Published On: Wed, May 22nd, 2019

What South Africa’s election says

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President Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) may have won the May 8 election but the victory is a wake-up call to the party. It is also a warning to the country’s political class to change tactics. For the ruling party, the election was its worst performance since white minority rule ended in 1994. It got just 58% share of the vote. This is the first time the party that has led South Africa since 1994 has won less than 60% of votes. One of its senior members, Fikile Mbalula, said it “would have probably dropped to 40%” had its leadership not changed. Ramaphosa took over the party in December 2017, after the ANC sacked Jacob Zuma, embroiled in corruption allegations, a charge which he denies.
What this says is that the people of South Africa may have renewed the mandate given to the ANC to lead, but it is not unconditional. The last decade has been bruising for the party’s reputation and has alienated millions of South Africans who are desperate for their conditions to improve, and had trusted the ANC to do that, but instead they got worse. Growth has been slow, millions are unemployed and society remains hugely unequal. It is going to be a tough juggling act for Ramaphosa – the act of restoring confidence in his government and more importantly delivering on his promise to fight corruption.
The second thing the election tells is that the official opposition has an ‘identity crisis’. The election outcome has been a difficult result for the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) – a “bruising outcome”, some have said. It’s the first election in which the party’s vote share has not grown. In fact, it lost some of its conservative supporters to the more radical Freedom Front Plus (VF+), a right-wing, mainly Afrikaner minority party.
Some analysts have said the DA also failed to make inroads with South Africa’s black population – a consequence of what some have called “an identity crisis”.
The DA is still seen within the black community as a white party, protecting white interests, something its black leader Mmusi Maimane has been working to disprove. But having been accused by VF+ of “trying to be everything to everyone”, the DA has some hard decisions to make – and will need to be clear about where it wants to focus its energies.
As for the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), it did gain support in the poll. It campaigns for seizure of white-owned land without compensation and nationalization of the huge mining industry. With its share of the vote rising from 6% to 10% in tis election, the EFF has proved to be one of the fastest-growing parties in the country. Undeniably, the EFF’s message of being a party for the poor and working class has resonated, and it has found a support base with the disgruntled.
Another surprise is the rise of Afrikaner nationalism, represented by the Freedom Front Plus (VF+). The mainly Afrikaner party, which says it is fighting for the right of minority groups, has doubled its support, to about 2%, making it the fifth largest party nationwide, behind the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party. Five years ago, VF+ was lost in obscurity. So why did it grow and how? One theory is that the contentious issue of land expropriation without compensation, touted by the ANC and EFF, pushed some DA supporters towards this more hardline party because they feared the DA would not protect their interests.
The debate on land expropriation also encouraged existing members of VF+ to go out and vote. Their message was simple – white Afrikaners are under siege and needed to protect their interests as a minority group in South Africa.
The last take from the election is falling voter turnout. Observers say “hard lessons need to be learned by South Africa’s political parties, with voter participation at its lowest since the dawn of democracy in 1994.” There are two ways to interpret this, they point out.
Voter apathy is the first: a portion of the population has lost faith in the country’s political leaders – all of them – and therefore chose to stay away. The second interpretation is that this is part and parcel of a maturing democracy. According to BBC News, “the lesson is that leaders need new ways of appealing to voters – particularly young people, 6 million of whom did not register to vote.
“However, it would be too simplistic to suggest that young people are not interested in politics or what is happening in the country. They are worst hit by soaring rates of unemployment and have been at the forefront of protests challenging the status quo. What this general election has shown us is that while South African youths are active in civil society, this is not translating to the formal process of voting. And that is a problem for all political parties.”
The negatives notwithstanding, we congratulate South Africa’s voters, the political parties and their candidates on a peaceful election. Our hope is that the leaders would take in the lessons of the poll and try to connect well with the general population.

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