Not just business as usual

By Marianne Millstein

With another overwhelming ANC victory, little seems to have changed in South Africa. But the results reveal some shifts that make these elections more than just business as usual. With a stronger opposition to the ANC in urban areas and prospects for a new workers’ party, the playing field may change as we get closer to the municipal elections in 2016 and national elections in 2019.

ANC manifested its position in South African national politics with 62,15 % of the votes, down from 65,9% in the 2009 elections. The reduced support is less than many predicted, and the opposition hoped for. One question is why voters continue to support the ANC despite numerous scandals and troubled service delivery. There are several factors that play out.

Service delivery remains a challenge, but the ANC partially succeeded with their ‘good story’ campaign highlighting the achievements that have been made since 1994. We should keep in mind that much has happened since the fall of the apartheid regime: universal citizenship, an expansion of social grants, and delivery of electricity, water, sanitation and houses to millions who did not have it before.

Some success stories do not mean that all is well. Poverty and inequality remain major challenges, and the official unemployment rate hovers around 25%. The education system is in a major crisis. The economy is struggling, and a five month strike in the mining sector seems to have reached a deadlock. Despite the rollout of services many South Africans live under terrible conditions in villages, townships, and informal settlements. Corruption and enrichments among the political elite and the melting together of party and state, and party and business, is deeply problematic.

Yet we tend to ignore that the achievements mentioned above are tangible for many South Africans, and that these have been made a reality with the ANC in power. This informs a very rational choice to continue supporting the ANC. Some say they vote ANC despite the actions of Jacob Zuma and other corruption stories: the ANC is more than their leaders, and the loyalty to the party remains strong even when their leaders disappoint them. While access to the ANC might also means access to state resources, we should be careful to reduce South African voters to merely passive subjects of patronage and hand-outs.   For many, there is still no alternative to voting the ANC, and not voting might be the chosen option rather than voting for other parties.

Opposition politics

The opposition grew in the metropolitan areas, and the Democratic Alliance (DA) confirmed their position as the main opposition party. They won the Western Cape Province, as they did in 2009, and got 28, 5 % in Gauteng (the main economic hub and home province of Johannesburg and Pretoria). Despite growing support, the DA’s main challenge still remains: how to move beyond the perception of a party of the white electorate with some support from the growing black urban middle class. But while the DA did not manage to push the ANC under 50% in Gauteng as they hoped for, they did give the ruling party a scare, assisted by the newcomer, the Economic Freedom Fighters.

With ex-ANC Youth league boss Julius Malema as Commander in Chief, the EFF stormed onto the political scene in red berets and a radical populist agenda. About a year ago I talked to residents in Delft (Cape Town) about the EFF and the role of Julius Malema. The almost unison response was laughing at my question, before dismissing the initiative stating that Malema was not to be trusted. A few weeks before the elections, the winds had changed. According to local activists the EFF was now very visible in the community, and held weekly meetings with strong support from the youth in Delft South. In the end, the EFF did not do as well in Cape Town than cities like Johannesburg (2. 72 % and 10. 15 % respectively), although their support in Delft South was above the city result (between 4 and 6 % in the various voting districts). On a national level the EFF captured 6. 35 % and got 25 seats in Parliament.

EFF’s organizational strength and support in working class and poor communities, the electorate they claim to represent, is contested, but the EFF did their groundwork in strategic rural and urban areas at least in the Northern provinces. A critical question is whether the EFF will be able to play their role in parliament while at the same time build a mass movement outside parliamentary politics. Will they survive their first term, or fade away like previous ANC break-away parties? Recent media reports refer to disgruntled members who have challenged Malema and other EFF MPs’ acceptance of the parliamentary perks, in contradiction to the EFF’s position that public servants should be forced to use public services and buy their own house. The members also criticized the internal democracy of the party.

The director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at University of Johannesburg, Steven Friedman, argues that changes in electoral politics in South Africa will be determined more by what happens within the ANC and the tripartite alliance than shifts in the political actors outside it. One such development is the tensions within and a possible split of the trade union federation Cosatu, which might lead to a new worker’s party to contest in the next national elections. But we should also keep an eye on the subtle shifts that are detectable in this year’s election results, which may point to some changes yet to come. Shifts in the broader political landscape outside the ANC might also impact upon the ongoing struggles for power and positions within the party in the long run. How these dynamics will play out and impact upon electoral politics is difficult to predict. The first indications will come in 2016, when the main battle will revolve around the urban vote and the DA will have their mind set on taking over Johannesburg and other cities. The real watershed moment may arrive when South Africans return to the national ballot box in 2019.

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