Election day will be May 7, South Africa’s first after the death of Nelson Mandela. Conventional wisdom is that they will be the most competitive elections in the country’s post-apartheid history.
Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) at present holds about two thirds (66 percent) of the seats in parliament and controls most of the provincial governments. Historically, most of South Africa’s blacks citizens, constituting about 80 percent of the population, have supported it. But, recurrent scandals, poor service deliveries in the townships, and issues with the leadership of president and party leader Jacob Zuma are eroding its once overwhelming support. Most commentators think that the ANC will loose seats in these elections.
Should the ANC’s share of parliamentary seats fall below 60 percent, there likely will be a strong move to replace Zuma as party leader–and as chief of state. However, it is difficult to imagine that the ANC will “lose” its majority in parliament; South Africa’s post May 7 government will be led by the ANC. After some twenty years as the party of government and controlling many patronage networks, it tends to attract political talent. Only an earthquake could end its majority. But, the party could be seriously weakened if it loses a significant number of parliamentary seats and provincial governments.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is the official opposition. It currently holds sixty-seven seats (17 percent) in parliament. Its electoral support is heavily white, coloured, and Indian. Party leader Helen Zille is seeking to broaden the party’s appeal to blacks, especially those who in the middle class who are demanding better government. she facilitated the effort to place Mamphela Ramphele, a liberation movement icon and a founder of the Black Consciousness movement, at the top of the DA electoral list and to merge (or absorb) Ramphele’s new political party, AgangSA, with the DA. Agang is a predominately black party, very small, and has had difficulty raising money. On substantive issues, the two parties are very close. But the effort failed, in part because Zille and Ramphele poorly prepared the ground for a merger. Had it succeeded, the chances of the ANC’s majority in parliament falling below 60 percent would have been improved.
The DA at present controls the government of the Western Cape (Cape Town) and it hopes to win control of Gauteng (Johannesburg), a possibility but by no means certain. If ANC disaffection is as deep as many commentators think, the DA may indeed add parliamentary seats and win Johannesburg. Nevertheless, post May 7, its overall position in South African politics is likely to be much the same as it is today. As for Agang, it does not appear to be generating much enthusiasm. It may do well in some local contests, but it is likely to win only a handful of parliamentary seats through South Africa’s system of proportional representation.
A wild card is a new party on the left, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Founded by bad-boy Julius Malema who was expelled from the ANC, it favors wholesale nationalisation of land and industry, apparently without compensation. It is appealing directly to the poor in the townships and the rural areas. Some observers speculate that it could win as much as 10 percent of the vote. If so, that would be an earthquake.
In European or American terms, the ANC is a centrist party, the DA center-right. While the EFF claims to be a left-wing party, its leadership is erratic and it lacks organization. It remains to be seen whether it can become a serious political party. It is more likely that a genuinely, and responsible, left-wing party will emerge out of the trade union movement for the 2019 elections. The metal workers union has already withdrawn its support from the ANC and its leaders have raised the possibility of forming a new party.
For now, racial identities are likely to remain the largest determinant of voting behavior. However, should a serious left wing party emerge and should the DA continue to strengthen, the 2019 elections could see a move away from identity politics toward a greater focus on issues. That would further strengthen South Africa’s democracy.