South Africa votes in 'crucial' test for ANC

Will the ANC continue to dominate the Rainbow Nation’s politics – and what difference will Mandela’s death make?

LAST UPDATED AT 09:39 ON Wed 7 May 2014

SOUTH AFRICANS go to the polls today in a general election that marks the country’s 20th year as a democracy. It is also the first electoral test since the death of the Rainbow Nation’s inaugural post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela.

Mandela’s old party, the ANC, has won every national election since 1994 and most observers expect it to retain a firm hold of the National Assembly once again. South African news site Independent Online reported on Sunday that polls showed it set for a two-thirds majority.

But could a party schism, a corruption scandal involving ANC leader Jacob Zuma and memories of Mandela cause an upset in the voting booth?

Why is the ANC so dominant?

The African National Congress owes much of its dominance to its ‘coalition’ partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Their long-established power-sharing agreement is known as the Tripartite Alliance and is not a conventional coalition: the two smaller organisations field candidates only through the ANC and hold senior positions in the party. This alliance guarantees the ANC vast support among the country’s working class and keeps it firmly in power.

Has the party leadership lost touch with its roots?

Former president Thabo Mbeki moved the ANC towards capitalism and away from the communism of the SACP – and was beaten to the party leadership by Jacob Zuma in 2007 largely because Zuma promised a return to the party’s socialist roots and garnered support among Cosatu and SACP members. However, many are not convinced he has delivered this: the Daily Telegraph reports that rebellious ANC veterans including one of its former military commanders, Ronnie Kasrils, feel so betrayed by the party they are encouraging voters to spoil their ballots.

How did the ANC do at the last general election?

In 2009, with Jacob Zuma as leader, the ANC took 279 of the National Assembly’s 400 seats – equivalent to almost 70 per cent – while the nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, took just 50 seats. The Congress of the People – a group of supporters of the former president Thabo Mbeki unhappy that he had been ousted from power by Zuma – took 30 seats. Though its victory was resounding, the ANC came in with 33 seats fewer than in 2004.

Does the ANC face any meaningful challenge this time?

There’s little doubt that the ANC will win the national vote, but several of the provincial races are more competitive. The Democratic Alliance already controls the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town, and it is leading polls in the Northern Cape. In Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg, the ANC may lose overall control, although it looks set to remain the biggest party. The ANC is also facing a challenge from Julius Malema, its former youth league leader, who has founded a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, with a far-left agenda.

What else has changed since the last election?

Last year, after police put down a mining strike with appalling violence, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa voted to withdraw its support from the ANC and SACP. With its 338,000 members in tow, the country’s biggest trade union was reported to be planning to set up a new political party – but this has failed to materialise thanks to internal divisions. Perhaps the biggest difference to the 2009 election is a simple one: Nelson Mandela is dead.

How will Mandela’s death affect the result?

While Mandela had not been politically active for many years, he was a powerful symbol who may have kept disillusioned voters loyal to the ANC. He surprised many by appearing in public at an ANC rally to lend his support to Zuma ahead of the 2009 election, an intervention which can only have been hugely valuable to Zuma. But his death could also help the ANC: in December 2013, the Wall Street Journal speculated that Mandela’s demise might have “taken the heat off Zuma”, who was facing calls for his impeachment at the time. The paper predicted Zuma could rely on a “wellspring” of sentimental support for the ANC in Mandela’s memory.

How healthy is South African democracy after 20 years?

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has had two peaceful transitions of power, from Mandela to Mbeki and Mbeki to Zuma – an unusual achievement on a continent in which many heads of state die in office. Nevertheless, some observers suggest that apathy and corruption are serving to undermine democratic institutions. Interviewed by News24, former president F W de Klerk says today’s politicians are failing to follow Mandela’s shining example and instead “see government office as a means to self-enrichment”, a clear reference to Zuma’s country home, Nkandla, which was upgraded at a cost to the taxpayer of £14m. Meanwhile, the Cape Times reports that the so-called “born frees” – those young South Africans who have lived all their lives in a democracy – are unlikely to make a difference to the result as only one third are registered to vote. More than one million born since 1994 will not cast a ballot. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.