Democracy in South Africa
Elections in South Africa: A Referendum on the ANC

The polls are just beginning to close in South Africa’s 2016 municipal elections, the country’s most important contest since the election of Nelson Mandela. The opposition Democratic Alliance is aiming to pry major urban areas like Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, and Tshwane (home to Pretoria) away from the ruling African National Congress.

The center-right, pro-business DA has been trying to rebrand itself as more than a white-dominated party. This is the DA’s first campaign under a black leader, the charismatic 36-year-old part-time pastor named Mmusi Maimane. On the campaign trail, Maimane’s been invoking Nelson Mandela’s notion of the “Rainbow Nation,” arguing that these days the DA, not the ANC, is the true representative of Mandela’s vision for nonracial democracy in South Africa. To get a sense of Maimane’s appeal, watch the latest video from the DA:

We won’t see preliminary results until tomorrow afternoon—check back here for more analysis then. In the meantime, it’s worth reading a lengthy and thoughtful piece from the FT that examines what exactly is happening in South Africa right now. One excerpt:

The ANC under Jacob Zuma, the president, is clearly rattled. A poor outcome could give opposition parties a chance to show they can run things better in some of the most important cities in the land. That could in turn affect the 2019 general election and even Mr Zuma’s position as leader of the party, which he must contest next year. A heavy loss in the municipal polls could embolden Mr Zuma’s many opponents within the ANC who are waiting for a chance to strike. Equally, the president, a cunning and ruthless political operator, could use a defeat to blame — and purge — his enemies. If the party does better than expected, he may do the same.

Mr Zuma has pulled out all the stops. His party has piled a hefty R1bn ($71m) into its election campaign. It has “nationalised” the contest — a risky strategy according to some in the party — by plastering the president’s image on billboards across the country.

The campaign has, at times, turned nasty, In Johannesburg and elsewhere, Mr Zuma has attended boisterous rallies where he has accused the opposition Democratic Alliance of “blackwashing” what he calls its “white supremacist” history. He has painted the ANC as the only legitimate representative of black interests and anyone who votes otherwise as a traitor.

President Zuma is desperate. He’s under intense scrutiny for spending lavish sums of public money on his private residence, Nkandla. Last month, a court ordered him to repay the state for the misused funds. But the long-running Nkandla scandal is about much more than Zuma himself; it’s about the tension between, on the one hand, a yearning for liberal democracy and rule of law in South Africa and, on the other hand, the ANC’s tendency in recent years to behave like political parties in other, less-developed African states, doling out patronage to supporters and rewarding cronies with plum government jobs. What’s at stake are two competing visions for South Africa’s future. Again, the FT:

Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of the former president, Thabo Mbeki, says the ANC is being undone by the same forces that unseated other African liberation movements. From Ghana to Kenya and from Angola to Zimbabwe, nationalist parties failed to change the colonial economic structures they inherited. Instead, the temptation was simply to substitute themselves as the ruling class. “The ANC is using that structure to benefit the black elite and the black middle class — and they’re doing very well thank you.”

The party, says Mr Mbeki, has not moved away from a low-value-added economy primarily dependent on raw materials and consumption. The higher value-added bits, such as banking and insurance, tend to employ only the educated elite. That means the economy can neither absorb the vast amounts of unskilled labour nor fund the welfare state needed to appease the jobless. Over time, those black South Africans excluded from economic activity “realise that they’re not getting anything. They may get a little bit of social welfare, but it’s not pulling them off the bottom rung,” he says. “And so they start to rebel. And that’s what’s happening today in South Africa, especially in the big cities.”

It’s important to note that Mbeki’s prescriptions are similar to what Ann Bernstein, TAI friend and contributor and head of South Africa’s Center for Development and Enterprise, had to say in a talk at the Hudson Institute last week. She’s advocating a development approach in South Africa that would actually make a dent in the country’s massive structural unemployment problem.

Until the full results are verified later this week, you can follow the preliminary results as they trickle in here.

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