Current Affairs

No surprises but plenty to ponder

No surprises but plenty to ponder
  • PublishedJune 1, 2019

The South African election results tallied almost exactly with our predictions in the May issue of New African. The ANC scraped through but confidence in this once-venerable party is dropping. Raji Rafiq reviews the election results and what they imply.

Mmusi Maimane of the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) was the first of the leaders of the three main political parties of South Africa to cast his vote on election day (8 May). Maimane voted at about 7:38am, at a polling station in Dobsonville in Soweto, Johannesburg.

Julius Malema of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) voted in Seshego, Limpopo, at about 10:38am, accompanied by his wife and party officials of the province.

Cyril Ramaphosa of the ruling centre-left African National Congress (ANC) voted in Chiawelo, Soweto in Johannesburg, at about 11:40am, accompanied by his wife, Dr Tshepo Motsepe.

Fears about poor turnout ahead of the 2019 polls turned out to be justified. At 67.3% (inclusive of spoilt votes), it was relatively low.

Pratibha Thaker, editorial and regional director for the Middle East and Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London, says the low voter turnout underlined “popular anger about the sluggish economy, high unemployment and a string of corruption scandals”.

In the penultimate national and provincial polls in 2014, turnout was 73%. Considering turnout was above 80% for elections in the 1990s, there is clearly an increasing trend of disinterest.

The ANC got 57.5% of the national vote in the 2019 elections, securing 230 seats in the national assembly, down from 62.2% of votes and 249 seats in 2014.

84 seats in parliament were won by DA MPs, down from 89 seats, the party having garnered 20.8% of the national vote. In the 2014 national and provincial elections, the DA secured 22.2% of the votes.

The EFF now has a bigger presence in parliament with 44 seats, having secured 10.8% of the national vote. This is almost twice the figures of 2014, when it obtained 6.4% of votes and secured 25 seats in parliament.

“The overall victory for the ANC comes with major warning signs for the future: the party’s support is dropping,” says Jason Robinson, senior Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica, an Oxford-based consultancy.

“It barely held on to its majority in Gauteng province, the country’s economic hub and it suffered sizeable declines in places such as KwaZulu-Natal,” Robinson adds. Put simply, “Public dissatisfaction has grown.”

Pontsho Pilane, a media practitioner in Johannesburg, echoes this dissatisfaction quite well in a tweet she posted after casting her vote: “I’m envious of those who voted in 1994. Must have been so good to vote clearly and decisively. It’s my third voting season and none of them has been decisive. It’s always a conflicted, painful experience. I hope I’m able to cast a decisive vote before I die.”

On the mark

Asked what he thought about the results, Roger Southall, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told New African: “Nothing about the national results surprises me.”

In our May 2019 issue, Prof. Southall predicted the ANC would get 55-60% of the national vote. He also predicted 20-24% and 8-12% for the DA and EFF respectively. Professor Southall found the provincial results to be more interesting, however.

“Most interest lies in the provincial results – the ANC just clinging on to Gauteng, but so narrowly that they are going to have to work with some opposition parties; the DA hanging on to Western Cape; and the EFF displacing the DA as the official opposition in three provinces. Plus something like 600,000 people voted for the ANC at the national level [thought to be a vote for Ramaphosa] and another party at the provincial level.”

Prof. Southall also observed that “Ramaphosa seems to have emerged strongly from the election, as the results show his influence was huge in ensuring that the ANC did not lose votes”. He believes “It is now up to the President to make the best of his popularity, take some tough decisions, and implement reforms.”


Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital in London, a bank focused on emerging markets, did not find the results surprising either, having expected the ANC to win 50-60% of the national vote in his forecasts for New African. “The results are not a surprise and probably don’t have meaning [for] the reform outlook.”

Does this mean that President Ramaphosa will not be able to implement needed strong reforms? “He’s ANC, and supported by COSATU [Congress of South African Trade Unions]. So will he break the teachers’ union? Will he cut the minimum wage so it is appropriate for people coming out of school with woeful educational levels? I just don’t see that it matters if he got 52% or 72%. The priorities are the same. The limitations are the same.”

In other words, the President’s hands remain tied on some key issues. “But he will sort out Eskom, the state power utility, and cut corruption,” Robertson added.

Clearly, as EIU’s Thaker says, “the task of reviving the economy will be a far greater challenge.”

Maimane likely to be challenged

“You can go into any town, you’ll find a DA person. Because we are turning this country blue. The future of this country is blue,” DA leader Maimane asserted with passion at the final rally of the party in Dobsonville Stadium, Soweto, just days before the 2019 elections.

Almost certainly reading from the script of former US President Barack Obama, Maimane sought to win over voters on a ‘change’ ticket: “I am choosing change. Amandla! We need change. And we need it now.” One could hardly keep count of the times the DA leader uttered the word ‘change’ in his speech.

Judging from the results, however, it does not seem like his message resonated with the populace as much as he would have liked. It is reckoned the DA’s loss of five seats in parliament was likely the right-wing Freedom Front Plus’s gain, as it got 10 seats in the new parliamentary session.

Thus, instead of gaining ground with the black populace with Maimane at the helm, the DA lost some of its white supporters instead, who are believed to be increasingly disillusioned with the party as it seeks to endear itself to black South Africans.

With land expropriation without compensation, the removal of Afrikaans as the main language in some universities and other policies that threaten post-Apartheid white privilege gaining ground, the rise of right-wing parties like the FF Plus is evidence some white South Africans decided to take their destinies in their own hands.

Inevitably, questions are now being raised by the white old guard in the DA about whether the party would be better off not trying too hard to win over black supporters.

Complaints about irregularities

Special voting, done in the two days before the main poll on 8 of May, met with some controversy. United Democratic Movement (UDM) party leader Bantu Holomisa put it thus: “The controversies surrounding special votes compel us to insist that the counting be made separately.” This was because there were instances of unguarded ballot papers here and there, raising fears of irregularities.

The EFF also filed a case with the police in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, accusing an official of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of tampering with a ballot box, after a video emerged showing the official stuffing ballot papers on one of the special voting days.

The IEC confirmed the incident at a press conference on election day (8 May) and announced the dismissal of the implicated IEC officials in Ermelo and Benoni.

There were also worries about the supposedly indelible ink put on the left thumb of voters after casting their ballots. Evidence emerged during the special voting days that the ink could be wiped off, enabling a voter to vote more than once.

IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo did not dispute the indelible ink could be so removed at a press conference acknowledging reports of such cases. But Mamabolo also said it was not a “universal truth” that the indelible ink could be wiped off. In other words, it was not in all instances.

Besides, the IEC insists no one was able to successfully vote more than once. In any case, doing so was punishable by a 10-year jail sentence, Mamabolo added.

There were initial hiccups in the early hours of polling day. Some IEC officials reported late to their stations. And some materials did not get to their designated stations on time. Mamabolo reports, however, that all these issues were resolved by 9am on polling day.   

There were also polling station access issues in Kwazulu-Natal on 8 May, he says, where trenches were dug by protesters across access roads. The authorities were able to resolve them quickly, however.

IEC reported having more than 60m ballot papers, more than double the figure of 26.8m registered voters. Still, there were cases of insufficient materials in some places. For instance, there were reports some voters only received one ballot paper instead of the two they were entitled to – one for the national election and the other for the provincial election.

All said, these issues were not significant enough to tilt the final outcome one way or another. But the real issue now is that the ANC’s hold on public confidence has been severely eroded. It will have to fight for its life by delivering what the people want, not what its elite demands. NA


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New African

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