Elections and the battles for the soul of civil society


South Africa will hold its sixth national general elections in May 2019.

The pre-election political environment is characterised by debates on policies, party manifestos and possible political power realignment. Most commentary focuses on the dynamics of the three largest parties: the ANC, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, and political analysts and research institutes are crunching numbers trying to predict the outcomes. Recent polls indicate that the ANC still commands an electoral hegemony with 60% of the vote.

Quantifying political support is important; however, it does not provide a comprehensive account of political power bases. The statistics cannot explain voting behaviour beyond demographics and other forms of quantitative indicator analysis.

Therefore, it is essential to look beyond numbers and ask the following question: What produces and sustains power in South Africa’s political system? The answer is simple: a party’s ability to increase its legitimacy among salient institutions in broader civil society, such as religious groups, trade unions, business associations, academics and traditional leaders.

This observation is not new. The Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci used this argument to explain why the socialist revolution failed in Western Europe during the early 20th century. He concluded that the authority of ruling capitalist political and economic elites was not only based on state power. These dominant groups’ ideological beliefs and political programmes permeated important civil society institutions.

South African political history exemplifies Gramsci’s analysis of the reproduction of power in society. For example, the National Party relied on civil society organisations such as the Dutch Reformed Church and the Broederbond to obtain electoral victory.

This also applies to the counter-hegemonic liberation movements such as the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress, which drew support from trade unions, township-based mutual societies and cultural associations. Thus one cannot fully comprehend political party hegemony in the country outside this party-civil society nexus.

This analysis provides us with a nuanced understanding of electoral dynamics and explains the ANC’s consecutive victories, despite the organisation’s various challenges. It relies on what is popularly referred to as the mass democratic movement.

The contemporary political kingmakers in this movement include the following important organisations: organised labour (mostly the trade union federation Cosatu), the student movement (the Progressive Youth Alliance), traditional leaders (Contralesa) and dominant religious groups such as the Zion Christian and Methodist churches.

This civil society election machinery has sustained the party’s dominance in the post-apartheid era. This is not a linear or paternalistic relationship, as the ANC’s political and socioeconomic priorities are equally shaped by civil society demands. I am not dismissing the political agency of the ruling party’s membership and branch structures; I am adding an essential component that is overlooked in most quantitative analyses.

Any party that seeks to challenge the ANC’s electoral hegemony needs to appreciate how civil society legitimacy shapes the political order. Some analysts argue that recent power shifts in both student and labour movements highlight the dwindling hegemony of the ANC in civil society.

The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection’s Indlulamithi scenario project also endorses the importance of civil society and its role in South Africa’s governance structures. The central themes in the analysis are political agency and holding authorities accountable through active citizen participation. Political party election and governance strategies must accommodate this essential component of South African politics.

Khwezi Mabasa is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection 


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