South Africa
Fateful elections in South Africa

A turning point after 30 years of democracy?
ANC Holds Its Final Rally Before The National Elections

Am 29. Mai 2024 schreitet Südafrika an die Wahlurnen: Nach drei Jahrzehnten Demokratie steht in diesem Jahr zum ersten Mal wirklich viel auf dem Spiel

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On May 29, 2024, South Africa will head to the polls to decide the future composition of both the national parliament and provincial governments. This election is historically significant as it marks the 30th anniversary of the first democratic elections and occurs amidst substantial political and social upheavals. For the first time in three decades of democracy, much is truly at stake. Polls suggest that the ruling African National Congress (ANC), once famously led by Nelson Mandela, could lose its majority after 30 years of uninterrupted power.

From hope to disillusionment: Three decades of democracy in South Africa

In 1994, South Africa held its first free elections, ending apartheid and ushering in a new era of democracy. Under Nelson Mandela's leadership, the ANC promised to transform the country into a Rainbow Nation and guaranteed "a better life for all!" (1994 campaign slogan). Today, 30 years later, the initial euphoria has often given way to deep disappointment. The causes of what is sometimes described as a failed democracy are found in local living conditions. Despite being the continent's most robust economy, many South Africans face severe social and economic challenges. Over the past decade, the South African Rand has lost up to 66% of its value against the Euro. After initial enthusiasm—many South Africans had a political say for the first time, having previously been mere labour for the apartheid apparatus—the last few years have been eye-opening for many: massive inequality, high unemployment, and a deteriorating public infrastructure. Thus, this election offers a chance to critically reassess the country's political and economic direction and initiate necessary reforms.

Tensions and hopes: The current political climate

The political atmosphere in South Africa is tense. The ANC, once unchallenged, faces growing criticism and dwindling support. Long regarded as a guarantor of stability and progress, the party now contends with increasing public dissatisfaction over corruption, unemployment, and a crumbling infrastructure. The unemployment rate is alarmingly high. In the first quarter of 2024, the official rate was 41.9%, with a 43.8% rate for those aged 15-35, leading to massive frustration. Opposition parties like the liberal DA and the left-populist EFF are capitalising on these issues with their election programs and hope for significant gains. Smaller new parties, mainly breakaways from the DA and ANC, such as ActionSA, Build One South Africa (BOSA), Rise Mzansi, and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), are also gaining traction. They could play a decisive role in government formation through strategic campaigning and specific coalition options.

The prospect of possible coalition governments and uncertainty about the election outcome makes campaigning challenging for the parties. Citizens are showing unprecedented interest in party programs, the so-called manifestos. Previously, party leaders often dominated public interest, but now, the concrete political content and promises are coming into sharper focus for voters. This development indicates increasing political maturity and the desire to make well-informed decisions at the ballot box.

Shifting political landscape: Developments since the last elections

Since the last elections, South Africa has experienced significant events and developments that have shaped the country's political and social fabric. Political scandals, including repeated corruption allegations against senior ANC members and the conviction of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court, have eroded trust in the political leadership. Additionally, economic challenges, such as record levels of planned power outages (load shedding) with 335 days of load shedding in 2023, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, have exacerbated social tensions in what is already the world's most unequal country. While the country experienced several hours of load shedding per day in February during the State of the Nation Address, and the president promised that load shedding would be a thing of the past by year's end, South Africa has indeed had uninterrupted power since the end of March. Critics suspect this might be strategic electioneering, but there is growing evidence that investments in renewable energy by private households and businesses are easing the burden on the state power provider Eskom and are visibly paying off.

Public opinions and pre-election polls

In the lead-up to the forthcoming elections, a picture emerges of an increasingly fragmented electorate seeking alternatives amid growing uncertainty and political indecision. Trust in the political establishment is waning, and rising frustration and disappointment with the existing democracy threaten to breed political apathy. The long-standing dominance of a single party might be ending, as polls suggest the ANC could fall below the 50% mark for the first time since taking power 30 years ago. Current surveys indicate the ANC may receive around 47% of the vote, with some projections at times predicting a drop below 40%. Nevertheless, the ANC, as the former liberation movement and saviour from apartheid, remains deeply rooted, especially in rural areas. Meanwhile, according to its campaign slogan, the DA could garner up to 26% of the vote and hopes to "Rescue South Africa" after years of ANC rule. According to polls, the final days leading up to the election are crucial, as many voters remain undecided about whom to support. Additionally, the recent decision by South Africa's Constitutional Court on May 20, which barred former President Zuma from running for the newly founded MK party, has further shifted the political landscape.

