As South Africa prepares for general elections on May 8, the “beloved country” marks another milestone: its first 25 years post-apartheid. Two-and-a-half decades ago, the long-troubled country emerged from some five decades of white minority rule under an abhorrent system of racial segregation, apartheid, and centuries of colonialism before that.
The April 24-26, 1994, elections marked the first in which black South Africans, some 77% of the country’s population in that year, participated. The newly politically empowered African electorate swept into power the liberation African National Congress (ANC) and its iconic leader, Nobel peace laureate Nelson Mandela, as president. In the 1994 elections, the ANC won a handy 63% of the vote and the putatively liberationist party has won a similar comfortable majority of votes in subsequent general elections in 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014.
On May 8, South Africans again go to the polls…this time in the context of 25 years of ANC rule in dedication to the transformation of economics and society. What has 25 years of post-apartheid South Africa brought?
Five reflections on 25 years “post-apartheid” provide a context for this fifth South African general election since its early 1990s transition to democracy.
1. South Africa’s political settlement remains remarkably resilient. There continues to be a rough-and-tumble, yet still mostly functional, democracy with a surprising array of formal and informal checks and balances to safeguard the state and to improve the realization of rights. Nor has there been the re-eruption of widespread racial conflict or a breakdown of governance institutions. In sum, while fragile and incomplete, there is a mostly democratic social contract, emblemized by the 1996 Constitution.
The commitment to democracy and the constitution is strong, and, so, too, the institutions it created have well-endured. Thus, the 2018 elections are likely to be comparatively and technically well-managed such that the polls are likely to be a credible test of the people’s will on the ANC’s stewardship of post-apartheid South Africa. This despite ongoing concerns about pre-election political violence (especially in the volatile KwaZulu-Natal province), a lack of transparency around the creation of party candidate lists, and concerns about possibly low rates of voter registration and turnout among young and poorer South Africans.
2. Democracy has not mitigated South Africa’s deep-seated economic and social ills. After twenty years of ANC rule at the national level (opposition parties have governed some provinces and cities, most notably following the 2015 local elections), all is not well in South Africa. While early gains from the Reconstruction and Development Program and the GEAR (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution) policies, persistent tensions and inequalities along racial and ethnic lines, dogged unemployment, recurring bouts of xenophobic violence, land conflict, rampant corruption, and racial political mobilization continue to undermine the original ANC vision of the “rainbow nation” and prosperous democratic socialism.
Add to these longstanding issues newly experienced crises such as climate change effects of water scarcity, drought, and desertification, crippling electricity blackouts, widespread transport-based crime, and new ethnic tensions (for example, between some African communities and Chinese or Somali Diaspora). In 1990, the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index for South Africa was .618; in 2018, the measure had barely budged, at .0699. Economic performance has been simply disappointing, well below levels of growth needed to reduce unemployment. “Inclusive” development remains shallow.
3. The ANC slipped into cronyism and kleptocracy. These social tensions play out in the context of the ANC’s slippage into a kleptocratic state, a cancer that has only begun to be outed by the intra-party removal of ten-year president Jacob Zuma in 2018, who presided over a period of corruption and state predation. Today, the Zondo Commission of Inquiry seeks to get to the bottom of the depth and extent of corruption under the sticky-fingered Zuma regime even as the Zuma faction within the ANC remains strong and, in some localities, deeply entrenched.
A recent analysis showed how much South Africa suffered under the incompetent and greedy Zuma administration: the country declined in this period as if it had suffered the effects of war. Much of the country’s future rides on whether President Cyril Ramaphosa—who replaced Zuma in an intra-party house-cleaning last year—can clean up the ANC, a decentralized and historically unwieldy political organization.
4. Persistent protest and activism shows “la luta continua”: the permanent, Trotskyist revolution continues. Social protest and contentious politics define South Africa, such that often for poor, marginalized communities the only way to get “attention” from the state is to engage in “service-delivery protests” demanding what are basic human rights: water and sanitation, safety and security, access to education and healthcare, and freedom from hunger and food insecurity.
While social protest is in the country’s DNA, or at least since the 1920s, recent protests such as those around service delivery or by educated-and-agitated youth, such as the #Feemustfall movement to reduce post-secondary education costs, show that the state is simply not responsive to the needs and aspirations of the communities on which the political base of the ANC rests. In turn, the culture of protest scares investors (domestic and international) and social unrest feeds further into anti-system discontent even as protestors are mostly seeking to “claim” rights promised in the post-apartheid constitution.
5. The 2018 elections will likely confirm South Africa is lurching toward “polarized pluralism.” In the run-up to the 1994 elections 25 years ago, the country opted for the most inclusive electoral system practically imaginable: a party-list proportional representation system with a very low threshold (i.e., less than 1% of the vote hypothetically win a parliamentary seat).
This means that there is good evidence already of a continuing splintering of the South African political party system, as would be well-predicted by theories of polarized pluralism—fracturing of political parties, leaving no center and the ability to form stable coalitions—pioneered by post-war Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori.
Implications for May 2019 and Beyond
In the upcoming May elections, some 48 political parties have registered…many appealing to racial or ethnic segments of the population, or touting hollow populist appeals that don’t speak to the material needs and deep-seated inequalities for which transformation is an empty rallying cry. In the absence of electoral system reform, the hegemony of the ANC is at risk; in 2016’s local elections, the party lost in major municipalities it had ruled, and its total vote share plummeted to just above 50%.
Last year, in an internal ANC leadership shuffle, Zuma was replaced by long-time politician Cyril Ramaphosa, who was a principal architect of the 1996 constitution. “Cyril” is a highly personable and regarded leader, both internally and abroad, and at the top of the ticket he’s a boon to the prospects of the flagging ANC.
To the left of the ANC, all eyes will be on the electoral performance of the left-of-ANC Economic Freedom Front, a spin-off of ANC youth league African ethnonationalists with a fiery leader and a militant message…yet, typically, an ill-defined policy platform. The EFF racial rabble-rousing has in turn led to a resurgence of fears among minorities and jittery ratings from international financial analysts alike. Without electoral reform and with populism’s polarizing appeals, South Africa’s fracturing political party system is the biggest danger to its still-nascent democracy.
Over the longer term, too, South Africa’s democracy can only survive if the state can ultimately remediate the underlying economic and social inequalities that represent apartheid’s long legacy. Apartheid hasn’t ended for many in economic terms. Poverty and destitution are intersectional and intergenerational, thus concentrated among the 40% of youth who are unemployed.
The May 2019 elections in South Africa will at once confirm its consolidation as a democracy. At the same time, the election process has laid bare the underlying continuing economic and social ills that threaten the post-apartheid promise of a continuing revolution and deeper, structural social and economic transformation.