The End of the Beginning in South Africa

The ANC's victory in last week's general election was never in doubt. But the country's opposition parties continue to cut into that lead, says David Hornsby.
By: /
May 14, 2014
Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has secured another term in national office after the 5th, free, fair, and straightforward election in a democratic South Africa.  Indeed, the ANC ran on a platform of a “Good Story to Tell” that focused on the past achievements of continental Africa’s oldest liberation party. This narrative permitted the ruling ANC to sidestep the moral and ethical questions that have surrounded them as of late.

To those unaware, President Jacob Zuma was recently implicated in a misappropriation of public funds scandal relating to his private residence. Moreover, this is but one of a number of questionable circumstances that have called into question the moral compass of ANC officials. Following these allegations of corruption in combination with the fact that many feel that the socio-economic gains made post-Apartheid have been marginal, it is surprising that the ANC is back in power in Pretoria with majority governments in all provinces but one, the Western Cape.

But this election was actually never about the defeat of the ANC. It was about making marginal gains that place the ANC within striking distance for South Africa’s other parties. These marginal gains could have included unseating the ANC as government in some provinces, as I mooted in a previous Roundtable contribution, but it was primarily about diluting the ANC’s voter base and making gains in areas where opposition parties have typically held little traction.

Indeed, the interesting story of this election is the rise of opposition parties rather than the ANC’s continued hold on power. In particular, the gains and consolidation of most votes against the ANC into two opposition parties represents a large shift in South African electoral politics. Despite the fact that there were 29 parties contesting the South African election, only 13 will be represented in Parliament with the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) securing 114 out of 151 oppositional seats.

The official opposition party—the DA—made significant steps in terms of its share of the popular vote. Nationally it reached just over 22 percent (up from 16 percent in 2009), which translates into 89 seats in the current Parliament; it held its control of the Western Cape (where Cape Town is the major metropole) with an increased majority; and came within striking distance of unseating the ANC in South Africa’s economic engine, Gauteng (where Johannesburg rests).

The fledgling Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party made a good showing taking the official opposition post in a number of provinces and securing 25 seats in Parliament. This is impressive given it was its first election and its performance was no doubt helped by the recognition its popular leader and former ANC Youth League President, Julius Malema. The big question regarding the EFF will be if they have the organizational capacity to capitalize on their gains and to secure its voter base in subsequent votes.

In Canadian terms, this might all seem rather inconsequential and uninteresting, with the ANC still in power. But for South Africa, this election has demonstrated that the seeds of political change are taking root and that the emergence of a true multiparty democracy in which parties actually contest for power is taking place. Indeed, in Gauteng the ANC held onto its majority position by only two seats in the provincial legislature. This is a big shift from 2009 when the ANC got 64 percent of the popular vote in South Africa’s most populous province.

One thing I have learned during my time in this young democracy is that electoral politics is very much about the long game and adapting to the shifting demographics. The ANC has had 20 years in power—and has secured another five—largely based on the ability to draw on an image as the liberator of the oppressed majority.

In this sense, the ANC does have a good story to tell.  But the story of liberation and emancipation will only have relevance for so long. The generation of the so-called “Born Frees” is now maturing politically and they maintain different interests to that of liberation politics. The ANC will have to find a new narrative if it wishes to be relevant to this important electoral constituency.

At the moment, opposition parties are capitalizing on the frustrations that this new generation of voters maintains as well as concerns over corruption and cronyism, job creation, and equal opportunity.

So while the ANC is secure for the next five years, it will be a time of real political contestation as the stakes for holding onto political power are far greater than they have ever been.