Democracy in South Africa

After twenty years of electoral dominance by the African National Congress, are South African politics finally becoming competitive?

May 06, 2014
Supporters wave paintings showing the late Nelson Mandela, left, and South African President Jacob Zuma, right, at an African National Congress rally on May 4, 2014. The ANC's campaign for the May 7 election has focused on the party's legacy in government.


Ronnie Kasrils has always made an unusual revolutionary, even by South Africa’s standards.

He is short, slightly plump, middle-class, white, and of Jewish heritage in a country whose black majority was the natural rank and file of the struggle against apartheid, which ended in a remarkable negotiated settlement in 1994.

Kasrils nevertheless managed to integrate himself into the heart of the fight against apartheid in the 1960s and ’70s. He spent years in exile and on the run, eventually becoming a senior member of the African National Congress’s (ANC) military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). 

After South Africa became a democracy in 1994, in elections won handsomely by the ANC, he rose in the ranks and ultimately became a cabinet minister in charge of intelligence services during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, whose term was rudely cut short in 2008 when the party sided with current President Jacob Zuma.

Kasrils resigned his post in September of that year. He has been out of the public eye for some time and is considered something of a legacy figure, known locally as a “struggle stalwart.”

Yet such is the oddity of the 2014 election in South Africa that Kasrils has suddenly reemerged. In April he and fellow former ANC minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge made headlines for their “Vote No” campaign, which urges voters at the May 7 poll to spoil their ballots rather than back the ANC. Kasrils has praised smaller parties but also withheld his endorsement. Mainly his concern is with the dysfunction in his party, which has never lost an election. As Kasrils told the newspaper City Press, “My view is that the people who now run the ANC, not every one of them, but there is an elite that has become incredibly corrupt that managed to take over . . . and it’s just been downhill ever since.”

Here is a respected ANC member advocating a protest vote against his own party. At the same time, he cannot bring himself to select any of the other twenty-plus parties available. What could cause such a crisis of confidence in the political system?

• • •

This year marks twenty since South Africa held its first election on April 27, 1994. Not surprisingly, the debate this time has been underpinned by a larger conversation about what has been achieved, and what not, during two decades of freedom.

Although this legacy narrative has dominated the campaign—the ANC’s slogan is “we have a good story to tell”—it is hard to claim with any conviction that it has caught fire. There are several reasons.

During two decades of democracy, white South Africans, the primary beneficiaries of the apartheid system, relinquished power but got even richer.

For one thing, South Africa is in a state of commemoration fatigue. The death and burial of Nelson Mandela, the country’s treasured first president, was an occasion for looking back, looking forward, and general hand wringing. The population, both black and white, has also been diverted from the election by the absorbing saga of the world-renowned sprinter Oscar Pistorius, whose trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, has spanned almost the exact duration of the campaign season.

Then there is the overarching problem of South African identity, which complicates any appeal to legacy. The “who are we” question looms large in many countries, but in South Africa it has a particularly hard and political edge, so that the identity of who is asking the question foreshadows the answer. Underlying divisions are still palpable, fissures still evident, wounds not yet healed.

Even in the starker terms of economics, it is hard to say what the ANC has achieved.

Today, South Africa’s nominal GDP is nearly three-and-a-half-times what it was in 1994. Average annual growth of real GDP was 3.6 percent between 1994 and 2007 and has held at 2.2 percent since.

This sounds pretty good, but it is nothing special. In fact, it is almost precisely the average global growth rate, which befits South Africa, a country that sits somewhere between developed and developing. The glass is half full because South Africa has not fallen behind the global average. The glass is half empty because it did not achieve anything more. Take your pick.

Other indicators look stronger. For the past two decades, inflation averaged about 6.4 percent, and national cash reserves exploded from near zero to around $50 billion. What a contrast to the decade of sanctions prior to democracy. The apartheid “siege economy” managed an average annual growth of real GDP of only 1.4 percent, with a 14.3 percent rate of inflation.

It would be fair to say that white South Africans, about 10 percent of the population, are still in a state of shocked disbelief about this outcome. What happened to the rampaging communist hoards that had been promised? Instead the ANC, which is formally aligned with the South African Communist Party, has turned out to be a model of Teutonic fiscal rectitude.

A less polite summary of this period would put it this way: white South Africans, the primary beneficiaries of the apartheid system, relinquished power but got even richer. The same is true to a lesser extent of South Africa’s growing mixed-race demographic and citizens of Indian extraction, who together make up roughly another tenth of the population.

For black South Africans, the changes have been immense but more complicated. Those who had somehow managed to cobble together an education during apartheid rose fast after 1994 and often found themselves thrust into important jobs. Office life has become thoroughly multiracial. “Black diamonds,” the country’s new black rich, have become a popular target of marketers.

