South Africa: An Electoral Tremor, Not An Earthquake

Queuing to vote in Cape Town's Athlone district in 2011.

Queuing to vote in Cape Town’s Athlone district in 2011.

In few countries would a governing political party in the throes of internal crisis consider 54% of the vote in mid-term elections to local councils a disappointing result. In South Africa, however, this represents a significant shot across the bows of the ANC 22 years after it took power, a decline of 8% from the equivalent elections in 2011, and almost 16% from its all-time best result in the 2004 general election. (Official results service here.)

The shock is amplified by the fact that only one of the country’s six biggest cities is now securely in the hands of a party that calls itself not merely the governing but the ‘ruling party’. In Gauteng, the urbanised corridor of 13 million centred on Johannesburg and Pretoria that is the economic powerhouse of Africa, the ANC slumped below 50% of the vote for the first time ever. It also lost its overall majority in a number of smaller urban areas dotted across northern South Africa, in and around the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolis on the south coast, throughout the rural Western Cape, and was reduced to just 24% in the nation’s second economic and cultural centre, Cape Town.

ANC activists campaign in one of their Cape Town strongholds, Gugulethu, in 2011.

ANC activists campaign in one of their Cape Town strongholds, Gugulethu, in 2011.

ANC voters drifted off in two directions – on one side to the bourgeois liberal DA which has long laboured under the tag of being a ‘White’ party, and on the other to the radical left-wingers of firebrand Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. Even the Zulu-traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party, long dismissed by ANC strategists as a party of elderly country-dwellers living in the past, staged a modest recovery in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Perhaps more than anything else, however, the ANC suffered from voters in urban townships sitting this one out. Turnout is never especially high in Gauteng townships, but collapsed to what are dismal levels by South African standards this time, below 40% in many of Pretoria-centred Tshwane’s townships and below 30% in some poorer parts of inner-city Johannesburg. Given years of economic stagnation, the constant swirl of scandal around President Jacob Zuma, and the imposition of unpopular ANC mayoral candidates in some key cities, it is no surprise that some voters too loyal to the ANC to vote for anyone else decided to stay at home. On the other hand, the ANC has since liberation been something of a Teflon party, for obvious reasons; we just saw the first sign the non-stick coating might be wearing off.

DA activists in the ANC stronghold of Gugulethu in 2011.

DA activists in the ANC stronghold of Gugulethu in 2011.

There was a theory that one-party dominant systems would be a long-term norm in Southern Africa. Namibia and Botswana, despite having open and fair elections for 27 and 49 years respectively, and high rankings on international human rights indices, have never seen a change in government. Namibia’s SWAPO, a close sibling of the ANC, saw its vote reach an all-time high of 80% in 2014 parliamentary elections.

Instead of South Africa following a similar pattern, it looks set to have a genuinely competitive general election in 2019. It is still advantage ANC. Municipal election turnout differentials based on class and race have, in the past anyway, been much smaller in South African general elections. It is always easier for people to cast a protest vote in local elections: the man on the Soweto minibus taxi may be more cautious about handing national power to two parties who have contrasting but equally serious image problems with the working-class Black majority. The ANC now has an opportunity to take stock and make changes.

Many South Africans continue to live in acute poverty, as here in Cape Town's enormous Khayelitsha district.

Many South Africans continue to live in acute poverty, as here in Cape Town’s enormous Khayelitsha district.

On the other hand, the more frank members of the ANC leadership have acknowledged that its problems are most acute among the young, who take liberation for granted and are demanding more of the future, and this in a country where the population is young and hundreds of thousands of new voters come of age every year. And internal ANC relationships are even more strained than usual – there is significant tension between Jacob Zuma and his KwaZulu-Natal base, the older establishment moderates like Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa, the slick young ‘born free’ generation of ANC politicians emerging especially in Gauteng, and the trade union movement, parts of which have given up on the ANC entirely. And Jacob Zuma is far from universally loved even within the KwaZulu-Natal ANC.

Councils will have to hold mayor-making meetings by 20 August at the latest. South African mayors, although indirectly elected, are figures with significant executive powers, controlling huge spending and with access to potentially enormous patronage networks. Coalition negotiations will take place under time pressure, and could be fraught.

The ANC is still dominant in most rural areas; here at Bethulie in the Free State it polled 76% last week.

The ANC is still dominant in most rural areas; here at Bethulie in the Free State it polled 76% last week.

