This is a guest post by Derek Charles Catsam, associate professor of History and the Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan fellow in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Perman Basin. Derek was senior editor for the Foreign Policy Association’s Africa blog from 2007 to 2014.
The African National Congress (ANC) won last week’s national elections in South Africa in a landslide. There should be nothing surprising about this. Forecasters predicted as much and no serious observer anticipated anything other than a comfortable ANC victory. Yet much of the analysis leading to the voting had an ominous subtext for the party of Nelson Mandela. The ANC was, from numerable perspectives, too corrupt, too complacent, and too accustomed to the levers of power.
The party faced challenges from the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), set to take advantage of hidden discontentment among millions of voters. Myriad small parties–the most in any election in the country’s history–also challenged the ANC. There was further talk that voters would express their rage at the ruling party by “spoiling” their votes, casting unreadable ballots as a form of protest. The ANC was going to win, yet the implication was that trouble was on the horizon.
The country’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) confirmed the results on Saturday. The numbers report good news for the ANC, even though 62.2 percent of voters who supported the ANC represents the lowest total for the party since non-racial democracy came to the country. It is worth noting, however, that with Nelson Mandela at the helm in 1994, the ANC won “only” 62.7 percent. Furthermore, the DA finally broke the 20 percent barrier, winning 22.2 percent of the vote. Consider what this says–the ANC won its lowest percentage of the vote in the post-Apartheid era, the DA surpassed its own record, and yet the ANC won by 40 percent, or by nearly twice as many percentage points as any of its challengers has ever received in an election. If this is supposed to represent a message sent to the ANC it is a weak message indeed.
In an election with more than 73 percent voter turnout (which IEC chair Pansy Tlakula identified as evidence to the world that “democracy is well and thriving in this land”) there were no credible claims of corruption of the process. The ANC is dominant, but not because of coercion and not because they have placed their thumb on the scale. For all of the claims of what the ANC is or is not, it is unquestionable that when given a clear opportunity to express their preference, the vast majority of South Africans willingly and happily choose the ANC, even if many of them are uncomfortable with Jacob Zuma, the beleaguered and seemingly perpetually troubled head of the party and president of the country. Indeed, no one has benefitted from South Africa’s parliamentary system more than Zuma. The ANC’s landslide victory perhaps makes it a “one party state” in the most literal definition, but those who aver that the country is likely to go the way of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe are willfully blind.