And much has been done for the very poor. The booming Chinese market for minerals drove a South African growth spurt in 2003, which in turn generated significant surpluses. The government plowed this largesse into an enlarged poverty benefit system—essentially, a $50 per month cash handout to the aged, mothers with young children, and people with disabilities. The term “the poorest of the poor” is commonly heard within the ANC, and it was this group the party put at the top of its priority list. Total beneficiaries now number an extraordinary sixteen million people every month, up from two million in 1994. The number of recipients coincides roughly with the number of people in South Africa living on less than $2 a day. The country now has one of the largest cash-dispensing poverty relief programs in the world as a proportion of the population.

But the middle class has gotten short shrift. The middle is, in a sense, missing in South Africa and therefore has historically been too weak to have a large impact on politics. This finally changed in 2008 when an alliance of the disaffected—comprising working-class leaders keen on a new radicalism, die-hard communists with hair-brained solutions, militant youth figures, and representatives of the old tribal way of life—commandeered the ANC on behalf of Zuma and his supporters. These voters are the missing middle, peeved that the new South Africa has brought benefits to almost all others, including whites, but not to them.

Zuma may have been the perfect politician to represent them, since he offered no distinctive policy recommendations. He was a blank canvas onto which others could paint their designs.

But it has all gone a little awry. For a start, Zuma’s household has been a major issue in the current campaign. Though he has two state residences, a hefty wad of public money was used to upgrade his private home in rural Nkandla, a few hours’ drive north of Durban. The renovation, notionally designed to ensure the personal safety of the president and his family, cost way more than originally planned, coming in at $23 million. The scandal has soured the national mood.

The Public Protector, a constitutionally established state ombudsman, released a report that condemned the spending but found no evidence Zuma knew its extent—a finding that, although factually unchallenged, was greeted with enormous cynicism. Suspicions swirl around the Zuma family’s financial deals and underhand business.

The world, and indeed South Africans, were taken aback when a large portion of the crowd booed Zuma during the commemoration event for Mandela in Soweto. Hecklers have greeted Zuma along the campaign trail as well, even at ANC events. Recent polls show that his popularity has plunged.

The ANC will retain power this year, but its longer-term fortunes are less certain. Its high moral tone has been replaced by fecklessness.

The blank canvas is now spattered with signs of irritation. The past few years have seen an increase in small-scale protests against poor delivery of public housing, electricity, sanitation, and transport services. Labor strikes are also commonplace. About 60,000 platinum mining workers are entering the fourth month of their strike, a sequel to the 2012 confrontation at the Marikana platinum mine where police killed thirty-four miners. It was by far the largest use of force by security personnel in the democratic period.

And with the global economic downturn, growth has, on the whole, stagnated. Unemployment officially is at around 25 percent, though many economists believe the true figure is higher, and the problem is much worse among black than white South Africans. Zuma’s alliance of the disaffected has found itself pulling in different directions, and the result has been an uncomfortable stasis.

Meanwhile, the ground is moving fast under the ANC’s feet. The party’s former youth league leader Julius Malema, once a supporter of Zuma and a Hugo Chávez figure complete with red beret, has been a big factor in the election. He may win no more than five percent of the vote, but Malema, who invariably manages to home in on populist issues, has been a visible figure in the campaign and is widely quoted in the press as a critic of the ANC.

One of the challenges for the ANC is decreasing racial polarization of the parties. Many observers fault South African democracy as little more than a racial census, but that condition is changing. The second largest party, the Democratic Alliance, is led by Helen Zille, a white woman, but seems certain to make inroads against the ANC’s dominance this time, winning perhaps 25 percent of the vote. Zille has overseen the promotion of a number of black leaders within her party, and the ANC’s attempt to paint the DA as a white party has lost some of its force.

• • •

All of this helps to explain the dilemma facing Kasrils and many others who share his views. It is hard to know whether this is the beginning of the end for the ANC or whether the party has the leadership and creativity to steady the ship. Though the ANC will retain power in tomorrow’s election, its longer-term fortunes are less certain, and a certain fecklessness has replaced the high moral tone the party once projected.

In many countries, when a leading party slips off the tracks, the solution would be a new political alignment, with fresh faces in high office. But South Africa is different; where the ANC goes, the country follows, and the consequences of its decline are unforeseeable. Who or what could replace it? Few other political parties in the world have had such a dominant hold over public consciousness, which makes anticipating post-ANC life tricky.

As for South Africa’s progress in two decades of democracy: its achievements are both impressive and incomplete. And its future is both hopeful and uncertain.

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