A Country in Transition: South African elections 20 years after the end of apartheid

FIVE MORE YEARS? South African President Jacob Zuma campaigns for another term of office.

On May 7, just 10 days after the celebration of the anniversary of the first democratic elections in April 1994, South Africans will got to the polls. These will be the first elections after the death of Nelson Mandela six months ago. Although the ruling African National Congress (A.N.C.) will undoubtedly retain power, these elections may be nearly as important as the ones that ushered in democratic rule 20 years ago.

The South African electoral system is a party system. Voters cast their ballot for a party and not an individual. The president of the party is elected by members of the party (at a national congress) and serves in that capacity for five years. The party president is also president of the country if the party is elected to govern. Jacob Zuma was elected president of the A.N.C. in 2007 after Thabo Mbeki (who gained international attention through his so-called “HIV denialism” because he claimed that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS) was dramatically removed by the internal structures of the A.N.C. before he could complete his term of office as president. Zuma was given a second term of office as A.N.C. president in 2012 and therefore is again the A.N.C. candidate for president.


In the strange world of African politics Zuma is both celebrated and despised. He presidency has been rocked by numerous scandals, the latest being the judgment of the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, that he “benefitted unduly” in a way “inconsistent with his office” from state funded improvements to his private house in Nkandla. The improvements, valued at R23 million (or $3.5 million), were meant to be for security. It was later revealed that, in the upgrades, numerous other luxuries were added—like a swimming pool and amphitheater. When the public protector ordered Zuma to pay some of the money back, he simply said he would respond in “due course” and has gone mute. We have not heard much more despite calls for him to come clean from various sectors of society, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The Zuma government also lives in the shadow of what has been dubbed the “Marikana Massacre.” Thirty-four miners were shot dead by police when they were striking for higher wages in 2012. This has left the mining industry volatile and unstable. Critics questioned why government never intervened in this crisis, which developed over time, before it exploded in 2012. Some contend that senior government officials gave orders for the striking (mostly unarmed) miners to be gunned down. The A.N.C. has done little to address this wound on the political landscape.

A Divided Party

Zuma has also turned onetime political allies into enemies. His great promoter and the previous president of the A.N.C. youth league, Julius Malema, was expelled from the party by an internal disciplinary committee. He had publicly criticized the Zuma government for its lack of commitment to the poor and denounced Zuma for his lifestyle. Just a few years before, Malema campaigned for Zuma saying that he would be willing to die for him. Since then Malema, who calls himself a revolutionary, has started his own political party called the “Economic Freedom Fighters” (E.F.F.) and is appealing to more and more poor, young black South Africans, who are frustrated with the A.N.C.’s failure to deliver on its promise of “a better life for all” (also the party slogan). Malema is also a controversial figure—he claims he speaks for the poor, but he does so wearing Versace shoes and a Rolex watch! He stands accused of fraud and shady business deals and is currently awaiting trial.

Over the last twenty years, the A.N.C. has followed through on some of their political commitments. The government has built houses and infrastructure (though the quality of the houses is often criticized). Huge building projects led up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Millions of South Africans who did not have access to water or electricity 20 years ago now do. The problem is that the government has not managed to do this for enough people. Political infighting, corruption, cronyism and self-preservation have stunted government efforts. Poorly implemented B.E.E. (black economic empowerment) policies have not grown the economy enough to sustain population growth—some would argue that they have been so badly implemented that the reverse has happened. Nigeria has recently replaced South Africa as the biggest economy in Africa. Poor education, massive unemployment, high crime rates, a failing public health system, a lack of housing and an unsustainable system of social grants are all part of the potentially lethal social cocktail of contemporary South Africa.

Many in the West wonder why the A.N.C. will again retain power in the light of its failures. This too is complex. Many South Africans will vote from a loyalist position rather than a discerning one. The A.N.C. has a massive base. Despite the fact that people are visibly unhappy with Zuma (for example, he was booed at Mandela’s funeral while Obama was given a standing ovation), there is an instinctive loyalty to the party that fought for freedom. Some will even say that they are voting for the party and not Zuma. That is the paradox of South African politics. It is not necessarily about what you have done but what you represent. In addition, senior A.N.C. members have played on people’s historic fears by telling them that if they do not vote for A.N.C. the country could see white minority rule again. This is laughable to anyone who knows the political landscape but, for the poor uneducated masses, it represents a real fear.