The DA and EFF share a common interest in clipping in the ANC’s wings and showing they can govern effectively for the majority. There is a surprising degree of rapport among some of their national leaders, driven by increasingly authoritarian ANC behaviour in parliament, from which the EFF has now withdrawn entirely. Ideologically and programmatically, however, they are light years apart. If they can somehow find a common agenda, likely around a dramatic improvements in the delivery of public services and housing to the poorest communities, the prize for both will be significant.

Coalition negotiations will also involve a plethora of minor parties in some cities, notably Johannesburg, but also in the smattering provincial cities lost by the ANC that were the election’s biggest, and least reported, surprise. In only one, Rustenburg (England’s 2010 World Cup base) is the EFF in pole position to secure the mayoralty, and that would involve hard choices for the DA.

How these talks pan out will be an interesting guide to what might happen if the ANC ever slipped under 50% nationally. South Africa uses a nationwide list system with no threshold for elections, which means parties secured a seat in the 400-member parliament with as little as 0.17% of the vote in 2014. Any post-ANC government would probably be the most ideologically broad on the planet.

If diverse DA and EFF-led coalitions can secure stable and good government at local level, the ANC might really be staring defeat in the face. This isn’t impossible. In Cape Town, the ANC’s eclipse began when the DA cobbled together a wafer-thin majority in 2006 with the support of small parties that included radical leftists, ethno-cultural traditionalists, devout Muslims, and the Afrikaner bittereinders of the Vryheidsfront Plus. (Irish political historians may well be thinking “Inter-party government” at this point.)

The margins for error in these situations, however, are low and if coalition talks result in chaos, the ANC will start the 2019 election campaign not just in pole position, but with a significant trump card up its sleeve.


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  • Kevin Breslin

    The ANC’s term as an unchallenged party still wasn’t as long as the Ulster Unionists.

    I’ve been critical about Oppositionalism in the past, certainly it’s not necessarily a sign of good politics that either governments end up changing regularly or they do not in a democracy.

    Either way, parties are at the mercy of the electorate, and while there’s a great political science in analysising shifts in votes and parties losing their strength it all comes down to various individuals making personal choices from what they perceive to be on offer.

  • Gerry Lynch

    There was a spectacular complacency about elements of the ANC, however, well beyond even the UUP in its heyday. While serving as Premier of Gauteng in 201 , Nomvula Mokonyane responded to reports of young voters defecting from the ANC by saying, “People can threaten us and say they won’t vote but the ANC doesn’t need their dirty votes.” As it turned out, it did.

  • terence patrick hewett

    And how does the Afrikaner and the ESSA and the Jewish component impact on all this Gerry because they do you know.

    In 1989 the big six South African commercial institutions. SAB, Anglo/De Beers, Billiton, Old Mutual et al, started preparations to leave. After 1993 they launched themselves on the international markets and became significant global players and reduced their South African exposure. This was an act of prudence since they were well aware of South African political realities; it also removed a source of temptation from the newly emergent political class. The ANC are no longer a terrorist-liberation movement but the government of a country with significant internal tensions, and not going down the road of Zimbabwe so far counts as a victory. SA is in a difficult position: not as competitive as Asia, not as developed as Europe; well away from all the immature global mass markets with the exception of poor and undeveloped Africa. They are now beginning to experience all the problems of an elective one party administration; they are riding a Tiger and dare not dismount. We are probably seeing the beginning of the last great white trek to the Cape.

  • Right now there is fighting in Moçambique between Frelimo and Renamo, after several elections when votes have moved from Frelimo to any opposition – MDM in towns, Renamo in their traditional stongholds. So vote shifting does matter – it can lead to death.

  • Jag

    Take a good look SF, because that’s you if you ever get into power. Corrupt enrichment based on a grandiose sense of entitlement; shure, didn’t we suffer all those years and aren’t we due some payback for the sacrifice.

    Big diff between a guerilla organisation and a political force. ANC never got that, and within a decade of coming to power, the writing was on the wall, just now it’s write larger.

  • Kevin Breslin

    How are the political scientists who analyse the shift in votes saving lives there?

  • tmitch57

    Looked at over the long term this has been a very significant achievement for the liberal left in South Africa. The Progressive Party started as a breakaway from the opposition United Party in 1959 with eleven office-holders but was quickly reduced to a single MP, Helen Suzman (aunt of actress Janet Suzman), in the 1961 general election. Suzman remained the party’s sole MP until 1974 when the party had a breakthrough in the Cape Town and Johannesburg areas and emerged with six MPs and a seventh shortly afterwards in Durban. The Progressive Party went through two mergers with smaller parties in 1975 and 1977 (?) to emerge as the Progressive Federal Party in 1977. In 1977 the United Party crashed after stupidly renaming itself the New Republic Party to signal a merger with a paper party. The PFP became the main opposition party for the next decade until it was replaced by the rightwing Afrikaner party, the Conservative Party. In 1990 the PFP merged with two former splinter parties to form the Democratic Party.

