“In South Africa, people have a deep faith in electoral politics. There are people who genuinely seem to believe that elections are a magic act that takes us forward, bit by bit, on the path to national redemption” wrote Vashna Jagarnath on the eve of South Africa’s fifth democratic elections. Two days after the May 7 elections, the multitude of predictions are rendered hollow, as the country faces the national and provincial results which have again proclaimed incumbent Jacob Zuma the indisputable kingmaker of South African politics under the African National Congress (ANC).
An estimated 18 million of the 25 million registered voters took to the polls. The battle for the soul of the nation and the state coffers signalled a country searching to restore a lost sense of belief in itself resulting from a messy state and nation building project of the past twenty years. The dawn of new political parties, high levels of economic inequality, and the damning corruption allegations against President Zuma and his administration, left little reason not to believe in the redemptive possibilities of these elections.
Yet, with over 98 percent of the votes in the 2014 elections counted and thus far showing a 62.26 percent lead by the ruling ANC with 10 million votes (versus 22.17 percent from the official opposition the Democratic Alliance at the national level), it appears that the centre is still holding.
Many of the so called ‘born free’ generation of young people are currently least likely to ever get a decent job in the country which currently boasts and unemployment figure of 24 percent
The ANC further managed to win and secure eight of the country’s nine provinces including the North West province which was the site of the 2012 Marikana massacre of mine workers who were shot by the police. The DA only managed to retain the Western Cape, although most notably the ANC failed to attain the all-important two-thirds majority 65 percent. The new kids on the block, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by the expelled former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, have gained just 6 percent of the votes, a far cry from the upset it was expected to serve at the polls.
Instead, EFF seems to have performed as well as the Congress of the People (COPE) in 2009, another party formed by disgruntled ANC members after the removal of Thabo Mbeki from office, which gained 7.4 percent back then. Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the leader of Agang South Africa, a noted business woman and a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement with Steve Biko, will be lucky if she scraps one seat in parliament.
The opposition today clearly remains as weak and fractured as it was in previous elections with reactive and ill-principled and top-down alliances between the DA and Agang having been exposed for the flawed alternative that they were. Zuma, the man who was booed in front of a global audience during Nelson Mandela’s funeral last December, is having the last laugh after all.
Despite this reaffirmation from the South African electorate in these elections about the governing ANC and the will to have the party continue to lead, it is no secret that South Africa is at a crossroads. Many of the so called “born free” generation of young people are currently least likely to ever get a decent job in the country which currently boasts and unemployment figure of 24 percent.
Despite debilitating strikes, big industry companies, protected by the state, continue to underpay workers even though these wages support multiple households. This is coupled with a weakening currency, rampant and violent evictions of the poor in urban areas. All these are but some of the many reasons why these elections needed to shatter the centre, if only for its own good.
I was among those who desperately hoped that the ANC would get less than 60 percent of the vote and also lose control of some provinces and thereby being forced it to rule in coalition with opposition parties. As a Mail and Guardianr’s editorial noted, weakening the legislative dominance of the ANC would give the opposition more clout in holding the executive accountable. This is a duty that many members of the ANC are no longer able to exercise due to the consequences of being “beholden to their party hierarchy, not constituents”.
The very slow response by the South African parliament following the release of the Nkandla report which accused Zuma’s executive of mishandling tax payer funds which were used for “security upgrades” of Zuma’s private home, is the most recent example of how party loyalty seems to trump legislative responsibility by members of the ruling party.
I looked to these elections for a sign that in 2019, after surviving five more years of Zuma presidency, there would be the possibility of unseating of the ANC. The authors of a new book published just before the elections, The fall of the ANC: what next? (2014), Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo boldly proclaimed that “the sooner the party is confined to the grave the better for South Africa”.
However, the voters tell a different story of the extent to which the party has succeeded in appropriating itself as the true caretaker of the state. Looking into the future, political commentator, Steven Friedman, argues that South African party politics will “shift only if the ANC splits again, so that there are at least two credible parties competing for the majority of voters who remain loyal to its history (if not its present leadership)”. In this regard, he insists that “if we want a sense of where our politics is headed, we need to look at the tensions within the ANC rather than the challenges it faces from outside”.
This time the potential for rupture resides in the ANC’s unhappy union with the Congress of South African Union (COSATU). Should the trade union walk away with it members, it would be difficult for the ANC to withstand further fracturing.
While the opposition party DA needs to be commended for its gain of 6 percent from its overall 16.6 percent in the national vote in 2009, it is clear that its growth is too slow and does not have the capacity to offer a future alternative to the ANC. If Friedman is correct, the future is a waiting game that looks to the ruling party to set itself on fire until the core foundations of the party come tumbling down. So we wait. And in the meantime, Jacob Zuma remains the winner.
Siphokazi Magadla is a lecturer with the political and international studies department at Rhodes University, South Africa.