No blank check for ANC after election win in South Africa
Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) party cheer as they arrive for a victory rally in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa Sunday, May 12. South Africa's president on Sunday vowed to purge his party of "bad and deviant tendencies" as he prepares to appoint a new Cabinet following a victory in national elections. | Ben Curtis / AP

The African National Congress has been returned to power after bruising national and provincial elections that saw it fend off competition from the main opposition parties, the larger center-right Democratic Alliance and the populist left Economic Freedom Fighters.

The ANC won 57% of the vote, its poorest showing yet, but a triumph for a party that has been fighting for its survival after becoming mired in corruption scandals under its former leader, Jacob Zuma, who was forced to resign in February 2018. The ANC also managed to keep its majorities in all the country’s provinces, with the exception of the Western Cape, where the DA remains in control. The ANC will have 230 seats in the National Assembly, down from 249 in 2014.

Voter turnout was also down, with nearly 66% of eligible voters going to the polls this year compared to 73% at the last national elections, held in 2014. Some 17.6 million of 26.7 million registrants turned up to vote.

The decline is partly attributed to voter apathy, especially among youth. In practically all areas of the country – whether under ANC or DA local government control – deteriorating services, widening inequality, deepening unemployment, and rising crime have tended to put a dampener on support for the two main parties. There were over 230 major service delivery protests across South Africa in 2018 (there were many more minor ones), the highest number ever recorded, and most protests blame either DA or ANC-run local government for the crises affecting communities.

The DA lost support this election, from 22% in 2014 to 20% this year. It will have 84 seats in the National Assembly, down from 89. Long lambasted as the party of conservative white privilege, the DA has tried desperately in recent years to appeal to black middle-class voters and gain support in the townships (the vast urban dormitories created under apartheid to house black and other people of color). This backfired in the elections, as a fair chunk of the DA’s white right-wing support base switched allegiance to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), linked in part to separatist Afrikaner ambitions that flared up after the fall of apartheid. FF+ will now have 10 seats in the National Assembly, up from four. The slogan on FF+ posters this year was “Fight back”.

The EFF, on the other hand, has strengthened its hand, gaining 10% of the vote, up from 6% in 2014. It will have 44 seats in the National Assembly, 19 more than it won five years ago. The EFF successfully taps into much of the anger and frustration black people in poor areas in particular feel at the slow or non-existent pace of change in lifting communities out of poverty. “Our land and jobs now!” was the party’s manifesto slogan. The EFF comes dressed in red and uses much of the rhetoric but none of the analysis of the revolutionary left. The party’s critics, including the South African Communist Party, slam the EFF as an “infantile and thuggish” outfit promising immediate change and improvements but with no interest in enduring socialist transformation. The leading South African political cartoonist Zapiro dubs the EFF as “Everything Fake and Fascist”.

President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks at an ANC victory rally. | Ben Curtis / AP

The key policy issues during the elections were predictably the fight against corruption, economic growth, jobs and unemployment, and services.

The Ramaphosa government was quick to act on the crisis of corruption in the state, known as state capture. In August last year, it set up the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, which has won much public approval for its investigations into corruption that began under the Zuma administration and spread to many public institutions. So, while corruption has been a big issue in the elections, the governing party could not be accused of dodging the issue.

One issue that did not come up substantially was land reform. The EFF asserts itself as the main champion of land redistribution, made it an election issue, and urged its members to seize unused land. The government has proposed amending the constitution to speed up land redistribution without compensation. The issue is an emotive one and crucial in terms of tackling spatial apartheid and inequality, as it is rooted in the expropriation of land from black communities under colonialism and apartheid. Much will depend on the outcome of the draft Expropriation Bill, which is currently in process and has yet to be adopted by the National Assembly.

The ANC’s victory was largely made possible by an all-out door-to-door campaigning effort by its alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. As in the past, they were key to mobilizing the working class to continue to support the ANC. The SACP and Cosatu are long-term allies of the ANC, and most of their members are also ANC members. They have been the main initiators and champions of the anti-corruption drive within the ANC and, more widely across government, and in this, they stand squarely behind efforts by President Cyril Ramaphosa to reform the ANC.

At its 2017 national congress, the SACP decided that the party could contest elections under its own name, depending on the situation in the country. It was unclear at the time whether the ANC would be able to rescue itself from what then seemed an irreversible nosedive into graft and sleaze. The turn-around in the ANC, with the election of Ramaphosa amidst hefty factional opposition from groupings regarded at least in part as responsible for the party’s failings, and the subsequent efforts to stamp out corruption have in large measure been due to the inputs of the ANC’s alliance partners.

But the SACP has cautioned that its support for the ANC this election and into the next government term is no blank check. Ending corruption is a main issue, but it’s not the only one. South Africa needs to move forward with its “national democratic revolution,” the key strategy for eliminating the legacies of the racist past and putting the country on a path to socialism. The SACP and Cosatu want the main points of the ANC’s election manifesto to now become policy. They include:

  • More jobs, decent work, and skills training;
  • A people-centred and people-driven economy with active leadership of the state;
  • Education – truly opening the doors of learning to all;
  • Universal quality healthcare through national health insurance for all;
  • Comprehensive social security, well-located housing for the poor and safe and affordable public transport;
  • Public safety and security; and
  • Building a united South African nation.

The subtext of this last point is grounded in a very real fear that the country’s fragile social fabric is coming apart. Populist politics that readily feed on racism and chauvinism, the disastrous effects of neoliberal policies that exacerbate South Africa’s already gaping  inequality, worsening violence against women and girls, a pandemic of mental ill-health, and massive social exclusion – all place a giant question mark over the future of a country that nearly 25 years ago was optimistically tagged a “rainbow nation.”


Mark Waller
Mark Waller

Originally from Helsinki, Mark Waller lives in the City of Tshwane, South Africa. He writes on events in South Africa and other countries on the continent, and translates from Finnish to English.