South African Elections: ANC Retains Hold On Power

On 8th May 2019, the sixth elections since the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa were conducted. The elections to the 400-member National Assembly and 9 provincial legislatures (composed of 430 seats) saw the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) retain its hold at the national level with a majority of 58% of the votes cast, ahead of the Democratic Alliance (21% of the vote) and the radical Economic Freedom Fighters; with only 11% of the vote. Some 26.8 million voters were registered to cast ballots at 22,925 polling stations, representing approximately 70% of the total population. The election results, in the 25th year after the end of apartheid, suggest deepening and greater vibrancy of democracy in South Africa with the recession of the ANC’s dominance. The diminishing power of the ANC reflects a pervasive despondency with the government’s handling of the economy and widespread corruption within the ruling party.


Following the election outcome, President Cyril Ramaphosa utilized his victory speech to unite the population of South Africa. In his victory speech, Ramaphosa affirmed, “Let us now work together, black and white, men and women, young and old, to build a South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it as proclaimed by our forebears.” The New York Times reported, “Many of the ANC’s traditional supporters approve of him, polls show. But they question whether he can outflank powerful party rivals and root out the endemic corruption that has come to define the ANC.” On this issue of corruption, Ralph Mathekga, author of ‘Ramaphosa’s Turn: Can Cyril Save South Africa?’ noted, “Nothing changes inside the ANC . . . His supporters will say that the results would have been worse without him, and his rivals will say the opposite . . . The internal battles will continue”. William Gumede, a political scientists in the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg claimed, “A lot of people have simply given up on the parties, their leaders and democratic institutions . . . With no economic growth, this is a dangerous situation South Africa is in”.


Since 1994, the ANC has never received less than 62% of the nationwide vote. The most recent election results underscored the growing disillusionment with South Africa’s political system and its relatively young democracy. Mr. Ramaphosa is a former unionist who was the A.N.C.’s chief negotiator during the talks that led to the end of apartheid in 1994. He was Mr. Mandela’s first choice as successor, but when the party grandees chose Thabo Mbeki instead, he went into business. He leveraged his political connections to become one of South Africa’s richest men; his estimated worth is $550 million. He decided to re-enter politics in 2012, when the party elected him as President Jacob Zuma’s deputy. Mr. Ramaphosa narrowly won the leadership of the party in December 2017, presenting himself as a clean and technocratic alternative to the systems of patronage that had set in around Zuma. A few weeks later, Mr. Ramaphosa led an internal coup against Zuma, who had been found by the country’s constitutional court to be unfit for office because of misappropriation of state funds to improve his private residence. With the most recent election victory, regardless of whether this was relatively small by the historical standards of the party, Ramaphosa is now able to turn his attention to the structural impediments that set to derail South Africa’s future.


Since 2018, Ramaphosa has sought to rebuild the ANC’s tarnished image, bolster the functioning of state-owned enterprises, stabilise the economy and promote South Africa as a destination for global investment, while deprecating the position of ANC members aligned with the Zuma faction. Ramaphosa appointed judicial commissions of inquiry into allegations of state capture (Zondo Commission), tax administration and governance in the South African Revenue Service (SARS Commission), governance and questionable investments by Africa’s largest asset management institution, Public Investment Corporation (PIC Commission) and the functioning and integrity of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA Commission). However, with a 27% national unemployment rate and an increasingly disillusioned youth population – as evidenced by the approximate six million young people that did not register to vote – Ramaphosa has a lot of work to do. This requires a full rejuvenation of the welfare system that is fully inclusive of all socio-economic groups within the economy, a transparent political sector that values the voices of its Rainbow Nation.

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