What to expect in the 2014 South African elections

March 20

Thousands of health activists from 13 organizations march in protest against the government in Cape Town, South Africa, March 13, 2014. (EPA/Nic Bothma)

Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a guest post from political scientist Dorina A. Bekoe of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies and editor of “Voting in Fear: Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa.” (USIP Press, 2012).

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With less than two months to go before South Africa’s 2014 elections, there have been enough signals to suggest that these polls will be markedly different from previous campaigns and elections.  The most obvious difference is that this will be the first election without the presence of the father of South African democracy, Nelson Mandela, who passed away on Dec. 5, 2013, at the age of 95.  Yet, perhaps even more consequential, the elections will take place at a time when the fortunes of the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since 1994, have been declining due to a series of political scandals and a stagnant economy; critical allies of the ANC have defected; and the ‘born frees,’ – those born after South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 — will be eligible to vote for the first time.  None of this means that the ANC will lose its grip on power; however it does suggest that the ANC may emerge weaker than at any other time in the past 20 years. The end result may be a very different political landscape than exists today.

The ANC’s declining political fortunes

The ANC today is seen as more corrupt and ineffective than at any time in recent years. A 2011 Afrobarometer survey showed that 50 percent of respondents saw government officials as corrupt and 25 percent thought that corruption was one of the country’s most pressing problems; this is the highest concern for corruption since 2002, when only 13 percent thought of corruption as significant. The Pulse of the People poll of randomly selected voting-age South Africans (18+), taken by Ipsos in November 2013 reveals that only 53 percent of eligible voters would vote for the ANC.  This is 10 points less than in November 2008 (six months before the 2009 election); moreover, 80 percent of the decline in support took place between November 2012 and November 2013.  In the Ipsos Government Performance Barometer, a poll of 3,564 adult South Africans, also taken in November 2013, only 46 percent of respondents rate President Jacob Zuma as doing his job well; 50 percent think he is not doing his job well.  It is a substantial decrease from 2009, when 77 percent of those surveyed said he was performing well.  The latest blow to President Zuma is the Nkandla scandal: the R215 million ($20 million) in public funds that President Zuma used for security upgrades to his private residence in Nkandla.  The national government has not fared much better than President Zuma: 47 percent said it was not performing well, down from 70 percent in 2009.

What might have precipitated such a decline in the ANC’s support and image? What does it mean for South Africa?  One important reason why the ANC declined in popularity is its failure to deliver basic government services and the perceived inadequate government’s response to citizen’s grievances.  A report by Municipal IQ shows that in the first eight months of 2012, the number of service delivery protests was higher than at any point since 2007.  Furthermore, the Municipal IQ study shows that the probability that protests would turn violent also increased steadily: whereas between 2007 and 2011 approximately 50 percent of protests turned violent, in the first eight months of 2012, 79.2 percent of protests ended violently.  The trend toward violence has been epitomized in the media by the regular protests in Bekkersdal, a township outside of Johannesburg; on March 13, 2014, ANC campaign workers were pelted with stones, prompting the security agents to fire live ammunition at the protesters. Of course, the most dramatic example of such violence was the August 2012 Marikana mines massacre, where 34 miners protesting their living conditions and wages were killed by police.  With the South African police firing at the protesting miners, many publicly questioned if the ANC had abandoned its principles and support for South Africa’s working class.

Reflecting these frustrations, perhaps, the ANC has suffered very public internal splits.  Julius Malema, the leader of the Youth League, the ANC’s most powerful wing, began to question the ANC’s commitment to development and economic prosperity for its poorest members, calling in particular for a nationalization of mines as a means to distribute wealth to the excluded black majority.  In February 2012, the ANC expelled Malema, Zuma’s erstwhile supporter. Malema went on to found the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, symbolically launching it at Marikana, the site of the massacre, in October 2013.  The expulsion of Malema also resulted in the dissolution of the ANC Youth League, which is the primary method by which the ANC reaches out to young people.  The Ipsos Pulse of the People survey revealed 4 percent of voting-age South Africans supported the EFF.

