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  • Joakim Mol Romero

2024 South Africa Elections: Disaster for the ANC?

By Joakim Mol Romero

For the vast majority of South Africa’s modern political history, the idea that the African National Congress (ANC) would not cruise to victory in a general election seemed unfathomable. The ANC has been the dominant political force since the end of Apartheid and has supplied every President since the turn to multiracial democracy, all of whom were involved directly in the anti-apartheid struggle. 

Part of this dominance comes down to how the ANC has successfully leveraged its fight against the racist regime into widespread support for it as a political force. The ANC has remained a broad political grouping, shifting from more left-wing economic policies to ones based around the free market as it saw fit. Perhaps the best indicator of the dominance it once enjoyed was its absorption of the National Party, which had once propagated the system of racial segregation.

However, the prospect now facing the country, as we await the results of the May 29 election, is one of a possible coalition featuring the ANC or even the previously implausible scenario of its removal from government altogether. The former seems the likelier scenario, but even this would represent a venture into the unknown. 

Current President Cyril Ramaphosa is generally agreed to have failed in his promise to offer a fresh start and to mould the ANC into a less corrupt entity after the disastrous tenure of Jacob Zuma. As the election has approached, he has announced a set of ambitious policy plans, such as a health insurance bill that aims to create a state fund to cover medical costs for all citizens. Yet, there are signs this and other pledges are backfiring as voters don't believe the government could afford to implement it.

In some ways, the main surprise regarding the ANC’s predicament is that it took so long to get there. After all, it could be argued that the country has been in a state of decline for over a decade. Stagnation and regression have replaced growth, just as colourful dreams of a bright future for the Rainbow Nation have given way to bleak hopelessness.

When you take a mere cursory glance at the state of affairs in South Africa, it becomes clear why voters are abandoning the party in their droves.

Memories of the ANC’s role in liberating black South Africans, which form an integral part of the origin story of modern South Africa as a vibrant and democratic state, have slowly given way to pressing everyday issues. What use are the ANC’s achievements of yesteryear when they are failing to deliver even the most basic of amenities in the present? 

One of said amenities is power, which South Africans have become accustomed to only receiving on an intermittent basis. Perhaps the only thing less reliable than the electricity grid, which experiences frequent power blackouts, is the prospect of a job. Unemployment is running rampant, especially amongst the young, where it stands at 45%. GDP per capita has been in decline over the past decade. Crime stands at scarcely believable levels, meaning citizens lack physical alongside economic security. 

These are not conditions one would expect of a country which for so long seemed a success story; a blueprint of how a deeply oppressive regime could make way for one that provided better opportunities for all.

The fact that the ANC still stands a decent chance of winning an overall majority is not only a testament to its historical legacy but also indicative of South Africans’ perceptions of a lack of viable alternatives. Rather than voting for opposition parties, South Africans have in recent years simply chosen to not vote at all. Turnout, which used to lie solidly above 75%, has seen a stark drop in recent general and regional elections.

Part of the reason is that each of the major alternatives to the ANC faces headwinds in terms of their presentability.

The free-market Democratic Alliance (DA), which originated out of the fight of some white South Africans against Apartheid, has smelled blood in the water and aggressively denounced government competency, presenting itself as an alternative that will ‘rescue’ the country. Yet, as in previous elections, it has struggled to rid itself of the perception that it chiefly represents whites’ interests. This time around, it has gathered some smaller opposition parties to form the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa, a pact which will see a group of political parties combine their votes to challenge the ANC after the elections. 

On the ANC’s left lie the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose fiery denouncements of the government’s policy have struck a chord. However, their Marxist brand of politics is still likely to prove unpalatable to many. Its leader Julius Malema, always identifiable by his donning of a red beret, has promised a Robin Hood-style approach of stripping land from the wealthy and returning it to the nation’s poor. Malema, who was once expelled from the ANC, has proved somewhat of a loose cannon in the past, even when taking this expression literally, given his firing of a gun at a public rally.

The aforementioned Zuma has managed to throw a cat amongst the pigeons with his announcement of the creation of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a party named after the ANC’s former paramilitary wing. Whilst there is virtually zero chance of Zuma returning to his former position – especially as he is barred from winning a seat given a recent conviction – MK is well positioned to siphon away votes from the ANC, particularly in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. It positions itself as a truer version of the ANC and more dedicated to helping South Africa’s poor Black majority. Whilst this group has had an immensely tough time recently, Zuma would be a dubious fix to these issues given his previous failings and corrupt activities when at the helm of the country.

Despite the prescience of domestic issues, matters of foreign policy have also come to the fore at times during the campaign.

The DA has been much more aggressive in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over the past couple of years than the ANC, which has faced heavy criticism from Western partners over its relative neutrality. Meanwhile, the EFF has suggested arming the Hamas militant group in Palestine. South Africa has been one of the most prominent champions of the Palestinian cause, with the ANC consistently expressing its solidarity with Palestine during election campaign events. The DA has towed a more cautious line, claiming the same neutrality on this conflict for which it has criticised the ruling party on the Russian invasion.

Whatever the result of the election, there is little doubt that South Africans of all creeds and ages are sick of the state of their beloved Rainbow Nation.

Whichever government emerges next faces an endlessly long list of issues and crises in their in-tray. Yet, the point of this article is not to promote an abject hopelessness, even if that may seem a tempting proposition. 

South Africa has proven its remarkable resilience before and the willingness of parties to cooperate to set the country on the right path is promising. Whilst the ideal scenario may be the total removal of the ANC from power, a realist must admit this is a remote prospect. The best hope is that a current opposition party could function as a moderating and reforming force in any possible coalition.

Image: Flickr / GovernmentZA



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