|17. April 2009
South Africa: The Election - A Tainted Victory
With South Africa's election fast approaching, Roger Southall predicts a triumphant yet problematic victory for Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC).
Southall examines the shifting electoral terrain within South Africa, indicating that younger voters are changing the political demographic. Despite the ANC's respected economic record, increasing concern surrounds government policy, with injustice and inequality still prevalent across the country some 15 years after 1994's 'liberation' election.
The author argues that regardless of the ANC's predictable success in the April 2009 election, the party's sanctity has been shattered as a result of its corruption and role in worsening the livelihoods of ordinary South Africans. The ANC's dominance in the electoral arena is subsiding, Southall contends, a reality which will prove key in shaping the future development of South Africa's democracy.
The triumph of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa's fourth democratic general election on 22 April 2009 is assured. Yet this will be the ruling party's most shoddy and problematic victory.
The ingredients of success seem to be falling into place. The acting chief prosecutor's decision on 6 April not to continue pressing corruption and tax-evasion charges against the ANC leader Jacob Zuma - which opens the way for him to succeed Kgalema Motlanthe as the country's president - is a timely boost for the party, even if Helen Zille of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) promises to appeal to the high court against the ruling.
The ANC is intent on presenting a confident face to the voters; it announced a two-thirds majority in the national assembly as its goal. But this is bravado. In private, the ANC worries that its showing will be considerably worse - perhaps even below 60 per cent. This may sound impressive, though it would be a considerable decline from the near 70 per cent of the vote in the last (April 2004) election; even more worryingly for the party, worse than its 63 per cent in the 'liberation' election of 1994.
This could be the signal that, after some 15 years in power, the ANC is on a downward slope and could face the real possibility of defeat at the next election in 2014. Indeed, this is the agenda that the two highest profile opposition parties - the established DA and the new Congress of the People (COPE) - are working towards.
The inexorable shifting of South Africa's electoral terrain in a way that renders appeals by the ANC to the electorate more problematic helps explain why a party on the brink of electoral victory can also appear to be in decline. Three aspects of this process stand out.
A NEW LANDSCAPE The first is demographic. South African voters are getting younger, the result both of a high birth-rate and (owing to the impact of HIV/Aids) declining average life-spans. The ANC may claim the loyalties of first-time (18-year-old and above) voters, but the political leanings of the 'cell phone' generation - which has little direct memory of apartheid - are likely to be more diffuse and less rooted than those of its parents.
The second is policy-related. The ANC's economic record since 1994 has been respectable, but a fundamental reality remains unchanged: South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The government's own 15-year-review acknowledged that in 2005, half the population - 22 million out of 44 million - lived in abject poverty. The government has done much to address the needs of the poor via a massive extension of social assistance, and a reasonable record in the supply of new housing, electricity connections and water. Nonetheless, these measures do not automatically translate into votes. These initiatives also foster dependencies and disappointed expectations, as well as a widespread sense of relative deprivation. In addition, there is growing resentment against perceived corruption and cronyism, especially at the local level.
The third aspect that limits the appeal of the ANC is social. South Africa's social cohesion is being undermined by at least four factors: massive rural-to-urban migration; inward and largely uncontrolled foreign immigration (notably from Zimbabwe); a perennially high level of unemployment (around 25 per cent, currently compounded by job losses caused by the global recession); and the growing casualisation of work. A Markinor poll published in February 2009 indicated that for the first time more South Africans felt the country was going in the wrong (42 per cent) than in the right (38 per cent) direction.
A PARTY CORRODED The ANC might with some justification claim that these are precisely the sort of problems that any government is likely to face after 15 years in power. Yet so many of the troubles it faces are of its own invention.
The most notorious is the period of internal turmoil which culminated with the replacement of Thabo Mbeki as party leader by Jacob Zuma at the ANC's national conference in Polokwane in December 2007. This in turn was followed by Mbeki's 'recall' from South Africa's presidency in September 2008 and replacement by the interim figure of Kgalema Motlanthe. The official version is that there has been an internal healing of rifts, but in truth many scars remain and the wounds could easily be re-opened.
It's true that Jacob Zuma has emerged as his own man during the course of the campaign as opposed to a creature of the coalition of trade unions, the Communist Party (CP), and the ANC Youth League which propelled him to the leadership at Polokwane. But his appeal is divisive, and his ascendancy to the presidency will be of someone tainted by suspicion who, but for the ANC's politicisation of supposedly neutral state institutions, might otherwise be in jail.
At a deeper level, the reason why the ANC's forthcoming victory will be so qualified is the widespread sense that the party has lost its sense of decency. It arrived in power in 1994 as the champion of human rights; the government it formed was invested in the hopes of most South Africans for a fairer, more equal and more caring society. There is little of such idealism today. Instead of the iconic Nelson Mandela, the ANC is led by a man whom the majority (even of black Africans, who form the main body of the ANC's support), believe is guilty of corruption.
Indeed, there has been a series of scandals. Many have revolved around the ANC's misuse of state power to fund its party budget, while others have exposed dodgy deals with shady businessmen. The saddest aspect is that the expectation and even acceptance of corruption at all national, provincial and local levels has become the norm.
The ANC's money obsession means that it is awash with money from un-stated sources, much of it appearing to come from fellow ruling parties in countries such as China, Equatorial Guinea, Libya and Angola. But there is a cost: the party machinery, even at a time of electoral mobilisation, is creaking. Kgalema Motlanthe, when he was still secretary general of the ANC in 2007, admitted that the rot was 'across the board', meaning every project was considered in terms of its opportunities for people to make money.
The saga of Carl Niehaus - whom the leadership employed as ANC spokesman for the electoral campaign despite privately knowing of his background of extensive fraud, and subsequently dismissed when the media revealed his deceit and indebtedness - is symptomatic of the party's disarray. Few South Africans believe that a party headed by Jacob Zuma will prove able to recover its compass. The refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend a peace conference in South Africa, which would contribute to the maintenance of comradely relations with China (admittedly to the anguish of significant elements within the party), confirms that mammon has trumped morality.
AN EMPTY VICTORY The ANC's predicament could well have been worse if COPE - launched in late 2008 by ANC dissidents, especially those opposed to Jacob Zuma and inclined to Thabo Mbeki - had managed to get its act together. It now looks as if COPE will no longer present a strong challenge to the ANC. Its own early life has been marked by a series of setbacks including limited funding, a lack of patronage, a failure to secure backing from enough high-profile ANC figures, all of which have been reinforced by internal divisions and its own incompetence.
COPE had initially hoped to win as many as 20 per cent of the vote. Now 5 per cent is more likely, though most of this should come from the ANC rather than from other parties of opposition. COPE and the DA could also benefit from a squeezing of the smaller opposition parties as voters determined to make their votes count turn to them. For its part, the DA may find it difficult to move much above its respectable 12.37 per cent share of the vote, but could emerge as the largest party in the Western Cape (weathering a challenge from COPE in the process) and be able to lead a governing coalition in the province after ejecting the ANC from power.
The current election is the most fluid and unpredictable in South Africa since 1994. Jacob Zuma's ANC will win, and could yet win big. But even if it manages to again defeat the opposition threat with apparent ease, the perception of its inviolability has been broken. The signs are prevalent that the ANC's dominance of the electoral arena is crumbling. Some believe, and even more hope, that this could be good for South African democracy.
Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work programme, University of the Witwatersrand. This article originally appeared in openDemocracy on 7 April 2009.