It was never in doubt that the African National Congress (ANC), the liberation party, would win the May general elections. The only issue was the percentage of support they were going to lose. But as Pusch Commey reports from Johannesburg, after 20 years and four elections the euphoria of political freedom and black majority rule has waned and the debate in the country has shifted progressively towards material benefits, in effect “what is in it for us”, economically speaking.
Pragmatic consensus and the general question leading to the May elections centred on: Has the African National Congress delivered on its promise of a better life for all in its 20 years at the helm of Africa’s second-largest economy?
After the 20 years of what many have termed as the era of “stomach politics”, 10 May, 2014, the day that the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), announced the final election results in seamless, exemplary real time, was also a poignantly symbolic day: 10 May was the day Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of the country in 1994.
The main results showed that The African National Congress brand was still a powerful force. But provincial elections were not all that rosy. Worryingly for the ANC, the fact was that in the more sophisticated province of Gauteng, the 4th largest economy on the continent, which houses the richest city in Africa, Johannesburg, the ANC lost as much as 10 percentage points of the popular vote, a major climbdown from 64% in 2009, to 53.6%.
Despite some gains by the ANC’s arch-rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has vowed to stamp out corruption, grow the economy, and create six million real jobs, it is the new kid on the block, the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), led by Julius Malema, the expelled fiery former president of the ANC youth league, which put the election result in a different light.
The party that was formed barely eight months before the election managed to secure 1,169,259 votes – 6.35% of the popular vote. It was a clear message to the ANC that the EFF economic freedom message was resonating with the electorate, and given time, the EFF will become a big force to reckon with. Municipal elections are up for grabs in 2016, and the next national elections in 2019.
In South Africa’s proportional representation system, the people vote for the party. The percentage of votes obtained by the party translates into the number of seats in the 400-seat parliament, which elects the president with a simple majority. This formula is replicated in nine provinces, which have provincial legislatures.
The decline of ANC support is reflected in the allocation of seats – from 264 seats in 2009, the ANC now has 249 seats. The DA increased from 67 to 89, while the EFF opened with 25. With the vocal and irrepressible Julius Malema and the EFF in the house, no doubt there will be fireworks in the new parliament.
The ANC’s 102-year-old liberation credentials and its illustrious history anchored in icons like Nelson Mandela, meant that it was not going to be easily toppled, irrespective of allegations of corruption, maladministration and incompetence levelled against the president and his functionaries.
As a result the opposition strategy, which focused on the president’s personal indiscretions, failed to yield a big harvest of votes. However, it sent out warning signals of what is yet to come if the ANC brand continues to be tarnished. And once there is a psychological shift from the brand loyalty, it is going to be extremely difficult for the party to claw it back.
For example, once the populace crosses the huge psychological barrier that it is ok to vote for a white-led party like the Democratic Alliance, then the ANC will have a lot to worry about. It is the population’s attachment to this marriage and the deep apartheid wounds that has returned the party to power every time, irrespective of its difficulties. But now those who have divorced the party are unlikely to return to the household.
If they still find it difficult to vote white, they will defect in droves to the EFF. And that is if the EFF are able to keep their shape, passion and hunger going into subsequent elections.