- Created: Wednesday, 12 June 2019 10:03
- Written by Jack Clayton
On 8 May over 17 million South Africans headed to the polls in the sixth election since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994. The final result saw the ruling African National Congress (ANC) remain in power but with a smaller majority than in previous elections, with the major opposition parties failing to present a strong challenge. With both economic and political uncertainty growing in South Africa, there seems to be little hope for the poor majority. From Johannesburg JACK CLAYTON reports.
With a population of over 56 million, the national election saw only 65% of the 26 million registered voters participate, a lower turnout than previous elections. Like the previous election, the two main parties contending for the presidency were the ANC and centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA has long been the only major opposition to the ANC, but despite lots of media focus in the last five years on widespread corruption in the government and within the ANC party, the DA lost votes getting only 20%, down 1.5% since the 2014 election. Both the DA and ANC lost votes to smaller parties, the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the far-right Afrikaans nationalist Freedom Front Plus (FF+). While these parties did better than in past elections and have grown, they still do not pose any challenge to the ANC and there is no possibility of a coalition within parliament.
While the vote share of the EFF, a self-described Marxist-Leninist-Fanonist party whose main platform is land reform, grew as expected, getting 10.79% compared to its 6% in 2014, the Freedom Front’s gains were more of a surprise, even to supporters of the party. Getting 2.3% of the vote and 10 seats in parliament, it seemed that white Afrikaans voters previously loyal to the DA switched to the FF+ after the current DA leadership expressed more support for black economic empowerment in a bid to draw black voters to a party traditionally seen as the home of the white middle class.
While the FF+ has toned down the pro-Afrikaans nature of its platform in recent years, the party was founded on the idea of ‘minority rights’ for white citizens, opposing affirmative action, and advocating for an independent ‘volkstaat’ homeland for Afrikaans people. The electoral success of the FF+, which had previously been in decline, shows that even South Africa is not immune to the rise of the far right sweeping across the US and Europe. In recent years the far right has been building strong networks of support for parties like the FF+ in South Africa.
Still a divided nation
The backdrop to this election is an increasingly divided South Africa, rocked by various corruption scandals, and the many attempts by the ANC to heal its damaged reputation. This election was particularly important as it is the first electoral challenge for the new president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa. He took charge of the country last year following the resignation of previous president Jacob Zuma, forced to resign after pressure from both inside and outside the ANC. Zuma was widely seen as corrupt, with various major scandals having occurred throughout his presidency including using state money to upgrade his own mansion under the pretence of ‘security upgrades’, heavy involvement with a state capture scandal in which major ANC politicians worked directly with a billionaire family, and hundreds of other charges of corruption and fraud. The last eight years in South Africa have been marked by countless cases of corruption, including some cases that go across parties in Parliament, and general mismanagement of public infrastructure for the personal gain of politicians.
The economic situation in South Africa is dire for the working-class majority, with unemployment at 27% and youth unemployment over 50%. The constitution of South Africa guarantees a basic level of state welfare and support, but this is not being met by the government, especially in the rural areas and slum-like townships which have seen little or no change since the end of apartheid. General public services like hospitals have become increasingly run down under a mix of austerity and corruption with budgets being stretched to breaking point, and even major energy infrastructure has been failing leading to frequent national blackouts. This degradation of public services led to over 237 municipal protests and riots in 2018, the highest number in 13 years. Alongside near-constant strikes in both the public and private sector, political turmoil and unrest have become everyday occurrences, with increasing violence and brutality from the police in response.
Student protests across South African universities in 2019 have been met with police violence.
President Cyril Ramaphosa took charge of the ANC in 2017 under the banner of his ‘Thuma Mina’ (‘send me’) slogan, a call for ANC members to volunteer to help rebuild confidence in the government and ruling party. But as the ANC remains increasingly divided and even more factional after the election, it has become clearer that Ramaphosa’s goal is not to restore the faith of the working class in his government but that of the rich and powerful countries. While his background lies in the struggle against apartheid as trade union leader and self-declared socialist, he spent the last few years of National Party rule both organising a peaceful transition to democracy and building his own businesses. He quickly became, and still is, one of the wealthiest people in South Africa, and throughout his election campaign he made sure to show that he was on the side of business.
