South Africa’s Elections - A test of Hope in a changing Society

South Africa Votes on 8 May 2019
Elections South Africa
IEC signage outside a voting station during the 2014 national elections in South Africa © Friedrich Naumann Foundation

Since South Africa became a free country in 1994 under the leadership of then President Nelson Mandela, the country’s politics was generally easy to understand, and elections relatively easy to predict. They were simply a test of the current popularity of the governing African National Congress (ANC). But the parliamentary and provincial elections (South Africa has nine provinces) scheduled for May the 8th are going to the most highly contested in the country’s short democratic history. There is a greater number of undecided and floating voters than ever, and more people who intend not to vote than in the past. The ANC itself is more divided than in any other election. This means that while most people still expect the ANC to remain in government after the election, the result is also difficult to predict, and it could lose the province that contains South Africa’s industrial heartland. All of this, despite having a President in Cyril Ramaphosa who is more popular than any other in the last fifteen years.

On Monday 28th March, Ramaphosa did what many Presidents do, he went to go and “meet the people” on their way to work. He got onto a train during the height of the morning rush. The train was incredibly overcrowded, like many such trains in South Africa, people hung off the back of it, they clung onto windows, in many cases people sit on the roof. This train then did something so many other trains do on that route every day. It got stuck. And a 50km journey took over three hours. Ramaphosa, always an impressive campaigner, took it in his stride. The fact that he has a personal wealth of around a half a billion US dollars didn’t stop him from showing sympathy and appearing to almost relish the experience. It was a moment that says so much about South Africa’s current situation. On talk radio stations, on social media, in public meetings, almost everywhere you go in South Africa during this election campaign, people complain about government, and the ANC. They complain about corruption, how they have to pay just to get an appointment for a driving test, or to get out of a speeding fine. They complain about grand corruption, about how much money has been stolen from the country during the years that Jacob Zuma was President. They complain, as the President found out, about a lack of proper public transport. And increasingly they complain about possibly the biggest problem facing the country at the moment, electricity. Around 90% of the country’s power comes from the state utility, Eskom. The problems it faces are microcosm of South Africa’s pressing political issues.

Elections SA
ANC election poster for the 2019 elections with the party's leader Cyril Ramaphosa

The Political Problem with Power

During Apartheid, Eskom focussed on providing electricity for white people’s homes and businesses. From 1994 electricity was rolled out to poorer black people, but the generating capacity was not properly scaled up as the economy grew. Worse, there is now increasing evidence that during the time Jacob Zuma was President of South Africa, the new power station build programmes that Eskom undertook were looted. One of his Ministers appeared to conspire with the then management of Eskom to force Swiss miner Glencore to sell a coal mine to the Gupta family, a group of people close to Zuma (his son, Duduzane Zuma, was a director in at least 13 of their companies). A former acting CEO of Eskom has been accused of giving his step-daughter massive contracts to supply coal. The focus of the management at the time appears to have been on making money for themselves, rather than on growing the generating capacity. The result is regular, planned, rotating power cuts. The mobile phone app that predicts which areas will go off when has been downloaded more than a half a million times. People complain bitterly about how much it costs for firms to run generators. To add to the pain, the price of petrol has recently hit new records, leading to fuel price protests in South Africa for the first time. 

Governing a “new” nation state

South Africa, given its present and past, is difficult to govern at the best of times. Unlike much of Europe, there is very cultural homogeneity. It is incredibly diverse, with various different constituencies wanting very different things. The Constitution makes provision for eleven official languages, but South Africans actually have around 35 different tongues. Unions and civil society groups are well-organised and relatively well-resourced. Labour groups often have the power to frustrate any change. Businesses make their feelings known by their decisions, some estimates claim that South African companies are on an “investment strike” and would rather use their money offshore than invest in expanding at home. But the country’s defining feature is racialised inequality, most white people are middle-class and well-off, most black people (but certainly not all, there is a growing black middle-class) are poor. Millions of people are living in shacks in informal settlements. Youth unemployment figures are incredibly high, it’s estimated that just over half of the country’s young people don’t have a job. Worse, many have given up all hope of ever working. Most of this has to do with the past of Apartheid, black people unable to amass capital to generate wealth. But the nine years up to the removal of Zuma as President just over a year ago are now largely seen to have been “wasted”. The problems got worse, while he is accused of having had no interest in finding solutions. Instead people close to him got rich, and corruption in the ANC appeared to become entrenched almost as a culture of the organisation. Zuma himself denies corruption claims against him, and, in a public statement, has denied that his term in office had been “wasted”. This then is the situation that the country faces going in to national and provincial elections on the 8th of May. 

