Thursday, August 11, 2016

A good election in South Africa, but with wrinkles

Overall the municipal elections in South Africa last week were very successful.  Or were they?

First, people really paid attention.  Nearly 58% of eligible voters went to the polls (which is more than the last US Presidential election – 54%, and way more than the 2014 US elections – 37%).  From what I read, there was very little intimidation of voters around the polling stations and people were free to vote however they wanted.

Second, for the first time since 1994 (the year democracy came to South Africa), significant numbers of people cast their votes based on the past performance of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) rather than on loyalty to the ANC because of its role in the anti-apartheid struggle.  A few years ago, when I questioned a black friend about why she continued to vote for the ANC when its service delivery was so bad and when its leader was so obviously corrupt, she replied that she would always vote for the ANC as long as Nelson Mandela was alive – that it would be a dishonor to him to do otherwise.  Mandela died in December 2013.

Green: ANC; blue DA; other colours: minority parties
The ANC has been the dominant party since 1994, consistently gathering well over 60% of the popular vote.  It is only in the Western Cape that the major opposition party (the Democratic Alliance – DA) has had any success.  It has dominated the province and has also governed Cape Town, which has the reputation of being the best run city in the country.

In this election, the ANC lost about twelve percent of its support, ending with about 54% of the popular vote.

Why the change?  Three things were major contributors to the losses the ANC suffered.  President Zuma is seen as corrupt, as are many senior officials, like mayors, who drive around in expensive cars while their constituents see no improvement in their impoverished lives; service delivery in ANC controlled areas is abysmal; and the ANC is increasingly seen as arrogant.  Added to this, the two main opposition parties have strengthened their appeal - for very different reasons. The DA under its new appealing leader, Mmusi Maimane, has wooed voters by saying that the areas it controls are well run; the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has mobilized the most disadvantaged voters through the Leninist policies and charisma of its leader, Julius Malema, who is a brilliant orator, but frightening and corrupt.

President Zuma

Firebrand Julius Malema

After the election, Cape Town remains in DA hands.  More importantly three other major cities gave the DA the most votes, although not an absolute majority.  These are Nelson Mandela Bay (the old Port Elizabeth), Tshwane (the old Pretoria), and Johannesburg.  Talks are underway as we speak to see what coalitions can be negotiated to run these cities.  Losing these three metropolises was a huge blow to the ANC, particularly Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, where previous ANC majorities were big.

Mmusi Maimane and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille

I can’t wait so see how the coalitions end up working, because there are no natural allies amongst the three major parties.  I’m hoping that the ruling coalition will end up being between the unlikely partners of the DA and EFF.

Not everything was good about the elections, however.

For example, the election season was not without violence.  It is estimated that twelve candidates for various offices were killed in the run up to the election.  From what I have read, it appears that most of this was intra-party violence rather than between parties.  For example, there was rioting in the Tshwane area after the ANC offered as its candidate for mayor someone from out of town.  The locals wanted a local man to be their candidate, and took to the streets.  One person was killed, and arson and looting ensued.

Rioting in Tshwane
Also, in a bizarre move, the national television company, the SABC, stopped showing any scenes of violence.  The head of the SABC, a close ally of the embattled President Zuma, said it wasn’t in the interests of voters to watch such things.  The opposition immediately challenged the censorship in court, arguing that the SABC was being used by the government to prevent voters from seeing how widespread the disaffection with the ANC was.  A spokesman for the ANC surprisingly also accused SABC of censorship. 

The opposition won and the SABC was told to show the news. 

My take on the whole elections was that it was a significant one, where many voters freed themselves of the shackles of feeling obliged to vote for the ANC.  What the opposition cities do between now and the national elections in 2019 will have a huge impact on whether the ANC takes another hit.  The results will also cause the ANC to take stock and rid itself of its corrupt and self-serving officials.  It would be crazy not to do so.

And now I can focus on another election coming up.  Yuk!


  1. Indeed, this was a good news/bad news election. Although the DA did gain significantly more support, the big winner was the left-wing EFF, which now plays the role of kingmaker.
    It looks like the DA will get Johannesburg with the EFF's support (although the ANC still has more counselors than the DA), but may have to cede the mayorship of Tshwane to its fiery partner.
    I hope they will be using a long spoon at the supper table.

  2. Thank you, Stan, for making comprehensible the vague statements I have head about the SA elections so far. Electoral weirdness with ever stranger bedfellows seems to be a global phenomenon. As I have said before in these precincts, when it all becomes too much for my fevered spirit, I escape into the conflict ridden past, secure in the knowledge that humans have survived miseries since they first started walking upright on the continent we both love.

  3. Why do I sense the same pessimistic resignation in discussions of elections virtually everywhere on our planet? Is there mosquito to blame for the contagion?

  4. I think a crucial issue is the high unemployment among the Black population in South Africa, and still-existing extreme poverty. The ANC has to try to improve the conditions of millions of people.

    I don't know if they can do this because of how the economy is organized, who owns the industries and property. It's a huge problem.

    And don't bother to pay attention to the elections here, especially without a lot of wine or other substance. It's too awful to watch.
    One terrible thing happens after another.

  5. Really interesting. Thanks so much for your insights!