/ 28 May 2024

This is (still) ANC country

Siyanqoba Anc 2271 Dv
This is the time for the left in the ANC to make its claim on history. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


There are many good reasons for South Africans not to vote for the ANC.

The oldest liberation movement in Africa has now led the government of South Africa for 30 years. Over time, its weaknesses have compounded, and been repeatedly exposed under the glare of media and civil society.

So dominant has its rule been that its failures have become those of the country: the corruption, the crime, the failure to create jobs, the rising cost of living, the inequalities, and the lack of preparedness for the unfolding climate crisis.

In the most obvious metaphor for its decline, the party in power can no longer keep the power on — except, curiously, in the months leading up to this Wednesday’s election, when the state utility burned billions of rands worth of diesel to temporarily suspend rolling blackouts.

And yet the citizens of Africa’s largest economy will almost certainly vote the ANC into office once again. Its victory will not be as emphatic as usual — the party has never previously won less than 62% in a national election — and its majority may not even be absolute.

It may have to form a coalition. But even the most damning polls suggest that 40%

of citizens will once more put their faith in the party of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela (and, more recently and less laudably, of Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa). 

That number is edging higher as the election draws nearer.

In some countries, support for the ruling party is vastly inflated by gerrymandering and ballot-rigging. This is not the case in South Africa, where there is little suggestion that the election will be anything other than one where people can vote freely

The ANC really is still the most popular party in the country.

This is partly because of the “liberation dividend” — a loyalty enjoyed by many liberation movements when they eventually do take power. This loyalty is not entirely misplaced. For all its faults, South Africa has many reasons to be grateful to the ANC.

It ushered in multiparty democracy in 1994, and avoided a civil war. In office, it dismantled

the apartheid regime and extended basic services — designed by the apartheid

government to service only the white minority — to most of the country. It also enabled the creation of one of the world’s most liberal constitutions, and an environment where media are able to publish in the public interest, often detailing the ANC’s failures.

For many voters, especially those who lived through the horrors of apartheid, nothing the ANC can do is worse than the government it replaced. This point is often overlooked by foreign commentators with short memories. 

In an especially egregious example of this, Britain’s The Times wrote recently that “30 years after black people got the vote, South Africa is the most unequal society on Earth” — as if, somehow, South Africa was more equal under white supremacist rule.

The ghosts of apartheid help the ANC in that the official opposition has done so little to banish apartheid’s ghosts. The Democratic Alliance (DA) has had just one black leader in its history, Mmusi Maimane — and it booted him after a disappointing electoral

performance in 2019. 

Former DA leader Tony Leon later described Maimane’s tenure as a “failed experiment” and, sure enough, the party replaced Maimane with a white man.

Fed up, a succession of senior black officials left, reinforcing perceptions it is a white-run party that caters to elites.

“The racism I experienced in the DA was not overt. Rather, it was that less honest, covert, paternalistic, difficult-to-put-your-finger-on-it kind of racism,” said Herman Mashaba, a former DA mayor who quit to start his own party, writing in the Mail & Guardian in 2021.

“It was the kind of racism that questioned why we were spending time delivering services to informal settlements when they don’t represent ‘traditional DA voters’ and ‘those who pay the rates’. ”

The DA’s leader, John Steenhuisen, said comments like these came from people who were “bitter and angry” after losing party leadership contests. But he appeared tone deaf when it came to the sensitive issue of race relations.

When asked if the country was ready for another white man as president, he compared himself to Barack Obama, “a minority in America, and he was able to get elected”.

The prospect of Steenhuisen getting himself elected is slim. He has said that winning just 22% of the vote would be a major achievement for the DA — a strikingly limited ambition for a well-established opposition party operating in a free and fair political

environment, and competing against a corrupt and scandal-prone ruling party.

Other opposition parties are making a lot of noise, but failing to attract support in the kind of numbers that would pose a real threat to the ANC. The Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, is on track for about 10% of the vote, according to polls, matching its performance from last time.

Newcomers the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, led by former president Jacob

Zuma, is the biggest surprise. Polls put it at about 13%, but its appeal is largely limited to areas of the country with large Zulu populations, such as KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. 

And the constitutional court ruled last week  that Zuma, sentenced to time in jail for

contempt of court, cannot stand for parliament, which thwarts some of the MK party’s higher ambitions.

Although there is no doubt that the ANC will remain the most popular party in the country, it should still be worried about the decline in its support. The extent of its worries will depend on the exact percentage of that decline. Should it retain more than 50% of the vote, then it will have a majority of seats in the National Assembly — and that will allow it to appoint the president unilaterally. 

If it dips to 40% or below, it will need to work with at least one major opposition group —

the DA, the EFF or MK — to form a government. If the track record of local government coalitions is anything to go by, this will be a messy process.

The most likely scenario is that the ANC receives somewhere between 40% and 50% of the vote. This should allow it to form a coalition government with smaller parties such as the newly formed Rise Mzansi, the policies of which are similar to those of the ANC, but position itself as the “grownup” in the room in any coalition scenario.

Rise Mzansi will be able to extract minor concessions, but won’t be in a position to shape the government as a whole.

This is still ANC country, after all — at least until 2029.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here