The ANC’s Opponents 

For any governing party hoping to stay in power this political situation would be complex. For the ANC it is worse, because of its political positioning. Since 1994 it has governed as the party of the middle-ground. It’s most famous slogan is “A Better Life for All”. It has tried to get votes from all sectors of society, and for a long time it succeeded. But now it is being squeezed, almost in a pincer movement, from both the Left and the Right. On the Right is the main opposition, the Democratic Alliance. Most of its voters are middle-class, generally white, and often urban in nature. For years it was derided by the ANC as a party of white people, of those who had benefitted from Apartheid. But now it has a young black leader, and attracts thousands of black people to its rallies. It is winning votes from the urban black-middle class, especially when it took on Zuma and his alleged corruption. In 2016, during local elections, it was able to win control of Joburg and Tshwane (Pretoria), and for a time, Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth, on the Eastern Cape coast). It has governed the province of the Western Cape for ten years, and has won plaudits for making it the best governed province in the country. The DA  won 22% in the last elections in 2014. Meanwhile on the Left, there is the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema. He, and other EFF leaders, where expelled from the ANC in 2012, after refusing to stop campaigning for land to be expropriated without compensation, and for all of the country’s mines to be nationalised. He is a firebrand, a radical, who insults and denigrates people, often using race as a political weapon. He said that a political decision to remove the DA mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay was to “cut the throat of whiteness”, and, after explaining how black people were killed by colonialists, that “We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people - at least for now”. He is an incredibly divisive figure. In 2014 the EFF won 6.35% of the vote, but it is predicted to grow to around 10% in this election.

The ANC: One Political Party or Two?

To face off these two main opposition parties (there are dozens of other, smaller parties, some who have won 1% of the vote, others who have literally five members) in a slowing economy with all of South Africa’s problems would be difficult for any party. But for the ANC, because of its own internal divisions, it sometimes looks like two different parties. The roots of the divisions lie in the dynamics that led to a contested leadership conference in December 2017, known to South Africans simply by the national exhibition centre in which it was held, “Nasrec”. The year leading up to that conference was tumultuous. Zuma, as President at the time, fired a cabinet ministers seen by the public as fighting corruption. The Hawks, an elite police unit, headed by a Zuma loyalist, charged the Finance Minister at the time Pravin Gordhan with fraud. Gordhan was widely admired, and seen as the bulwark against corruption, and the only person standing in the way of a bid by Zuma to sign a long-term nuclear power deal with Russia. When Gordhan was charged, other Cabinet Ministers, themselves members of the ANC, publicly supported him. And in a move that showed how divided the ANC was, Ramaphosa, who was deputy President at the time, pledged his “political and personal support” to Gordhan. Ramaphosa was campaigning for the position of ANC leader. The person contesting against him was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former Chair of the African Union Commission, and an ex-wife of Zuma (Zuma is a polygamist, and has several wives). This contest divided the ANC almost cleanly in two. One faction supported Ramaphosa, claiming to be fighting against the corruption of the Zuma era, saying that they needed to “renew” the ANC, and “save the country” from Zuma. The other faction supported Dlamini-Zuma, saying they were fighting against “White Monopoly Capital” and for “Radical Economic Transformation” (Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters say they were campaigning for black ownership of the economy, her critics say they really wanted to prolong Zuma’s term in office and thus continue with corrupt practices). In the end, many of the ANC (and by extension, South Africa’s) problems can be laid at the door of the result of this conference. More than 5000 party delegates sent by their branches voted. Ramaphosa won. But only by a margin of 179 votes. Of the other leaders in what is called the party’s “top six national leaders”, two came from the Zuma camp, one supports Ramaphosa, and another two appear to support Ramaphosa, but there are doubts about their longer term aims. The biggest problem for Ramaphosa is the position of secretary general of the ANC. This is often described as the most powerful position in the party, the equivalent of the CEO position in a company. This was won by Ace Magashule, by a margin of just 27 votes (Ramaphosa’s choice, Senzo Mchunu, actually started walking up to the stage on the night of the election, thinking he had won before he was stopped). Magashule is a Zuma loyalist, he has his own business relationships with the Gupta family, and is seen by many as corrupt. Since being elected to the position, despite the expectation that he must treat the party’s internal groups neutrally, he was caught meeting privately with Zuma, in what looked like a plot to weaken Ramaphosa. Crucially, the most important decision-making body of the ANC between conferences, is the National Executive Committee. And this body is split almost evenly between those who support Zuma and those who support Ramaphosa. This is where the important decisions are taken. The NEC has in the past asked former President Thabo Mbeki to resign in 2008 (he acceded to their request and resigned), and told Zuma to resign in February 2018 (he only stepped down when it became clear that the ANC would use its MPs in Parliament to remove him). And it is now incredibly divided. This has been seen particularly in what has been a complex and politically important process to determine who will represent the ANC in Parliament. Under South Africa’s proportional representation system, parties have to submit lists of people who will become MPs after the election. The more votes you win, the more MPs you will send, but the list has to be submitted beforehand. In what must be a bitter blow for Ramaphosa, the ANC’s list contains the names of some of Zuma’s strongest allies. This means that in the party processes, he has lost the battle to keep them off the list, and so limit their power. This means that after the election, it may be possible for the ANC’s caucus in Parliament to obstruct some of his plans. Worse, for the ANC, is the public perception of many of these people. Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane for example, has been accused in a public commission, of taking money, meat and alcohol from a company in exchange for political favours. Bathabile Dlamini, who is still in government as the Minister for Women, has been found by the Constitutional Court to have lied under oath in documents to them in a scandal around the payment of social grants. David Mahlobo has been found by a review committee to have received cash in brown envelopes from the State Security Agency while the Minister of State Security. That same reports details how Zuma turned South Africa’s spy agencies into a party political machine for his own purposes. There are many others with soiled reputations. The upshot of all of this is that the perception voters have of the ANC is growing worse. These internal battles, and the fact that so many people who would represent voters have question marks against them may well weaken the party’s result. That in turn, could have implications for the amount of power that Ramaphosa has after the election. There is a perception in South Africa’s political circles that the better the ANC does, the stronger he will be inside the party, as the symbol of the result. It could now turn out that in fact the ANC does worse than previously expected, which could weaken him still further. 

