John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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South Africa Moving Away From A One-Party State

by John Campbell
May 9, 2014

Voters mark their ballots in Johannesburg's Alexandra township, May 7, 2014. (Mike Hutchings/Courtesy Reuters) Voters mark their ballots in Johannesburg's Alexandra township, May 7, 2014. (Mike Hutchings/Courtesy Reuters)

While much international attention has been focused on the Boko Haram kidnapping of up to three hundred schoolgirls in northern Nigeria, an episode that re-enforces an Africa negative narrative, South Africa has, yet again, conducted free, fair, and credible national elections. With 99 percent of the votes counted as I write, the governing African National Congress (ANC) has won 62 percent of the vote, the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has won 22 percent, while a new, left-wing party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won 6 percent. The rest of the votes were shared by numerous small parties. Turnout was a healthy 73 percent. The ANC electoral victory guarantees that President Jacob Zuma will remain in office.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has essentially been a one-party state, with the ANC having an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament. Its electoral high-water mark was in 2004, when it won 70 percent of the seats in parliament. That is changing. Its showing in 2014, 62 percent of the vote, is its lowest since 1994. The party has been besmirched by scandal and accusations of cronyism. Many of the icons of the liberation movement, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have abandoned it. Nevertheless, as the party of Nelson Mandela and of the fight against apartheid, it retained overwhelming support from South Africa’s blacks.

If dominant at the national level, the ANC has faced competition at the provincial level from the DA. The DA controls the Western Cape, and its leader, Helen Zille, is the province’s premier. Nationally, the DA has increased its share of the vote from 17 percent in the 2009 elections to 22 percent. In the Western Cape, it won a large majority of the votes, 59 percent. The DA is the party of whites, “Indians” (South Africans of south Asian origin) and “Coloureds,” many of whom regard themselves as a separate, not mixed, race. Helen Zille is white, The Western Cape is the only part of sub-Saharan Africa where blacks are not a majority of the population; “Coloureds” are the largest racial group. But, the DA has been reaching out to blacks, especially those in the new “middle class.” Its parliamentary leader is a black woman. It will be studying the returns to determine the extent to which it has been successful in attracting supporters from the black population. It will be encouraged by the fact that its percentage of the 2014 vote is greater than the percentage of whites, “Coloureds” and “Indians” in South Africa’s national population, which is less than 20 percent combined.

The EFF, a new populist party founded by former ANC bad-boy Julius Malema, will now enter parliament. The EFF is best known for calling for the expropriation without compensation of white property. It is likely to be a noisy left-wing voice in a body that has largely lacked that perspective. However, it is too small to have much impact of policy or legislation.

South Africa is moving toward political pluralism. The ANC, if still by far the largest party, will be challenged in parliament by a revivified DA and, for the first time, a radical, populist leftwing party, the EFF. 2014 may have set the stage for even greater change in the next electoral season, in 2019. The DA may have started to break out of its particular racial straightjacket, necessary if it is to be an alternative party of government. The powerful and wealthy National Union of Metal Workers has withdrawn its support from the ANC and is moving toward the establishment a labor party that would likely have more responsible leadership than the EFF. These signs of political pluralism are healthy for a democracy.

Nevertheless, in 2014, South Africans still have voted largely along racial lines. But, elections are moving from being largely a racial census to being about issues.

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