A Growing Opposition

This election is notable for for several reasons. A number of new “black” parties have emerged, like the E.F.F. Meanwhile, the historically white Democratic Alliance (D.A.), led by Helen Zille, a white woman, has more black people in senior positions than ever before. Their provincial head in the biggest and most powerful province, Gauteng, is 34-year-old Musi Maimane. Growing dissatisfaction with government and more choice for voters may not necessarily mean a change in government, but will certainly result in a lower percentage of votes for the A.N.C. In the last election the A.N.C. gained 66 percent of the vote. A drop in that margin would force the party to rethink its strategy and could result, some commentators suggest, in the removal of Zuma as party leader.

Other new factors are also at play. This will be the last election in which the A.N.C. will put forward leaders whose credentials date back to the struggle against apartheid. Future A.N.C. leaders will not be exiled leaders and veterans of the struggle. The party can no longer hide behind veterans and claim that it is struggling to transition from a liberation movement to a governing party. The A.N.C. itself is also in disarray. Former intelligence minister and A.N.C. stalwart, Ronnie Kasrils, recently launched a campaign telling people not to vote for the A.N.C. but to look for alternatives or spoil their ballot. The A.N.C. responded by labelling Kasrils a “reckless traitor.” Other high ranking A.N.C. members, like previous finance minister in the Mandela and Mbeki governments, Trevor Manuel, have also publicly criticized the current leadership of the A.N.C.

More than a million newly registered voters are “born frees”—born after 1994. They have no experience or memory of apartheid and their perceptions have been formed in the post-apartheid era. Many young people desire good education, employment and a safe environment to live in. If they decide that the A.N.C. is failing in these areas they may be more easily persuaded to tick another name on the ballot. Election mentality, in other words, will slowly begin to shift from loyalism to concern for more visible signs of progress and delivery on election promises.

The Influence of the Church

The ruling party has also managed to alienate key partners in building “a better life for all.” Throughout the apartheid years, for example, the Catholic Church helped A.N.C. exiles and their families. Many of the current leadership (and their children) were educated by Catholic schools. Today the Catholic Church, after the government, is the biggest health care provider. Countless local community projects are church owned. The HIV/AIDS ministry of the Catholic Church is by far the largest in a country that has the highest HIV infection rate in the world. Despite this, the government has paid little attention to the Catholic bishops when they have raised moral issues like corruption, the plight of the poor, abortion on demand, a road tolling system in which most of the money will be paid to offshore debtors (meaning little benefit to the local economy), the introduction of a “secrecy bill” which would severely curtail what media can report on and the extensive distribution of condoms to fight HIV. (Despite huge advertising campaigns on “safe sex” and the distribution of condoms, the HIV infection rate remains very high.)

The bishops have, numerous times, tried to engage the government but find it difficult. The conference has an office that works in parliament and lobbies on behalf of the church. This has been fruitful in some areas and made positive contributions to legislation. However, there is still a growing sense that the A.N.C. government no longer takes the church seriously. The president failed to turn up to meet with the conference of bishops on at least one occasion—cancelling at the last minute after accepting the invitation. Meanwhile, there is growing opposition to the government across the religious spectrum. A few weeks ago religious leaders of all faiths marched on parliament demanding Zuma come clean on the Nkandla affair. In a country where religious belief is as high as 97 percent (80 percent of which is Christian, 8 percent Catholic), alienating religious leaders could be a high risk strategy that erodes the government’s support base.

Under Nelson Mandela, the government of South Africa put a new constitution in place. As a  result, democracy is slowly taking root: the country has an independent judiciary and, since independence, has seen a smooth transition between three presidents and heads into its fourth general election free from the fear of violence. South Africans have faith in the Independent Electoral Commission, which will run and monitor the elections. The changing political landscape and forthright public discourse are all healthy signs. Yet there is still much at stake if South Africa is to become “a better place for all.” This is what makes the days leading up to May 7 an exciting, challenging and downright frustrating time on the southern tip of Africa. 

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