Elections SA
South African voters queuing outside an election station during the 2014 national elections

The Changing Elements of South African Political Identity

One of the most interesting dynamics of this election is what is called in South Africa “political identity”. Since 1994 the ANC has been able to rely on what the “liberation dividend”. In other words, so many millions of people were grateful for the role that it played in the liberation struggle against Apartheid that they simply voted for the party and would never consider voting for anyone else. This is similar to what has happened in other countries that had to fight for their freedom, the liberation movement that led that fight is often rewarded by voters. In South Africa, because of its history, this also took the form that the vast majority of black voters voted for the ANC, while most white voters cast their ballot for the opposition DA. To over-simplify the situation, those who had been oppressed during Apartheid voted for the party that liberated them, those who benefitted from Apartheid voted for the opposition to that party. This was reflected in the voting numbers and demographic statistics of the country. To go back to 2004, ten years after the end of Apartheid, the ANC won just under 70% of the vote, while the DA won just over 12%. This broadly reflected the racial identity of the country at the time. But race as an element of political identity has become less important over time. This is because of the emergence and growth of a large black middle-class who have integrated into formerly white suburbs, offices and schools (and are now transforming those suburbs, offices and schools). As a result class, and the relative position of people in society has started to play a more important role than it did. This has all sorts of political implications. It appears that the ANC’s “liberation dividend” is all but played out. The average age of voters has dropped dramatically, and younger people appear to vote differently to their parents. The songs and memories of the struggle are slowly falling away. Now the demands are more present and more pressing, they are about jobs and the economy. Even the EFF, the party focussed almost entirely around the issue of land has changed its election slogan to “Jobs and Land Now”, an indication that its members want jobs and work, and a steady income. This makes it much harder to campaign, voters are more discerning. One of the key questions around dinner tables and in trains and minibus taxies at the moment is who to vote for. In the past there was no discussion, people voted for who they had supported in the past. Now there appears to be a large group of floating voters for the first time in South Africa’s history. Primarily, they are choosing between the DA and the ANC. But there is also evidence that the EFF is having more success in taking voters from the ANC than the DA, it seems to be better able to make progress from the ANC’s mistakes.

Political Structure, and the “Fracturing” of Constituencies”.

