South Africa's democratic puzzle

James Myburgh examines why the ANC's electoral support remains so buoyant

Twenty-seven years after South Africa’s first non-racial democratic elections the African National Congress government has, by now, far exceeded the negative expectations of its post-1994 critics when it comes to corruption and institutional, economic and fiscal mismanagement. Yet, contrary to what those same critics expected, the ANC remains electorally dominant. It polls at over 50% and continues to win most by-elections comfortably.

Where it has lost support since 2009 in national, provincial or municipal elections, this has been due to its supporters either staying away from the polls or voting for one of its offshoots; COPE in 2009, or latterly the Economic Freedom Fighters (the ANC Youth League gone-solo), with its offer of more-of-the-same but far, far worse. Indeed, the ANC and its various splinter parties have consistently won around 70% of the vote from 1999 to 2019.

The liberation movement's enduring electoral dominance has not been due to the underhanded manipulation of the electoral system (though this may still occur). The “democratic” part of our political system is actually one of the few areas which has seen improvement over the past two decades. Elections today are demonstrably “freer and fairer”, and considerably more balanced, than they were 25 years ago.

In 1997 the official opposition in the form of the New National Party was a hollowed out and discredited shell, on the brink of internal and electoral collapse. The Democratic Party (soon to be Democratic Alliance) meanwhile had only seven MPs in the National Assembly and even after it won the status of official opposition with 9,6% of the vote in 1999, continued to lack a credible record in government for a number of years, having lost control of Cape Town and the Western Cape after the break away by the NNP from the DA in late 2001.

The ANC was able to outspend the opposition many times over in the 1994 and 1999 elections as the world’s leading dictatorships channelled tens of millions of dollars into its election coffers at the request of Nelson Mandela. Under Thabo Mbeki the ANC was an organisation hostile to internal and external dissent which used “floor crossing” provisions (subsequently abolished in 2008) to weaken and undermine the opposition and acquire a super-majority in parliament and control over KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape.

The complex interplay between constitutional term limits, internal ANC democracy, and the continued presence of an effective parliamentary opposition, has seen two unpopular ANC presidents ejected from office after they overstayed their welcome. This has resulted in a degree of alternation within the dominant party system, which has also kept democratic space open within the broader polity. Since 2009 the ANC has largely respected the outcomes of elections which have gone against it, even when it lost control of the Western Cape to the DA in 2009, and then critical metros like Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane to opposition coalitions in 2016.

Over the past few election cycles the ANC has not massively outspent the opposition, opposition parties have not been significantly hindered in their campaigning, and the results have been an accurate reflection of the wishes of the electorate. South African elections are currently run according to higher standards with better safeguards than in large parts of the USA, and hence the results enjoy greater legitimacy as well.

The DA today can offer a credible governmental alternative, even if it blotted its copy book somewhat in Johannesburg and Tshwane after 2016. The voters thus have a choice between a number of serious political alternatives, and they are free to express it at the ballot box. Our proportional representation system also directly translates any shifts in popular support into changes in political representation at national, provincial and local government level.

Why then is it that a ruling party (and a liberation movement tradition more generally) that everyone knows to be fantastically corrupt and bad at governing, most especially on the municipal level, is still electorally dominant, particularly in areas where it governs the worst?

A large part of the explanation lies, most obviously, with the racial moat that cuts across the electorate and which has prevented, at different times and stages, both the ANC realising its more totalitarian ambitions, and the DA from challenging it for support. How the liberation movement parties have defended and deepened that moat is a subject for an article another day.

There is another factor at play however. This is that the same policies which have scuppered the ability of the ANC to govern effectively have significant offsetting political and electoral benefits. To use a metaphor from the time of Niccolò Machiavelli consider the three largest political parties in our democratic system as three “princes” – A, D and E - contending for power over a given territory. There are, in turn, three factors that determine their respective performance. The first is the top political leadership and its popularity. This is the prince. The second factor is the electorate. This is the population and the territory the Prince wants to win over.

Now, Prince A is currently in control of most of the country but governs badly and corruptly. Prince D is known for the quality of his governance in the small areas where he governs. And the upcoming Prince E, the son of Prince A, is by far the worst of the lot. If you sought out the views of the population of this territory, they would all say that they want what Prince D is best able to offer. Indeed, such is their desperation that they often do their best to move to the areas he controls. But he is unable to challenge Prince A for power outside of those areas. And if anyone looks like they are going to seriously challenge Prince A, it is Prince E.

