The African National Congress (ANC) has won the South African parliamentary election, but with a significantly reduced majority. The ballot on 8 May left the ANC with a 57% share of the vote, the Democratic Alliance (DA) with 21% and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with 11%. Whilst the result sees a 5% reduction in votes for the ANC compared to the 2014 general election, it speaks volumes about the growing dissatisfaction that South Africans feel towards the government and its president, Cyril Ramaphosa. This sense of alienation is echoed in the historically low turnout for the vote.
After casting his ballot, President Ramaphosa stated that ‘we’ve made mistakes, but we are sorry about those mistakes, and we are saying our people should reinvest their confidence in us’ and that the election was ‘heralding a new dawn… a period of renewal, a period of hope.’ But these apologies and promises were not enough to sway dissatisfied voters, who recognised the real prospects of youth unemployment, racial inequality and government corruption. One young voter said that she ‘didn’t feel confident about getting the job’ she wanted, another that ‘this ANC with their big cars and their houses aren’t going to change anything,’ and yet another that ‘they’ve lost their morals.’ This popular sentiment was drawn upon during the election by opposition leaders Julius Malema of EFF and Mmusi Maimane of DA, who argued that the ANC ‘were once our liberators but today we need to be liberated from them.’
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about this election has been the way disillusioned voters have reacted to the government’s failings. Many have shown their frustration with the current leadership by giving their vote to one of the 47 other parties listed on the ballot, notably the DA or the EFF. But others have chosen to boycott the vote, with 6 million people under 30 choosing not to register and the overall turnout dropping to 65%. This kind of voter apathy does not just demonstrate a growing dissatisfaction with the ruling party – the ANC – but a dissatisfaction with the political establishment itself. This is something further reflected by the sporadic, small-scale protests that were staged outside some polling stations on 8 May. It is also clear that many of the founding promises of the ANC are yet to be delivered, and others now appear outmoded to South Africa’s younger generations.
The ANC has been South Africa’s ruling party since the first democratic election saw Nelson Mandela elected president in 1994. Whilst much has been achieved by the party, many South Africans are conscious that its promise to end racial inequality has not born out: the minority white population still owns a disproportionate amount of land over the majority black population. Of particular contention in this election was the issue that landowners still gain monetary compensation if their lands are expropriated. But this issue of racial inequality now sits close to the issue of class inequality for many young South Africans. They see politicians – like former president Jacob Zuma – implicated in corruption scandals, driving luxury cars and owning large houses whilst they remain unemployed, living in villages without running water, roads or reliable electricity supplies. The country’s public services are deteriorating, its economy stagnating and violent crime is on the rise.
It is one thing to promise reform and another to enact it. President Ramaphosa must take the message this election has offered seriously and learn to prioritise the people of South Africa over the factions within his party. At this point, disillusionment is more dangerous than dissent.