the end of the day, the ANC, the former liberation movement, will win the elections anyway; whatever happens, the ANC has lost its soul and the new ANC government will, like its predecessors, do very little to change the life of the ordinary man.

A closer look

It is worth looking more closely at these assumptions. True, there is very little suspense on the results of the forthcoming elections. Probably the ANC’s share of the vote will be marginally eroded, but the party is likely to obtain a new massive majority again, around 60 percent of the votes and the MPs, allowing Zuma to land a second term. The ANC is a massive party and can rely on an unrivalled network of local branches and organisers, which will get the voters out for the party. Moreover, due to its liberation credentials and its role in defeating apartheid, the party still commands the loyalty of many African voters.

In light of the seemingly endless list of sleaze involving prominent ANC leaders, it is now common to lament the ANC’s alleged moral decay, measuring the current ANC leadership’s ‘fat cat’ tendencies against the untarnished, revolutionary ethos of past heroes…

In a country where Black South Africans represent 79.2 percent of the population, the ANC has no significant competitor for the Black South African vote.

Having consolidated its grip over the vote of the “white”, “Indian” and “coloured” communities, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has been trying in recent years to make some inroads into the Black South African vote, targeting South African “born free” and middle-classes. But it has been struggling to change its image of a party for the racial minorities, and its attempt to present a Black South African presidential candidate for the coming polls have backfired, highlighting the superficiality of the party’s alleged transformation.

ANC renegade and firebrand Julius Malema has launched a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Malema’s radical and populist discourse on economic redistribution, attacking the white South Africans’ privileges, may sound like music to the ears of some destitute and unemployed sections of the African youth, but Malema’s controversial life story, marred with corruption issues, means that the party is unlikely to get more than a few percentages of the votes.

In the medium term, the ANC’s electoral majority will come under threat only when/if the ANC’s historical Triple alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the COSATU union federation breaks and the ANC then gets challenged for the African vote by a workers’ party.

In light of the seemingly endless list of sleaze involving prominent ANC leaders, it is now common to lament the ANC’s alleged moral decay, measuring the current ANC leadership’s “fat cat” tendencies against the untarnished, revolutionary ethos of past heroes such as Chief Albert Luthuli or the great Nelson Mandela. It is true that many see their ANC membership as a vehicle for self-enrichment and that many prominent ANC and government members – or their family and friends – use their positions of power to pursue their business interests.

Public perception

In terms of public perception, this issue is compounded by the fact that at the moment, the bad example comes from the top. Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, had his own flaws, but money and business deals did not seem of interest to him. In contrast, Zuma’s family and friends involved in business have hugely benefited from the government’s largess, sealing several high-level deals and tenders. But crony capitalism seems to be a common feature of many emerging economies, and South Africa is no more corrupt than any of the others. According to Transparency International’s corruption index, South Africa has the same levels of political corruption as Brazil, faring better than other non-Western powers such as Russia, India, China and Mexico.

Will the new ANC government be able to deliver “a better life for all”, as one of the ANC’s past slogans announced? Looking at Zuma’s first term, it is not clear, as the government has been unable to curb unemployment and social inequalities. In late 2013, the unemployment rate stood at 24.1 percent, against 21.9 percent in December 2008, effecting mainly African, male youth. Socio-economic inequalities are deeply-rooted in South Africa’s capitalist system, and the government’s room for manoeuvre has always been tiny. But after 20 years in power, the ANC has its own responsibilities as well.

Especially, the ANC’s “broad church” character, as effective as it can be on Election Day, has become an obstacle to effective policy-making. The ANC comprises different ideological tendencies (socialist, liberal, nationalist, conservative, etc) and means many different things to many different people.

One of the results is that the Zuma government remains torn between those advocating fiscal prudence and economic orthodoxy, and those advocating the instalment of a developmental state and an ambitious industrial policy, and therefore, has failed to define a coherent economic policy. Instead of an all-encompassing economic project, the government implements dispersed, sectorial, wishy-washy initiatives, with little result. As the memories of the liberation struggle fade away and new generations of voters emerge, it is increasingly on service delivery that the ANC government will be judged.

Vincent Darracq is an Africa analyst at International SOS and Control Risks. He worked for various risk consultancies and think-tanks, including the French Institute for International Relations and Chatham House (IFRI).