    But in the first majority-rule general election in 1994 the Democratic Party emerged with less than two percent of the vote. But over the next decade it skillfully established a reputation as an effective opposition party to the ruling ANC and began winning large numbers of votes from both Afrikaners and mixed-race “coloreds” in the Western Cape. It merged with the New National Party to form the Democratic Alliance and since then it has been championing a vision of progressive free market economics and anti-corruption politics. Essentially the Democratic Alliance was the result of a repeat of the Progressive Party’s sojourn in white politics during the 1970s with the Democrats driving the Nats out of business in the same way they drove the United Party out. In 1994 the ANC lost two provinces to the opposition: the Western Cape to the National Party and KwaZulu/Natal to Inkatha. The Democratic Alliance now rules in the Western Cape and Inkatha has been reduced to a few rural areas of KwaZulu.

  • Teddybear

    When Morgan Tsangare asked a voter why he didn’t t plan to vote for him he replied “I’ll vote for you when you’re chief”
    That mindset explains why government parties win massive %’s in Africa

    It also is akin to West Belfast. Decades of squalor and bottom of numerous leagues does not stymie ZANU-SF’s ability to win that seat handsomely. Ok sometimes the electorate gives them a drubbing by only giving them 65% of the vote.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Your theory breaks down because Tsvangirai did, in fact, win three elections in Zimbabwe. Only blatant falsification of the results by government appointed counters and denial of the vote to a million urban township dwellers in 2013 saved ZANU-PF and Mugabe. The realo wing of ZANU-PF has been growing in power internally for 7 years, since the 2009 General Election, and even bits of that, and crucially the War Veterans’ Association, are calling on Mugabe to stand down. Expect him to do so soon (he’s ancient), and then a government of national unity to take power before 2017 elections. Tsvangirai’s faction of the MDC, the realists in ZANU-PF, and the church led civil-society “non-party” opposition have been talking quietly about the future for most of this year.

    In any case, South Africa is not Zimbabwe, or anywhere else. South Africans never fought for independence – they fought for the vote; it makes a huge difference. And White attempts during apartheid to balkanise Black South Africa by ethnicity were so blatant and corrupt it created a huge and enduring prejudice against ethnic politics. JZ’s popularity even in KwaZulu-Natal ANC is hardly secure – look at how 4 of the 5 “politically awkward” Communist or trade union councillors deselected in eThekwini/Durban were re-elected as independents.

    I expect the ANC to retain power at the national level in 2019, but to lose Gauteng and at least one other province in a surprise (Free State, North West, and amazingly Limpopo where the ANC used to get 90% of the vote all feel like tottering towers, even in rural areas). And then it is game on nationally at all sorts of levels. And even that depends on the ANC not splitting entirely.

    None of the ANC splits up until now has taken any patronage network with it. But if Zuma insists on staying in power, then whole provincial blocs of the ANC may either walk out or, I think more likely, remain as an internal opposition with control over some entire entire provinces, possibly even most of them.

    I increasingly think the question is whether, when the ANC inevitably loses power at some point between 2019 and 2029, whether JZ will leave the ANC in a position to regain power or he will wreck it for a generation.

    In the normal run of events, an ANC purged of its worst tenderpreneur excesses and with a fractious coalition to work against (not to mention the DA increasingly facing the problems of institutionalisation in its Western Cape heartland) should regain power after a term in opposition. That, however, depends on Zuma.

  • Gerry Lynch

    There’s an important error of fact there that I need to correct (to the DA’s credit): the NNP-DP arrangement that originally brought the DA into existence soon broke down. The remnants of the NNP merged with the ANC, incredibly, in 2005 in an “if you can’t beat them, join them” sort of arrangement.

    While the DA’s official line has always been impeccably non-racial, the same can’t be said of all their White supporters, including some Anglos, and frankly some of their right-wing Coloured support in the Western Cape and Indian support in KZN. Some vocal DA supporters in minority communities are embrassingly racist: not just among Whites, let alone Afrikaners, but more right-wing Coloured and Indian voters as well. It’s one of the reasons why the Northern Cape has persistently remained in ANC hands until now, even in areas where Black Africans are 5% or less of the population.

    To give credit where it is due, the DA has worked hard to educate some of their members who conflate opposition to the ANC with opposition to Black political power, but it has not been entirely successful: the ANC jump on any DA branch secretary who voices racist opinions; it’s a problem for the DA, and they know it. And then there’s the stuff political parties don’t control, which you see in rural parts of the Western Cape and Western Northern Cape especially: the boss is an enthusiastic DA supporter, and is also a racist dick who treats his employees like skivvies – no political party’s education programme can control that.

