South African Election Results Echo Widespread Unrest

The presidential elections in South Africa on Wednesday 8 May saw its incumbent party, the African National Congress (ANC), retain its parliamentary stronghold for the fifth time since the end of apartheid. However, the election results reflect growing political unrest. For the first time in its history, the ANC received less than a 60 per cent majority (falling to 57.1 per cent nationwide, down from 62.51 per cent in 2014), conceding votes to other parties – most notably, the Economic Freedom Fighters, and the Democratic Alliance.


The elections came on the heels of months of widespread demonstrations in townships across the country, in response to persistent government corruption and economic inequality. Voting patterns arguably reflected these political and socioeconomic dissatisfactions: only 64 per cent of eligible citizens voted in Wednesday’s elections, marking the lowest voter turnout since South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. More specifically, voting among young people and township residents fell substantially, while suburban areas had the greatest voter turnout.


The demonstrations in townships protested overcrowded conditions, misallocation of government funds, and the absence of basic services such as water, electricity, and waste management. Demonstration tactics ranged from blockading roads, burning tyres, to occupying government buildings. In protests during the week of elections, demonstrators directly targeted voting processes- leading to large delays at some polling stations. In the last month, these protests often led to violent clashes with the police, who frequently resorted to rubber bullets and tear gas and made hundreds of arrests. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is launching an investigation into the protests that took place in Alexandra, a township in Johannesburg adjacent to the richest square mile on the African continent and the epicentre of some of the most violent protests that took place in April. The SAHRC will also investigate the Alexandra Renewal Project, a 1.6 billion ZAR government program launched in 2001 that promised improved living conditions. To this day, it is unclear where the money went.


In light of these nationwide protests, candidates took turns shifting the blame for abhorrent township conditions.


While protests in many townships expressed frustration directed towards government officials, there has been a resurgence of the belief that immigration is to blame for South Africa’s socio-economic plights, and groups of protestors have taken violent action to that end. Between March 25th and April 6th, 6 people died in Kwa-Zulu Natal at the hands of mobs brandishing metal sticks and machetes. Several other immigrants were severely injured in these attacks. Approximately 100 other foreigners sought asylum in nearby police stations and mosques as these mobs ransacked and burned their homes. Many allege that attackers have been emboldened by campaign slogans, such as the Democratic Alliance’s “secure our borders,” which centres immigration as one of the greatest threats to South Africa.


Although government officials have since called for justice for these victims, South Africa does not have a good track record with regards to holding these types of perpetrators accountable. South Africa made headlines in 2008 when 60 people – mostly Malawian immigrants – were murdered at the hands of another violent mob.  Almost no one who participated in the attack has been held accountable for their actions over 11 years ago. These xenophobic mobs reconvened in 2015 to once again terrorize migrant communities, ultimately resulting in the internal displacement of nearly 5000 foreign nationals, leaving seven people dead. 


Wednesday’s electoral outcome echoes rising unrest across the country – which in the last few months, has manifested in various outbursts that have claimed multiple lives. Though the incumbent ANC has predictably won another election, the voting results perhaps suggest a changing political tide.