In the middle of all of this is another huge dynamic in South African politics. It is about how the number of political constituencies is growing dramatically. In the negotiations from 1990 that led to the election of 1994 there were only two parties that mattered, the ANC and the Apartheid government led by the whites-only National Party. That meant that during the negotiation process, there were only two people who could have a place at the negotiating table (at the time, the chief negotiator for the ANC was in fact Ramaphosa himself). There was only one union federation, and all of the groups pushing for freedom were relatively united, or so small that they could be ignored. In the 2004 election there were only 21 parties who contested. This has all changed. It is not just that the ANC has split (since 1994 people who have left the ANC have been involved in forming at least five other parties), it is that other dynamics have played out. There are now three union federations, and there are 48 parties who have managed to get on the ballot for this national election. At the same time, in the ANC itself in 1994, power was centralised at the centre. Over time, some of that power had been diffused to the party’s provinces, with the result that the ANC itself has become more difficult to lead, because there are more constituencies, more people with power, to appease. Now, even the cities are throwing up strong leaders, as they have started to make important decisions, and challenge some of the power of the centre. There are important consequences of this, that are both positive and negative. The positive spin-off is that it is probably impossible for anyone to try and behave in a dictatorial manner in South Africa. It is simply not possible when power is diffused in this way (as an example, protests against government in big cities would now be policed by metro police forces employed by the cities, in other words, they would answer to mayors who belong to the opposition DA rather than the ANC). However this also makes governance more difficult, because it has to go through provinces who sometimes have the legal power to determine their own policies. As a result, governance can suffer through this process. 


If there is one issue that challenges Eskom and electricity for the position of prime issue of the election, it is corruption. It appears to engulf both the ANC and the EFF. The ANC is going into this election with serious questions hanging over several of its senior leaders and candidates. Almost every weekday the claims pile up higher. In session at the moment is the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. “State Capture” is the name given to the type of corruption that Zuma and the Gupta family are accused of, the claim is that they are “captured the state” for their own purposes. Judge Raymond Zondo, the deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, is presiding over a public inquiry as to how this corruption happened. It is being broadcast live on television news channels and radio stations. When radio stations stop taking the live feed, they are inundated with people calling demanding that it be reinstated. While it is still some time before the Judge will make findings, just the testimony being heard, under oath, is having political consequences. Last year a Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene resigned after admitting at the commission that he had lied about meeting the Gupta family. The testimony against those close to Zuma is expected to weaken them in the internal politics of the ANC. But in the meantime, the claims weaken the ANC in the eyes of the public as well. This commission is due to continue sitting through the next few weeks, ahead of the elections. This means that more and more evidence of scandals will be revealed. The impact of this is difficult to predict, but it is surely difficult to see how it could help the ANC. However, the ANC is not alone in this. The EFF too has been ensnared in claims that it too is corruption. Malema, its leader, and other members of its leadership team live lives of ostentatious consumption, also known in South Africa as “bling”. And yet they refuse to explain where their money comes from. Questions about their income are responded do with the claim that the questioner is trying to police “black wealth”. And yet, the EFF has been forced to confirm in public that its election deposit in 2014 was paid by a man who had admitted to making a living through smuggling cigarettes. Malema’s wife now lives in the same luxury complex as that person does. Last year a bank collapsed after its directors had been looting it. Most of the money that disappeared was deposited in the institution by mayors of ANC-run councils in rural areas. But an investigation found that one of the people who received money was Brian Shivambu, the brother of the EFF’s deputy leader Floyd Shivambu. His attorney has claimed he received the money for engineering services, but has not explained what those services actually were. The consequence of this is that many people may just decide not to vote, and in fact feel that all politicians are in it for themselves. 

Elections South Africa
Election ink applied on a voters left thumb during the 2014 national elections in South Africa

Turnout, and the stay-away voter

South Africa has a tradition of a high turn-out in elections. Generally speaking, the poorer people are in democracies, the more they rely on government services, and thus, sometimes, the more involved they are in politics. That has been the case here, as people have felt it important to make their mark on a ballot paper. However pollsters now say that this election could result in the highest proportion of people not turning out since 1994. One polls, run by the company IPSOS, says there may be around eight million people who don’t vote. Most of these non-voters are among young people, they are under the age of 35. These are often the people who don’t have jobs and perhaps no hope of ever working. For the political parties, it is important to know why they won’t vote. Many may feel that none of these parties speak to them, the ANC and the EFF often focus on the past, rather than the future. The DA may seem to “middle-class” or even politically white for them. As a result, they don’t participate in the formal voting process. The concern for many may be not just they have given up on formal politics, it’s that they might feel they need to use other means to make their political point. Almost every day there are what are referred to as “service delivery protests” in South Africa, where people demonstrate, close roads and often set alight a tyre to stop a road being cleared. These protests often involve the people who won’t vote in this election. The great fear is that as they feel politics doesn’t speak to them, incidents of violence for political ends could actually increase.


