South African elections: ANC hangs on to power despite poorest performance since 94

While the biggest opposition party, the centrist DA also suffered a modest loss, the populist EFF improved its vote share by over 4%

May 11, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
8 May 2019, Election day in Ekhuruleni. Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame

The verdict of the 2019 general election in South Africa has been has been the worst ever blow to the ruling-African National Congress (ANC). The party has been in power since the first democratic elections after the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994.

The party will remain in power, having got 57.5%, of the votes but this is its worst performance since 1994, lower than even the 62.15% in 2014. That year was the first time that the the party, steeped in anti-apartheid struggles under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, won below 65% of the votes.

However, after two decades of rule, the ANC has failed to correct the inequities engineered by the apartheid state, and many of its traditional supporters have been left disillusioned. It has pursued a policy of overt and covert privatization of public sectors industries, and facilitated the creation of an elite class of South Africans, including many Black billionaires, while offering very little progress to the majority of the poor, who are mostly Black.

Unemployment – mostly affecting the Black population – reached 25.5% by 2014, the highest since the global financial crisis of 2008. The Marikana massacre in 2012, where striking miners were assassinated by police forces with approval from some of the highest authorities in the party, caused a large section of the trade unions to question their traditional support to ANC.

Cyril Ramaphosa, a senior party member with a history of leading the trade union struggles against the apartheid regime, was by then sitting on the board of the British mining company, Lonmin, in which his own company was a stakeholder.

One day before the 34 miners were killed by police fire, Ramaphosa, addressing the company’s chief commercial officer in a series of mails, had called for firm police action, deeming the striking workers as “dastardly criminals” against whom a “concomitant action” should quickly be taken. Months later, in December that year, he was elected as the deputy president of the ANC.

Five years later, Ramaphosa became the party’s president and subsequently, the head of state in February last year. He won an unopposed election within the parliament dominated by the ANC. The stock markets rose, and so did the value of the Rand, as the finance capital cheered the arrival of a pro-corporate president.

Unemployment, on the other hand, has continued to increase, and has reached 27.5%. Another 10% are categorized under ‘discouraged work seekers’. The racial aspect of the unemployment has also persisted, affecting 30% of the majority Black population, and only 8% of the minority White population.

The verdict of the 2019 election shows that ANC today has the lowest support ever. However, the votes lost by the ANC have not been captured by the largest party in the opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has its roots among the White liberals who had opposed apartheid from within the system. The DA too saw a modest decline, from the 22.2% of the votes it had in 2014 to 20.77%.

The party which is set to see the largest expansion in the parliament after this election is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which appears to have absorbed the maximum number of votes lost by the ANC.

Founded by Julius Malema in 2013 following his expulsion from the ANC, this party, which in 2014 won 6.35% of the votes, obtained 10.79% of the total votes in these elections.

This populist party has promised in its manifesto the nationalization of mining, telecom and other strategic sectors, along with the reserve bank. On the other hand, the manifesto also promises tax-free zones for large private industries which employ 2,000 or more workers at no less than minimum wage. Apart from expanding support for state-owned enterprises, protection of privately owned infant industries with the necessary direct and indirect subsidies is also promised.

However, its manifesto makes no statement about seeking to effect a break from capitalism or a shift towards a socialist economy. Further, fiery speeches by Malema, many of which can be construed to be an incitement for violence against the White minorities and those of Indian origin, have attracted many disaffected and disillusioned Black youth, but have also made many sections of the left wary.

The country’s largest trade union, the left-wing National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) did not form an alliance with this party. Stressing on the need for a working class party which is clear about its goal of affecting a transition to socialism, the 350,000 member strong NUMSA launched the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) in March this year.

However, the 24,439 votes this party received – making it the 16th largest among the 48 that contested in this election – indicates that consolidation of trade union membership into a reliable vote block is a long-term task.