Disenchantment with the ANC, fear of a record abstention… The challenges of the elections in South Africa

South Africans vote on Wednesday to elect their MPs to the National Assembly and their elected representatives to local parliaments, who will then choose the nation’s president. The vote is being held against a backdrop of economic crisis and growing disillusionment with the political elites. Shaken by corruption scandals, the ANC, in power since the end of apartheid 30 years ago, fears a historic setback.

In South Africa, some 27.6 million registered voters are voting on Wednesday May 29 to renew their National Assembly and local Parliaments. More than 1.6 million people had registered to slip the ballot into the ballot box in advance. The offices were open for them Monday and Tuesday.

The newly elected Parliament is expected to sit two weeks after the election. Its 400 deputies will then be called upon to elect the president. In power since 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa could see his mandate end if his party, the African National Congress (ANC), does not obtain a majority.

  • Democratic elections

Around fifty parties are competing for these elections, which are the seventh in the country since the end of apartheid and the advent of democracy in 1994. So far the ANC has won everything. But this election could result in a historic setback for the ruling party.

“Observers from the African Union and civil society organizations ensure that the vote goes smoothly. But elections generally go well in South Africa,” comments Marianne Séverin, associate researcher at the Africas in the World research laboratory. (LAM) Sciences Po Bordeaux.

This specialist in South Africa welcomes the transparency and modernity of the vote with “an application from the Electoral Commission – an independent body – which even allows the counting of votes to be followed in real time”. “As a general rule, political parties accept their defeat quite quickly,” she adds.

Another particularity of the South African election, the deputies are chosen by a proportional vote, which reflects the diversity of the rainbow nation, still marked by the stigma of 43 years of apartheid (1948-1991 ).

  • The ANC under fire

Since the election of Nelson Mandela in April 1994, the ANC has won all national elections by a very large majority, obtaining 57% of the vote in 2019. But this time the party risks losing its majority in Parliament, oscillating between 40 % and 47% of the votes in opinion polls.

For thirty years, most voters were loyal to the party that liberated the country from the regime of racial segregation. But for many, the ANC – which promised education, water, a roof over its head and a vote for every South African – has failed to deliver on its promises. Many voters could turn away from the historic party this year.

Lack of water fuels anger against the ANC

A man fills a container with water in Hammanskraal, South Africa, May 23, 2023 © Michele Spatari / AFP

“It is also the sign of a strong civil society, guardian of democracy, which denounces all the failings of the power in place, and in particular corruption,” believes Marianne Séverin.

The proliferation of corruption cases involving ANC figures has clearly undermined voter confidence. “Corruption has always existed in South Africa, but there was an explosion of business under the Jacob Zuma era [ancien président issu de l’ANC]”, underlines the researcher.

However, it still remains difficult for some voters to trust other parties. They feel a particular attachment to the ANC. “South Africa is a very young democracy, it is only 30 years old. There are people who led the anti-apartheid struggle and who are still alive. Those who experienced apartheid have this confidence in the ANC because it is the historic movement that allowed them to be free today,” she explains again.

Faced with the ANC machine, a host of parties will try to win votes. The leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA, center right) is credited with 25% voting intentions in the polls, according to AFP. But he is struggling to convince disappointed ANC voters. “In the minds of South Africans, this party does not really resemble multiracial South Africa. They criticize it in particular for having more white leaders than blacks,” explains Marianne Séverin.

Several black personalities have also left the ranks of the DA in recent years, after denouncing the party for its lack of inclusiveness or its positioning on an abandonment of positive discrimination policies supposed to correct the inequalities inherited from apartheid. Criticisms refuted by John Steenhuisen, head of the Democratic Alliance, who accuses those who resigned of political opportunism.

See alsoSouth Africa: positive discrimination, a campaign subject as elections approach

“It is also a rather liberal party, which for example refused the law on universal social security. However, the majority of South Africans, particularly the black majority, do not have social security,” explains Marianne Severin.

Another recently created party could weigh in on the political game: Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), founded by ex-president Jacob Zuma, 82, named after the armed wing of the ANC under apartheid. He caused a surprise by attracting up to 14% of voting intentions, even if he fell to 8% according to the latest polls.

Head of the MK list, Zuma was declared ineligible by the Constitutional Court on May 20 due to a conviction in 2021 for contempt of court. But his photo will nevertheless appear on the ballot papers, printed for weeks.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF, radical left) represented by their leader Julius Malema, campaigned among young people promising to “overthrow this government of criminals”.

Finally in the Cape Province, the Patriotic Alliance increased its score, reports Caroline Dumay, France 24 correspondent in South Africa. Its leader Gayton McKenzie, a former drug trafficker, advocates a strong regime and during the campaign, he filled stadiums in the suburbs of Cape Town. “This Christian nationalist party is filling up the disadvantaged mixed-race communities of Cape Town by carrying away all those disappointed with the ANC and the Democratic Alliance. The death penalty, the return of military service, or even the expulsion of immigrants. .. Here are the themes that the party is putting forward, hoping to win the Cape Province and make 15% at the national level,” she explains.

  • A loss of confidence in institutions

In any case, abstention should break a record during these general elections, several experts in South African politics agree. According to political science researcher Ebrahim Fakir interviewed by AFP, participation falling from 89% in 1999 to just over 66% in 2019 will also be a key factor. “This is not a matter of disinterest but is directly linked to discontent and a loss of confidence in institutions,” believes this expert.

During the campaign, several parties even chose to charter buses to fill the stadiums during meetings, luring the crowd with free T-shirts, fruit or sandwiches, reported AFP.

The unemployment rate in the rainbow nation is one of the highest in the world at over 30%. Young people are particularly affected with nearly 45.5% of 15-24 year olds unemployedaccording to Marianne Séverin.

See alsoElections in South Africa: unemployment, water, electricity, the country’s major challenges

According to a report published by the World Bank in 2023, South Africa is among the countries with one of the highest and persistent rates of inequality in the world. The second largest economy on the African continent is also a country in which 55.5% of the population lives below the poverty line.

  • Towards a period of political uncertainty

According to the latest polls, no party should have the parliamentary majority that would allow it to elect the president alone. For Marianne Séverin, if the ANC loses its hegemony, it will “have to enter into coexistence with small parties” but will not lose power.

Observers predict tight negotiations in the days following the vote around the formation of a next coalition government. This might take time. “For the good of the country, we will need a coherent coalition and therefore put equals aside, which will not be simple. And even so, if an alliance is concluded, the problem of governance will then arise like this was the case in several local parliaments, where blocking votes prevented decision-making”, recalls the researcher.

“Within the Democratic Alliance, but also the Zulu party, certain personalities raised the possibility of allying with the ANC before being contradicted in other statements.” A sign of a cacophony which has already begun even before the vote and the counting of the results.

With AFP

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