Shades of opportunism
The ANC is supported by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party, who follow the concept of the national democratic revolution, according to which South Africa must modernise before socialism can be fought for. But both of these organisations have seen their membership jumping ship to new radical alternatives, with the ANC leading the deindustrialization of South Africa which has led to the collapse of major industries and exacerbated the current unemployment crisis. South Africa has become one of the most unequal societies on the planet in terms of wealth and income distribution; approximately 60% of the population earns less than R42,000 ($7,000) per annum. Ramaphosa has firmly tied himself to a model of South Africa as a ‘business hub’ where international monopolies can oversee the mass exploitation of the continent. Vast networks of gold and diamond mines across South Africa all remain in the hands of companies from Britain and Canada. Ramaphosa himself was a board member of British mining company Lonmin at the time of the 2012 strike at its Marikana platinum mine, during which 34 miners were massacred by police.
A major issue throughout the last two elections has been that of land reform (see ‘South Africa: land redistribution back on the agenda’ on our website), as more than two-thirds of South African land is still owned by a white minority. The EFF party grew rapidly on a platform of land nationalisation and redistribution. While he was president of South Africa, in what was widely seen as a bid to win back support, the ANC's Jacob Zuma helped pass laws allowing for the expropriation of land without compensation. Cyril Ramaphosa has repeatedly expressed his opposition to land reform in general and has on many occasions reassured major farm and mine owners that they were not at risk of expropriation. This has led to further division within the ANC, with the Zuma-aligned faction regaining strength by claiming the banner of land expropriation, and rewriting Zuma’s legacy by portraying him as a martyr for ‘black economic empowerment’, removed by Ramaphosa who primarily serves ‘white monopoly capital’.
This narrative inside the ANC is meaningless to the working-class black majority who continue to suffer under both black and white domination by the ruling class of South Africa. While the political factionalism of the ANC and the failure of the opposition to grow has led to general political apathy, the ANC continues to rule, as it still enjoys massive support from its role in the liberation struggle, having positioned itself as the party of black majority rule for over 100 years. But alongside a lower number of votes than in previous years, in this election there were quarter of a million spoilt ballots in total, showing, alongside the low turnout, that voter apathy and dissatisfaction is extremely high. This is despite the fact that the election had 48 parties on the ballot paper, with 19 of these being new and running for the first time for national or provincial seats.
Divide and rule tactics
The Democratic Alliance’s election campaign also had a focus on ‘defending the borders’ using anti-immigrant sentiment in hopes of boosting its support in working class communities, which are seen as hotbeds of xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence targeting South Africa’s massive refugee and migrant population. But this failed, with xenophobia already expertly weaponised by the ANC as a way to distract from its own failings and the South African state already heavily targeting ‘illegal’ immigrants by denying them state services and regularly deporting them. The EFF was the only party to take a strong stance against xenophobia, but this was not a focus of its campaign.
Apart from the three major parties and the rise of the right-wing FF+, the conservative Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party managed to regain seats it had previously lost, now at 14, while a handful of parties only managed to grab a couple of seats each. The national and provincial parliaments continue to be dominated by the ANC who hold a majority, but the official opposition has switched in some provinces from the DA to the EFF, which is the only real major change since the last elections. As in the past it is the internal factions of the ANC that will shape the future direction of parliament's decisions, with ANC MPs holding a variety of views and political opinions from so called ‘Marxist-centrists’ to British Tory-style conservatives. The working class is not represented within this parliamentary circus, and it is likely that the next time ANC politicians will enter the townships and rural slums will be in five years’ time in the runup to the next election.
Even though 25 years of democracy since the end of apartheid was recently celebrated across South Africa, little has changed for the working class since the end of white minority rule. With a majority of people living in extreme poverty, faced with state violence and forced to work in mines owned by western corporations, the shift from dictatorship to capitalist democracy has done little to change the everyday struggles facing South Africans, while the ‘former’ white oppressors continue to exploit the country hand in hand with the new black ruling class. With growing political violence and a record number of protests over the delivery of government services, the future of South Africa seems volatile, with the veneer of democracy failing to hide the deep exploitation of the poor black majority.