Election preparations by the Independent Electoral Commission

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is determined to ensure a smooth, transparent, and fair election process. The IEC has taken extensive measures to improve logistics and address past challenges to strengthen trust in the democratic process. On May 17 and 18, eligible voters living abroad were allowed to cast their votes. Under the leadership of Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo, the IEC has transparently laid out the process for overseas voting, alleviating concerns of those unfamiliar with the procedure.

Forecasts and possible outcome scenarios

Expert and analyst predictions on the election results

Political analysts believe the ANC could fall below the 50% mark for the first time in its 30-year rule. Polls from Ipsos and the Brenthurst Foundation showed ANC support dipping to 40.2% and 39%, respectively, although these figures have risen slightly in recent weeks. The ANC is projected to receive 47% of the vote, potentially paving the way for a coalition government. While the DA and EFF expect gains, with the DA uncertain if it can surpass its 2019 result of 21% and the EFF polling at around 11%, the possibility remains that the ANC could secure an absolute majority, either alone or with a small coalition partner. Investors seem to prefer political continuity. The South African Rand has appreciated about 2% against the Euro in the last ten days, coinciding with the ANC's improved poll results. Whether this trend will continue post-election depends on the actual results.

Potential coalitions and their impact on government formation

Various coalition scenarios could arise if the ANC failed to secure an absolute majority. The ANC might need to rely on major opposition parties like the DA or EFF. Still, the DA has already initiated a Multi-Party Charter, envisioning a coalition with several smaller opposition parties, excluding the EFF. Forming a coalition would require complex negotiations and significant compromises, including distributing cabinet posts and setting common legislative goals. A real challenge would be concluding coalition negotiations within 14 days, as evidenced by the example of Germany.

Scenarios if no party secures a clear majority

If no party achieves a clear majority, it could lead to political instability and potentially early elections in a country with little experience with coalition governments. The ANC might be forced to form informal agreements with smaller parties or formal coalitions to secure its place in government. In the worst-case scenario, a coalition between the ANC, EFF, and MK could emerge, labelled by analysts as a "Doomsday Coalition." This would bring together various ANC factions, assuming that the current "good" ANC would be negatively influenced by these "radical defectors." Such an alliance could significantly impact the country's political and economic stability.

Outlook on the election and the immediate future

While voter turnout declined in the last two election cycles, the record number of 27.79 million registered voters (about 70% of those eligible) for South Africa's seventh general election since the end of white minority rule indicates high public interest despite the challenges and disappointments of the past decades. Final election results will be announced by June 2, but initial projections could suggest a clear trend shortly after the polls close.

Jacob Zuma remains a burden for President Ramaphosa. After briefly serving a prison sentence in 2021 for contempt of court, then having his sentence suspended due to alleged severe illness, Zuma became the leader of the MK party and was a top candidate on their parliamentary list until last week. His party, targeting the same electorate, could cause the ANC painful vote losses, possibly costing it the absolute majority it seeks.

Long-term prospects and potential changes after the election

The results of the upcoming elections will significantly impact South Africa's ability to address its social and economic challenges. A potential reduction in ANC dominance could pave the way for major political reforms and enhanced accountability. Coalition governments could foster new approaches and innovations urgently needed to bridge the gap between rich and poor and drive economic development, addressing the pressing needs of the population. However, this requires opposition parties to show greater maturity than in local-level coalitions.

Public expectations and the role of civil society

Voter expectations have been high since the 2019 elections when President Ramaphosa openly addressed the country's issues and corruption problems, promising transparency. Young South Africans now demand a government that decisively tackles corruption while promoting economic opportunities and social justice. Civil society plays a central role in this. Organisations and activists advocating for transparency and accountability will continue to serve as crucial watchdogs. Their work will be vital in strengthening trust in democratic institutions and ensuring that the government respects and implements the people's will. Amid these circumstances, hope remains that South Africa will continue to be a stable anchor in the region, create prosperity, and revive the vision of a Rainbow Nation.