Apparently, nothing has changed, but maybe something will. On May 7, South Africans flocked to the polling stations, and chose again the African National Congress (Anc) and its presidential candidate, the sitting president Jacob Zuma, to lead the country for the next five years.
The landslide victory of the former liberation movement, which got around 62% of the vote (down from almost 66% in 2009), while the centre-right Democratic Alliance ended up as a far second with 22%, was widely expected. On the other hand, the quite good turnout (73,5%, less than four points down from the previous national elections) come as a partial surprise, given the growing discontent towards the government in general, and Zuma in particular, due to poor service delivery track record and corruption allegations.
In May I went to vote, and there was a queue as long as in 1994′ says for instance Orienda, an elderly woman living in the former black township of Langa, in Cape Town, and she reckons that this is not the only analogy, as she adds: ‘Since that time few things have become different here’. However, even if unsatisfied with the government achievements, many South Africans of all ages still do not see a real alternative to the Anc, which still has ‘time on its side’, as Fr. Anthony Egan, a theologian and scholar at the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg, tells Southworld. The ‘erosion’ of the ruling party’s consensus ‘will be a slow process’, he adds, explaining that ‘even though people are discontent with Anc performance and there are service delivery demonstrations almost every day in various parts of the country, the very people who protest will also vote for the Anc’.
A turn to the left?
There are several reasons if still few people share the views of Noor, a man of Arab descent living in Cape Town, who admits that he ìvoted the Anc only the first timeî, in 1994, or even those of Lucky, a taxi driver in Johannesburg, who, a mere week before the elections, confessed its disillusion with Zuma and admitted: ìI still support Anc, but this time I will vote for the Da, because they are like our police: every time the government makes something wrong, they report it and make it public’. For several others, not giving their vote to the party which the ‘father of the nation’ Nelson Mandela belonged to until its death, still amounts to a betrayal of his legacy and of those of the other late freedom fighters. Moreover, many still not see on the South African political scene a viable alternative to the ruling party. Nevertheless, the long lines of people who have been waiting to cast their votes in places like the townships of Alexandra and Soweto, in Johannesburg, or the striking miners in the ‘platinum belt’ of the Northwest province might soon become a concern to the Anc.
The ‘good story’ of 20 years of democratic and peaceful rule boasted by the authorities hardly impresses the most dispossessed in South Africa, who do not look neither at the growth which enabled the country to became one of the new developing economies of the world, nor at the foreign policy strategies who made the ‘rainbow nation’ a key political player in Africa. The urban and rural lower classes are far more concerned by the rising prices of most basic goods, the widespread episodes of petty corruption, the high unemployment (25%, according to the official figures) and the difficulties in finding a decent hospital or school for them and their children. The social and economic issues might well be at the root of the relative success of the Economic Freedom Fighter (Eff), the recently formed party led by Julius Malema, once the powerful head of the Anc youth wing and now its most staunch critic on its left. An hardline manifesto – focused on doubling all state grants and nationalization, without compensation, of land, banks and mines – earned the firebrand leader and his ‘red berets’ more than 6% of the vote. According to Fr. Egan, this is ìa clear sign to the Anc that there is discontent among the most poor and marginal people of South Africa, who feel that they have been left out of the South African ‘miracle democracy’ and it may force the government to rethink its program’.
Economic policies: a challenge for all
If the Eff ‘seems to gain more ground and have more success, we may well see the Anc responding to this in terms of looking towards different approaches to the political economy of South Africa’, the Jesuit scholar adds. Otherwise, as many other political analysts have noted, a further danger might menace the dominant position of the former liberation movement: shortly before the elections, some elements of the powerful trade unions, including the biggest of them, the metalworkers’ Numsa, threatened to break ties with the government, of which they used to be an unswerving ally. Such a defection would be, for the ruling èlite, a far heavier blow, in terms of loss of consensus, than that inflicted to it by the radical ëred berets’.
Understanding the needs of the poor is also a crucial challenge for the Da, which after this elections should not be considered, as before, just the main flag-bearer of the white minority. ìThe Da is growing – says Fr. Egan – but how far it will grow further, it’s another question; it depends on whether it will be able to gain more of the black middle class and perhaps some of the black working class’, which has so far been suspicious of the party, led by the former journalist (and current premier of the Western Cape province) Helen Zille, also because of its liberist policies. This is not the only challenge that has to be faced by the main opposition movement, which gained about 6% in the May 7 vote, if compared to its 2009 performance. Now, many of its backers expect the centre-right alliance to play a role more in line with its ambitions and – at a national level – to go beyond the mere criticism of those in power.
Another issue that might prove difficult to handle for Zille is that of the internal rivalry that seems to be arising between two of the most important public faces of the party: the outgoing parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and the brilliant former premier candidate for the Gauteng province, Mmusi Maimane. Both were instrumental in earning the party a share of the vote of those young black voters it was aiming to, and Maimane certainly contributed to the good result of the opposition in the richest area of the country, where the Anc managed to retain the absolute majority for just three and a half percentage points (it had 64% in 2009). Finding a solution to the rift between these two symbolic figures will be a test for Zille’s leadership qualities.
Listening to the youths’ hopes
The relative success of Da and Eff, at the present stage, might not mean yet that the ultimate decline of the Anc has started. The successful Malema debut and Zille’s gain of votes were obtained at the expense of the smaller opposition forces, such as Patrick ‘Terror’ Lekota’s Congress of the People (Cope), which was unable to repeat the 2009 performance, falling from more than 7% of the vote to below 1%, or Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkhata Freedom Party, which significantly lost consensus even in its former stronghold of KwaZulu Natal. However, the old rhetoric of ‘Mandela’s party’ might not be enough for the Anc to secure an overwhelming majority in the future, since many youth are unimpressed by the achievements of the past leaders, rather looking at what the sitting government can do for their future.
‘We see no need for politics in this country, to be honest, because we are searching for opportunities for ourselves’, says Sithembiso, a young Zulu boy who had the opportunity to vote for the first time on May 7 but decided not to go to the polling station. ‘My vote – he believes – can’t make any difference at this point’. Unlike his father, who always supported the same party, Sithembiso does not gives much value to political loyalty: politicians, he thinks, were fighting for freedom in the past, ‘but now they just want to make themselves more wealthy, so voting today for one party because brought freedom to the country in the past is nonsense’. What would push him to change his mind, as it is for many of his peers, would be a huge investment on job creation and, most of all, on learning institutions: ‘We need a proper education system in this country’, he states, adding that ‘that would be the South Africa I would want my children to live in, one day’.