South Africa’s Election Changed Little, But Then It Was Never Going To

Think Africa Press

South African Election By James Schneider

One of the ballot boxes used in South Africa's first post-apartheid elections. Photograph by Adam Fagen.
One of the ballot boxes used in South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections. Photograph by Adam Fagen.

One of the ballot boxes used in South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections. Photograph by Adam Fagen.
If you had only been listening to South Africa’s commentariat in the run-up to South Africa’s 7 May General Election − rather than checking the polls − you may have been expecting some exciting results last week.

Over the past year or so, we have repeatedly been told that the Democratic Alliance (DA), Agang or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were going to produce “game-changing” performances. These momentous breakthroughs, it was suggested, would seriously trouble the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and set the stage for genuinely competitive elections in 2019.

But this didn’t happen.

In the end, the ANC won its fifth consecutive landslide with 62.2% of the vote, a drop of just 3.7% from the 2009 elections.

The DA increased its vote to 22.2%. This is being heralded in DA-friendly corners as a great advance, but it’s a far cry from the party’s target of 30% and only represents an increase of 4.7% on their 2009 showing (if we combine its vote with that of the Independent Democrats [ID], who merged with the DA in 2010). The DA advance in 2014, while real, is hardly seismic.

The EFF meanwhile won 6.4% of the vote. For a party that only formed last year, this is not bad, and it will give the party 25 MPs, but it is far from excellent. In fact, 6.4% is probably about half what would have been required to put pressure on the ANC from its left flank, despite the ruling party’s loss of support from major trade union National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

Agang came eleventh with 0.3% of the vote, receiving marginally more votes than it has Twitter followers, and will get just two MPs. This is a pitiful showing, especially after the party was given so much coverage, much of it extremely positive, by South African and international media after its formation last year.

Congress of the People (COPE), a liberal splinter party from the ANC, had a similarly disastrous election. In 2009, COPE had come third with 7.4%; in 2014, it dropped to eighth with just 0.7%, losing many more votes than the ANC. COPE’s loss of support was larger than the DA’s gain. It seems the often heralded emergent liberal-right force in South African politics is not growing at any dramatic rate, if at all.
Between a rock and a hard place

In the aftermath of the elections, much of South Africa’s commentariat who constantly discuss the ANC’s multiple failings and transgressions must be blinking in disbelief. One explanation they may turn to is the idea that the majority’s electoral support for the ANC stems from “rusted on loyalty” due to its anti-apartheid past. But a better explanation is that the majority of the population just doesn’t find any of the opposition parties appealing – and with good reason.

If you are angry with the ANC for massive inequality, high unemployment, a narrow economy focused around minerals and energy, and the poor delivery of social goods, then it would be irrational to vote for the DA. The main opposition party is a market liberal party and where the kinds of policies it advocates have been adopted elsewhere in the world, they have not led to a radical reduction of inequality, increased provision of social services or increased living standards for the poor. No amount of vacuous #BelieveGP hashtags, good marketing, and alternately yelling “jobs”, “amandla” and “viva” will change that.

Meanwhile, if you are angry with the ANC for corruption or high levels of discrimination and violence against women, then one would hardly vote for the EFF. While the party talks the talk on corruption and gender equality, it is led by Julius Malema, a former powerful ANC figure who faces allegations of money laundering and tax evasion and is due in court later this year. Before they fell out, Malema also defended Jacob Zuma during the now-president’s rape trial in which he made less than progressive comments about women, for which he was convicted of hate speech. While Malema’s raw charisma draws people towards him, there remains a high degree of cynicism about him. This can, perhaps, best be summed up by the joke by South African puppet comedian Chester Missing: How do you turn a Breitling wearing capitalist into a communist? Make him pay tax.

The other opposition options are hardly appealing either. You can either vote for a self-destructing joke party such as Agang or COPE, or you can vote for a narrow interest party such as the Freedom Front Plus, the Inkatha Freedom Party or the National Freedom Party.