Traditional ANC allies have also withdrawn their support. In January 2014, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) voted not to support the ANC in the coming polls and withheld its R800,000 ($74,000) monthly contribution to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).  NUMSA, with 339, 567 members, is the largest member of the nine affiliates of COSATU,  which in turn is the third member of the alliance that includes the ANC and the South African Communist Party.  NUMSA cited the numerous political and corruption scandals that have emerged over the past few years and the failure of the ANC to adhere to principles that would improve the lives of the working class.  Currently, 24.7 percent of South Africans are unemployed.  The ANC announced its goal to reduce unemployment to 14 percent by 2020, but the economy would have to grow at 5.4 percent to meet that goal; it only grew 2.3 percent in 2013. On Wednesday, March 19, NUMSA, in coalition with trade unions; community groups; groups representing women, students, and the unemployed; faith-based organizations; and taxi associations led marches in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Emalahleni, and George, to protest youth unemployment.

COSATU has officially maintained its support for the ANC, but it is a divided federation.  Presently, its general-secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi , has been suspended amid charges of having an improper relationship with a junior COSATU staffer and for irregular procurement activities while he was general secretary.  But Vavi has long been critical of the ANC and his suspension may also reflect that history of dissent.  Recently, he publicly criticized the ANC in more direct terms than in the past; he turned down an offer to run on the ANC ticket saying “I would be compromising myself.”  Vavi’s suspension notwithstanding, the nine unions making up COSATU support him and call the disciplinary actions against him “unlawful”.

What about the ‘Born Frees’?

There has been much discussion about the impact of the ‘born frees’ — those between the ages of 18 to 19, who have never experienced apartheid.  Some felt that this generation of voters, without any living memory of apartheid, may be more politically engaged.  However, it is not clear that they will be a significant factor.  So far, about 30 percent of the ‘born frees’ have registered to vote.  With 676,685 registered voters in this age bracket, they represented approximately 3 percent of the 25,362,786 registered to vote. Now, with the earlier dissolution of the ANC Youth League, even this small portion of the youth vote may be even more difficult to access and convince.

Impact on 2014 Elections and beyond

The ANC currently controls 264 seats out of 400, but this may change in 2014.  The declining support for the ANC reflected in the Ipsos polls, the fracturing ANC base, and the increase in service delivery protests threaten the ANC’s absolute majority in parliament. Some of this has been foreshadowed by the 2011 municipal elections.  The ANC won the 2011 municipal elections with 66 percent of the national vote, but the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), — which has 67 seats in parliament — picked up 21 percent of the vote.  Then, as now, there was sharp criticism of the ANC’s weakened connection with its base.  Notably, the Ipsos Pulse of the People survey shows that 18 percent would support the DA, up from 13 percent in November 2008.   The DA clearly tried to harness such dissatisfaction by nominating Mamphele Ramphele on January 28 as its presidential candidate.  However, the deal fell through just days later, due to disagreements over the fate of Ramphele’s party, Agang SA, in a union with the DA.

Given the troubles facing the ANC, some have even proposed that the ANC may need to form a coalition government. A major mitigating factor against a steep ANC decline or a possible coalition government is the fractious opposition: Apart from the DA-Agang SA split, the Congress of the People Party (COPE), which has 30 seats in parliament, was not able to consolidate an alliance with the DA; NUMSA has also criticized Malema as being too much of a capitalist.  Therefore, it will be difficult for the fractured opposition to effectively threaten the ANC.  The ANC also has the added advantage of receiving more campaign funding from parliament, based on a rule that allocates such funds on the basis of the number of seats from the last election.  Rather, a more likely result from the current political crises is lower voter turnout, as few alternatives to the ANC seem viable.  In the medium term, the lower voter turnout, apathy of young voters, increasing dissatisfaction with government, and lack of viable opposition parties could be a volatile mix, possibly resulting in increasing social unrest and violent confrontations.

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