More pain please

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the refusal of ANC supporters to vote for a better alternative


After three decades, the accumulated evidence is irrefutable. The African National Congress has failed South Africa.

The opposition knows this and proclaims it stridently. The government knows this and publicly admits it. The only poor fool yet to take the truth on board is the average ANC voter who, no matter how fed up they are, just can’t bring themselves to vote for anyone else. 

Such voter masochism is remarkable. Not only has our quality of life, by virtually every development index, worsened, but the warnings of imminent state collapse voiced by the corporate sector, investors, and international agencies have been persistent and strident.

So obvious is the decline that the ANC, except during elections, has given up pretending otherwise. It is, after all, President Cyril Ramaphosa who conceded that the ANC “stands as Accused Number One” in the dock for the corruption that has disappeared a trillion rand from state coffers. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

It is Ramaphosa who told the inquiry into the July 2021 riots that South Africa was “not yet” a failed state but “like the SS Titanic”, would take some while to change course. It is also Ramaphosa, that master of understatement, who in last month’s State of the Nation address admitted: “We’ve made a lot of mistakes.” 

Other ANC luminaries have been even blunter. It was the Treasury Director-General Dondo Mogajane who marked his 2022 retirement with the warning that a culture of self-enrichment among many politicians and public servants had put at risk the country’s democracy and hopes of a better life. Unless the ANC started doing the essential basics, “we can start calling South Africa a failing state, because the things that define a failing state are beginning to show”. 

And it was not some apartheid relic but Kgalema Motlanthe, a former deputy-president and briefly president of the country, who said that the ANC had “run down institutions that were managed efficiently” during the Nationalist years. That dysfunction had “spread to all levels of the state” and this had reduced South Africa to a country “characterised by anarchy”.

Despite such warnings from within the ranks of the governing party, those eligible to vote have just dug their heads deeper into the sand. Either they have not registered as voters; or if they registered, they have not voted; or if they voted, they have not voted for centre-right parties.

This trend from enthusiastic support to disillusioned abstention is statistically stark.

Such was the chaos of the first election, let’s ignore 1994 since it’s difficult to put much store in the numbers. But in the 1999 general election, in a country of 46 million people, Thabo Mbeki’s ANC got 10.6 million of the 16 million valid votes cast, just edging over two-thirds of the votes. Only 2 million voters didn’t pitch, to give a phenomenal 89% voter turnout, a South African record that is unlikely ever to be beaten.

In 2004, Mbeki got 10.9 million of 15.9 million valid votes cast. Another, more comfortable two-thirds majority, but with turnout dropping to 77%.

But the highest ever ANC vote, in absolute numbers, was in 2009, in the election that brought to power Zuma, an acknowledged scoundrel tainted with corruption and who had been fired as deputy president. The ANC got 11.6 million of 17.7 million valid votes to register another 77% turnout of the 23.2 million people registered to vote. And in 2014, by which time the extent of Zuma’s corruption and the damage being done was obvious to even the dimmest voter, he still drew 11.4 million of 18.4 million valid votes cast.

It’s often taken for granted that blame for the decline of the ANC vote can be laid at the foot of what Ramaphosa describes as the “nine wasted years” of Jacob Zuma. The numbers, however, paint a different picture. While Zuma might have triggered the decline, it accelerated under Ramaphosa.

By 2019, in a country that now had 22 million more people than in 1999, Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC drew 200,000 fewer votes — barely 10 million of 17.4 million valid votes cast. Two years later in the 2021 local elections, which admittedly have different voting dynamics in terms of turnout and loyalties, the ANC performed worse again, getting just 5.3 million of the 11.7 million votes cast.

For liberal parties — in the classic, British not American, understanding of the term — there is scant comfort in these historical trends. New voters, when they have deigned to turn out, have gravitated towards the populist left, to the Economic Freedom Fighters.

In 1999, around 5.3 million people voted for opposition parties, with the DA (then called the Democratic Party) and the New National Party (the old National Party with a new logo) together getting 2.6 million, pretty evenly split between them. By 2014, the DA had hit its highest vote of 4.1 million of the 5.8 million people who voted for opposition parties, when one excluded the 1.2 million who voted for the radical and newly launched EFF.

In 2019, the DA was down to 3.6 million — despite, remember, an almost 50% increase in population since 1999 — and the EFF was up to 1.9m. But wait, it gets worse.

The shadow that looms over May 2024 is that the gap between the populists and the liberals is predicted to narrow further, with the prospect of the EFF becoming the biggest single opposition party. An average of the opinion surveys over the past month put the DA at 20.5% of the vote (and falling) and the EFF nipping at its heels with 19.6% (and rising). 

In these surveys, the ANC clocks in at 40.5%. Add the EFF vote and such an ANC coalition is back to a very comfortable majority of around 60%.  

The other parties who have joined the DA in the Multi-Party Charter, contribute small but critical numbers: 4.9% from the Inkatha Freedom Party, 4.3% from Action SA, 2.1% from Freedom Front Plus and 1% from the African Christian Democratic Party. That gives the MPC around a third of the vote.

Of course, as the pollsters keep reminding us, surveys are merely snapshots of sentiment at that moment. Trends, too, are only trends until they reach an inflexion point. Nothing is set in stone.

It’s still unclear, for example, how much damage the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK) will do to the ANC if it overcomes the obstacles in its way to election participation. If those non-voting former ANC supporters are populists and turn out for MK nationwide, not only in Zuma-supporting KwaZulu-Natal, it could be substantial. 

On the other hand, if the MPC can attract even just a small percentage of that disenchanted ANC vote — which is probably a couple of million strong — it will have a big effect on the opposition front’s performance. It could make the MPC, as a bloc, almost as big as the ANC on its own. 

So it is this ANC elite that holds the key to South Africa’s future. Judging simply by the fact that it took 46 years — and a rare alignment of pressure and opportunity — for the faithful of the old National Party to desert, it may be too early realistically to expect ANC supporters to change allegiance. 

One thing is certain, though, South Africa can’t afford to wait 46 years for such an epiphany.

Follow WSM on X @TheJaundicedEye