Given their clear weaknesses, it may be surprising that so much of South Africa’s intelligentsia looks to these opposition parties as the primary means of deepening democracy in the country. Part of the reason behind this may come down to who South Africa’s commentating classes are. They are, almost by definition, better educated and richer than their average compatriot. This means that they may know more about the ANC’s failings and have more social links with the wealthier population, much of which opposes the ANC almost as second nature. They are well-informed about some of the things going wrong in the country, want it to get better, and may well fix onto the alternatives that they see around them. This may be why much of the commentariat, consciously or unconsciously, promotes liberal or right alternatives to the ANC, such as the DA, COPE and Agang.

There is also another section of the intelligentsia who are critical of the ANC from a left perspective. They are unlikely to support the DA as they know that many of the ANC policies they most oppose, such as the National Development Plan (NDP), are broadly supported by the DA. Instead, they may dream of an ANC pulled to the left by powerful social forces. And as such they may be likely to over-hype the impact of movements to the ANC’s left such as NUMSA’s disassociation or the rise of the EFF.

The commentariat’s tendency to overemphasise support for, and positive aspects of, opposition parties may also stem from a misdiagnosis of what is required for the deepening of democracy in South Africa. Much of the intelligentsia thinks that the country’s democracy would be improved by having a larger opposition caucus and, as such, see Parliament as the best organ to challenge the status quo.

This, however, is misguided. As mentioned above, the DA broadly agrees with much of the NDP, the large-scale plan that will form the basis for the next government’s agenda and which was written Trevor Manuel, a man the DA have long respected.

Furthermore, South Africa’s parliament is elected by a national party list system of proportional representation. This means that votes are won by parties, not by MPs. Electing more opposition MPs, therefore, does not necessarily create more voices in parliament but can merely strengthen party leaderships. In its current form, South Africa’s parliament is unlikely to be a site of real popular oversight and decision-making.
Action over anguish

Democracy is not just measured by regular multiparty elections run by well-financed parties with big rallies and attractive t-shirts or berets. Democracy is a practice which can be borne out every day in improvements to peoples’ lives and in citizens gaining, both individually and collectively, more control over them.

By this measure, South Africa may be a political democracy − although there are many threats to this status − but it is by no means an economic democracy. By some calculations, South Africa is the most unequal society on earth, and this inequality is extremely racialised. If North Korea is the least politically democratic country in the world, then South Africa is the North Korea of economic democracy. This should be the primary concern of any democrat.

Unfortunately, a mildly engorged opposition caucus in Parliament will not be able to change this. Therefore instead of fixating on opposition parties − which the electorate is likely to find unattractive − there are other things South Africa’s intelligentsia should be amplifying and supporting. These are social movements, debates within and around the ANC and its allies, and the constitutionally mandated bodies that protect political democracy (known as the Chapter Nine institutions). These are the social and legal institutions that protect what has already been won and keep spaces open for the popular direction of the country towards a greater and fuller democracy.

The ANC is in power and will be for the foreseeable future. This should not be a cause for despair for those who are aware of the party’s manifold flaws. Rather, it should be recognised that the ANC and the policy outcomes from an ANC government are not static and unchanging.

Firstly, social movements can affect the ANC, forcing and cajoling it in particular directions. There is a huge array of these movements in the country and they are likely to affect service delivery and even macro-economic policy more so than all the party political cries from parliamentary opposition.

Secondly, the ANC has, by international standards, an extremely open and lively internal debate. There is scope for South Africa’s intelligentsia to influence these discussions − whether through direct engagement or through organising, activism, and the media − to shift things in a more democratic direction.

And thirdly, political democracy can be protected by recourse to its progressive constitution, which established a number of organisations outside government to guard democracy, such as the Human Rights Commission and the Gender Equality Commission. These need to be robustly defended as they protect South Africa from sliding backwards in its political openness. These institutions are, at this stage, more relevant than parliamentary opposition. For instance, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela played a far bigger role in embarrassing Zuma over Nkandlagate, the scandal of the $20 million upgrade to Zuma’s personal homestead, than opposition MPs. Madonsela is hardly likely to be able to remove Zuma from office over the issue − though the opposition cannot either − but her report will serve as a strong disincentive for future lavish spending of such an idiotic manner.

Democracy is a process, not a stop at the end of the line. Fixating on no-hope, non-transformative opposition parties diminishes the processes through which things can actually get done. Therefore, after the no-change election of 2014, South Africa’s intelligentsia should amplify what is already taking place that is positive and get more involved. Otherwise, they will be left grumbling, waiting for a messiah who will never come.