Why is that? Here one has to examine the critical third factor namely “the army” through which “the Prince” first conquers and then is able to hold the “territory”. This is, roughly speaking, the “political machine” of a party in the form of its activist and organisational base.

It is now generally accepted that the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment (and related practices) have severely and perhaps irreparably damaged state capability in South Africa. This was the policy, publicly adopted by the ANC in 1997/98, by which the party sought to infiltrate and capture all state and parastatal institutions, obliterating all institutional obstacles (such as the merit system) in the way. Once in place the ANC’s cadres were required to use their hold over the “levers of power” to direct jobs, tenders, coal supply contracts, BEE shareholdings, and so on, to ANC-connected interests, all in the name of “empowering” the majority.

These policies were not a priority for most black voters whose main concern has always been unemployment, and their second order effects are deeply disliked (poor quality services, power outages, corruption, low economic growth, disintegrating infrastructure, no jobs, etc.) They were primarily about rewarding the ANC’s “army” and keeping it motivated and loyal. Distributing loot freely, Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, is “very necessary to a prince who marches with his armies, and lives by plunder, sack and ransom, and is dealing with the wealth of others, for without it he would not be followed by his soldiers.”

Given that the ANC’s “army” elects the party leadership its concerns, and those of the provincial patronage barons, tend to prevail in between election periods. But the “army” cannot completely disregard the popular mood, as it still needs to win elections to retain its hold on power, and this is the reason why the ANC (with David Mabuza casting the decisive votes) narrowly elected Cyril Ramaphosa as its President in 2017.

When it comes to the other two princes, Julius Malema and the EFF (Prince E) have effectively built a significant “army” by appealing to the frustrations of both educated and unemployed youth and promising their supporters a free hand with the country’s racial minorities and their wealth should they gain power. The party’s ideology and programme is in no way original, it is simply a throwback to that of the ANC/SACP of the 1970s. The EFF has some patronage to offer, in the form of elected positions and support staff, but nothing like the ANC does. Its offer of unrestrained racial plunder, which is so appealing to its activists, is widely recognised to be economically destructive and this places something of a lid (for now) on its electoral support.

The DA meanwhile (Prince D) has benefited electorally from being seen as the “party of government” in the Western Cape. It has been able to govern well as it has maintained the capability of the state, by appointing and promoting civil servants (of all colours) on merit, and awarding tenders on a similar basis. The ANC has been cut off from significant streams of state patronage in DA controlled areas and its organisation has withered as a consequence. The Western Cape example shows that good governance is popular and will be rewarded by the voters, once it is in place.

The DA failed to export this model to Tshwane and Johannesburg however, a result of both bad luck and bad choices. It did not secure outright majorities in those metros in the 2016 local government elections. And in its covert agreements with the EFF the DA leadership made the fatal mistake of sacrificing the very principles that had enabled it to govern cleanly and well in the Western Cape. The EFF acquired significant influence over both tenders and key appointments, with deleterious results for the DA’s reputation for good and honest governance.

In order to understand political outcomes in South Africa then one has to analyse the interplay between these three factors. Voters generally know what they are doing, and poorer voters weigh up their interests with particular care. They also tend to lack the years of academic training needed to be able to believe six impossibly destructive things before breakfast. The electorate has thus tended to be a moderating rather than radicalising force on the ANC.

By contrast the most extreme and destructive policies of the ANC are driven by, and have a specific appeal to, the party as an organisation. This intermediate grouping between the President and the electorate clearly plays a far larger role in determining election outcomes than many assume. It is not just that some percentage of the profits from tenderpreneurship flows back into the party’s election coffers. The ANC’s “army” roots the party in communities, occupies the territory, mobilises support, persuades wavering voters, and gets supporters to rallies and then the polls. Its physical presence also deters voters from switching their support to another political party, particularly those situated on the other side of the moat. The DA's great problem outside of the Western Cape is that it lacks an army to challenge the ANC, and nor can it use EFF-like methods to raise one. 

Whatever the mechanism, patronage is an effective means of binding voters to the political parties that distribute it, despite it often being disastrous for economic development. This effect is most clearly seen with social grants, on which a huge proportion of the population now depend, but incomes derived from state and parastatal employment, and other forms of patronage, also flow onwards into extended family networks.

The poorer a population becomes the greater this effect seems to be, for while “gratitude is a burden”, dependency is enduring.