    There are also identity issues at play – even among Coloured shack-dwellers in Cape Town, ANC support has collapsed into mid single digits. Coloured Capetonians are proud of their complex heritage. In the Western Northern Cape, the ANC has clung stubbornly to a narrow majority while opposition has migrated from one party to another. Coloured people in Springbok don’t have a complex heritage – they’re Khoi-San who were told they were “Coloured” and started speaking Afrikaans about 100 years ago and they know it. Hence, when the ANC talks about preference for “native Africans”, it says something different to people in O’kiep than it does in Bonteheuvel, Paarl or Eldorado Park.

    I don’t see the DA breaking 30% in the medium term, for all sorts of reasons. That means to create an alternative government, it will need to work with not only the EFF but also the remaining traditionalist-ethnic parties in the old homelands as well as the non-ideological rural opposition that is emerging in places like the Transkei and the far North. The first non-ANC government will include almost every party other than the ANC: that will make it difficult to manage and probably a one-term government. It will also break up the increasingly fossilised patronage networks, and that will be good for everyone in South Africa, including the ANC.

    The ANC still sits ideologically where a majority of South Africans sit. That isn’t going to change for a generation or more.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Except the Great Trek was away from the Cape, not to it, fleeing the nasty “hypocrite British” with their unChristian banning of the slave trade… there is no evidence of a Great White Trek to the Cape. Conservative Afrikaners who emigrate prefer Texas.

    The ANC and De Beers have reached a modus viviendi that works for both. The mining companies’ White executives vote DA but have no problem reaching a mutually beneficially arrangement with the ANC. The radical workers in mining towns have started to vote EFF – hence their nation-beating vote in Rustenberg, which includes Marikana. You don’t need to be an EFF supporter to be repelled by what happened at Marikana.

    The ANC is undergoing a process like that which envelops any post-liberation movement in a colonial country. It has the worst leader it could possibly have in that sort of environment. That’s an ANC problem.

    Meanwhile, the EFF is demanding that mine-workers are paid partly in shares. Not seeing why anyone – and especially not any true believing Thatcherite – has a problem with this.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Of course the Great Trek was into the interior Gerry : I did not suggest it was otherwise.

  • tmitch57

    “Conservative Afrikaners who emigrate prefer Texas.”

    Simply fleeing government when it is perceived as getting too close and oppressive is a long-term trait of Afrikaner history from the trek boers who originally migrated away from the authority of the Dutch East India Company in the late 17th and 18th centuries through the voortrekkers who fled the eastern Cape Colony in the 1830s and 1840s. Some eventually ended up in Namibia (German Southwest Africa) and even Portuguese Angola. But since the decolonization of Southern Africa Afrikaneers have been fleeing outside the continent with as many or more fleeing to South America as to Texas.

  • tmitch57

    “I don’t see the DA breaking 30% in the medium term, for all sorts of reasons.”

    You mean nationally. The liberal Progressive tradition as a long legacy of working with local allies against the central power in Pretoria dating back to working with Inkatha in Natal against the Nationalists in the early 1980s (the Buthelezi Commission, KwaZulu/Natal Indaba). When Inkatha became too controversial an ally in the late 1980s with its local warlords in rural KwaZulu the PFP/Democratic Party distanced itself from it, and took a neutral position between Inkatha and the ANC. It might well prove able to work with the EFF-if it survives in the long term-on an ad hoc basis on particular initiatives to weaken the ANC’s control while remaining opposed to the EFF’s economic policies.

  • aquifer

    South Africa uses a nationwide list system with no threshold for elections, which means parties secured a seat in the 400-member parliament with as little as 0.17% of the vote.

    When the only issue is the border, why do we elect from Westminster constituencies and keep out parties representing special interests shared throughout Northern Ireland?

    Our politics in aspic went off long ago. Anybody still dining in this restaurant is asking for trouble.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Ilawu xhosa illawu

  • Gerry Lynch

    Ndivuyisana, chomi!

  • terence patrick hewett

    En in my droom, en in my droom, is dit die pad na Potchestroom.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Ha Ha . I met Walter Sisulu just after he was out of the slammer. We talked about robotics. In fact I met so many of the ANC and the SACP when they were proscribed. They were were great fun.

    I spent two decades there: I know about riding the tiger: I could tell you stories that would make your hair go white: it did mine and they were my stories. Would you like me to tell?