The number of people who don’t turnout could be crucial for this election. All of the polls have significant ranges because they can’t predict turnout as accurately as they would like. They have to take into account various factors. But, in the last elections, the local polls of 2016 (which are not directly comparable because they were for cities and towns not for provinces and national government) turnout had a huge impact. The DA was only able to win the cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane (Pretoria) because urban black voters who had previously supported the ANC stayed away, partially in protest against Zuma. But, again because of Zuma, turnout for the DA in the suburbs was hugely impressive. As a result of the proportional representation system, all of those votes were counted, while obviously the votes of those who didn’t cast a ballot were not. The result was that the DA was able to take control of two of the country’s biggest cities. This means that one of the biggest questions in this election is whether those voters who stayed away in 2016 will return to the ballot box. If they do, it could easily lead to a stronger showing for the ANC. If they don’t, if they stay at home or switch allegiance, then the ANC could suffer.

What the polls say 

But the polls for the moment are split. No poll has the ANC losing the national election. But one poll (by the Institute for Race Relations) suggests the ANC has sunk as low as 55%. Another poll, by IPSOS, predicts a 61% victory for the ANC. Key to the result might be what happens in Gauteng, the province that contains the industrial heartland of South Africa. If the ANC loses the province, it might have to try and form a coalition. Many people believe it’s first approach would be made to the EFF, the party that is spun off. But it might find that difficult, if only because Malema is likely to make very difficult demands. But the EFF and the DA may try to form a coalition themselves, despite their hugely different political ideologies (they already run Joburg and Tshwane together through informal coalitions). The situation in Gauteng is difficult to predict. But if the ANC were to lose control of it, Ramaphosa’s enemies in the party may try to use that against him. In other words, it could lead to a situation where he is weakened in his own party. And that might have other implications. 

Ramaphosa vs Ramaphoria.

When Ramaphosa was able to force Zuma out of office in 2018 and take power himself, there was a feeling of euphoria in the country, immediately dubbed “Ramaphoria”. He is hugely popular, and seen as clean in a party where so many are seen as corrupt. He was also welcomed by business who see him as market friendly. But that high was worn off. The problems of Eskom have had a lot to do with that. But also, South Africa spent much of 2018 arguing about whether land should be expropriated without compensation, in other words, taken from white people and given to black people (during the colonial and Apartheid eras, black people were forced off the land they occupied through violence by whites). This led to arguments about identity in South Africa, which made it uncomfortable for many people. This seems to have driven some emigration by white middle-class people, they’re leaving the country it appears, because of this. But that debate appears to have subsided slightly, at least for now. Ramaphosa seems to have managed to control the debate within the ANC (he appears to be strongly against expropriation without compensation). His main problem now is his critics and opponents within his own party. He has to first unite his party before he can unite his country. And yet there is huge goodwill for him. Despite the claims of corruption in the ANC, many people say they will vote for the party simply to support him. The Premier of Gauteng David Makhura, was quoted recently as saying that this was the first election in South Africa that was not about parties, but about their leaders. He was attempting to say that this election was all about Ramaphosa.

In many ways he is right. But it is also about his ability to control the elements in his own party.

A Test of Hope

This election is going to be a test of many things. Of the tolerance of South Africans for political debate (the country has passed this test many times, political discussions are generally robust by international standards, and often quite personal). Of the Electoral Commission which will manage the polls, and is generally seen as competent. It will also be a test of how much the country has changed in the last few years. The Zuma presidency damaged South Africa, it made some people feel ashamed of their country, it made many people poorer than they would have been, as the economy slowed. South African society is also changing, there are many people who simply don’t care as much as they did about the past, or the glories of liberation movements. Instead, they want the electricity to work all the time. They want a better future for their children. And for the them, the most pressing need is for jobs, which would require strong economic growth. Yet, despite that, much of the campaigning so far has not been about jobs, but about other issues. For many, voting in South Africa is about hope, about voting for a solution to the country’s problems. But there is no denying that this election is also very much about the personality of the President. The man who promises that he will make the trains run on time.