When South Africans go to the polls today, it could be the last time the governing ANC wins an overall majority, unless the party renews itself and starts delivering on its promises to increasingly disgruntled supporters.
The ANC is likely to win the national elections but its majority will take a hit and it may struggle to win, or have to share power in some of the provinces. After 25 years in power, the party’s popularity is lower than the personal popularity enjoyed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. If Ramaphosa was not also the head of the ANC, it is very likely that it would be heading for defeat this week. Large numbers of ANC supporters have entirely given up hope, both on the party of liberation being able to deliver a better life for them and on South Africa’s post-apartheid democratic institutions.
Since 1994, South Africa has seen four dramatic societal changes. First, the broad-church ANC alliance of trade unions, communists and civil society groups, which won the first all-race, democratic election under Nelson Mandela in 1994, has fragmented. The black middle class, working class and youth – traditionally the bulwark of the ANC’s support base – has now split along new political voting lines. A large reason is the appalling corruption, mismanagement and populist exploitation of black grievances to hold on to power, led by the former president Jacob Zuma.
The trade union movement has split, and one of its wings has formed a new party that is contesting the ANC in this elections. The bulk of the party’s youth league broke off ahead of the 2014 elections to form the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which has now captured many of the marginalised post-1994 black youth, the “born frees”, so called because they were born after the end of formal apartheid. This group faces a stark future: they have been left with few relevant skills and opportunities and limited mobility because of the ANC’s mismanagement of education, the economy and corruption.
Meanwhile, large numbers of the black middle class have faced financial difficulties as a result of having to use private education, health and security services because public services have mostly failed. Many have joined another group that split from the ANC, the Congress of the People (Cope), or the formerly white-dominated liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), under its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane.
Second, South Africa’s electorate is now also divided between those who are receiving support from the state and those who are not. Those who benefit from the state, including through state pensions, social grants or business contracts, have generally voted for the ANC.
There are just under 17 million people in South Africa getting social assistance in one way or another. South Africa’s civil service has just under 2.5 million civil servants, most of them black. These groups have traditionally solidly voted for the ANC. But poor governance has squeezed the public finances, threatening social welfare programmes. Ramaphosa, if the ANC wins, will have to reduce the “public patronage” system, including slashing the size of the state and possibly privatising parts of the money-guzzling state-owned entities (SOEs).
In the past, those outside the state patronage system have boycotted the vote, including those not politically connected to the ANC and those who worked in the private sector but who have lost their jobs in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and government corruption and mismanagement. Only 27.7 million people have registered to vote out of 36.5 million who are eligible. The number of young voters who have registered in the 2019 elections is about 47% lower than in the 2014 elections.
Third, the ANC in the past could use the bogeyman of the continuing legacy of apartheid to generate support, accusing opposition parties, whether white or black, of being linked to apartheid, of accusing black opposition parties of being too inexperienced to govern, and emphasising its role as the defender of black “interests”. But the scale of the corruption, mismanagement and incompetence of the ANC in government has made these arguments increasingly unconvincing. New parties that have broken away from the ANC argue they are the real carriers of the ANC’s traditional struggle. The DA, the main opposition party, is now more nonracial in its make-up and support base then the ANC itself.
Fourth, the ANC is now virtually two parties: one led by the official president, Ramaphosa, and the other by the former president, Zuma, who was ousted by party members following accusations of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence. The Zuma group fear that Ramaphosa will prosecute them for corruption after the elections. Some of them have allegedly urged ANC members to vote for the ANC in the provinces, which they control, and for other parties at the national level – to reduce Ramaphosa’s national majority.
The ANC looks likely to lose the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng provinces today – the latter being the seat of the administrative capital, Pretoria – and the financial capital, Johannesburg, both cities that are controlled by the opposition DA. If national support for the ANC falls under 50% but it still wins the largest number of seats, the ANC will have to secure a coalition with smaller parties. Some Zuma allies say that if this were to happen, the ANC must eject Ramaphosa, who they blame for its declining electoral fortunes.
During the fight against apartheid, the ANC organised as a broad popular front, encompassing different ideologies, from traditionalists such as Zuma to communists and capitalists such as Ramaphosa, in the fight against apartheid. In the post-apartheid era, the ANC held together these disparate groups through state patronage, compromise policies and leveraging the common experience of apartheid oppression.
Now, the gulf between those who receive patronage and those who do not has undermined the ANC’s broad church. Seeking policy compromise within the ANC has often resulted in policy paralysis, and government corruption has led to the adoption of ineffective policies.
The ANC’s corruption is now a major cause of the country’s failure. To deliver a better life for its voters the ANC must renew itself, become honest and adopt better policies. Otherwise, even if it wins today’s election, it will be unable to deliver a better life for those who voted for it.
Renewing the ANC will mean taking on its corrupt leaders, which may break it into two parties: the Ramaphosa ANC and the Zuma ANC. If Ramaphosa compromises with the corrupt parts of his party for the sake of ANC “unity” it will make renewal impossible, and will eventually lead to the party becoming a spent electoral force.