South Africa’s fragile democracy

RW Johnson says that despite the apparent stability of ANC dominance, large shifts are taking place

South Africa’s parliamentary elections on May 8 were the sixth since democracy was introduced in 1994. They were held in an atmosphere of unparalleled national crisis. Unemployment, 3.7 million when the ANC took over, is nearly ten million now. Poverty and inequality have grown exponentially while the governing elite loots and steals all it can.

The country is now in its fifth consecutive year of falling real incomes, the chronic power cuts – suspended artificially for the election – are expected to last a minimum of at least another five years, two out of the three rating agencies have consigned South Africa to junk status, the crime rate is horrendous – 57 murders a day – and the police corrupt and wholly ineffectual.

Corruption is omnipresent. Economic growth has slowed to 1% a year or less. It was hardly a surprise when Eunomix Business and Economics, a political risk advisory company, found that on a range of various indicators South Africa had declined more in the last 12 years (its rating falling from 31st out of 178 countries in 2006 to 88th in 2018) than any other country not at war.

The ANC has ruled since 1994 largely because of black voters’ sense of racial solidarity but now, after nine nightmarish years under the corrupt and institution-destroying rule of Jacob Zuma, great faith was also placed in the would-be reforming new President Cyril Ramaphosa. Nonetheless, turnout slumped by nine per cent to 65%, and the ANC slipped badly by 4.6%. Even former President Kgalema Motlanthe admitted that this was “the ANC’s last chance”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, whose leader Julius Malema favours the nationalization of all industry, banks and land and promises that he “will not slaughter the whites, at least not now”, saw their vote almost double to 10.8% while the main opposition, the liberal Democratic Alliance, saw its vote fall by 1.5 per cent to 20.8%.

Small but significant gains were also scored by Prince Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party and the conservative Afrikaner Freedom Front Plus. Whether Ramaphosa can or will really change the country’s direction is unclear. He was, after all, Jacob Zuma’s deputy president for many years and said not a word about the orgy of looting going on all around him. Zuma’s faction remains strong within the ANC and will fight like fury for its right to continue to steal. Two of the most corrupt men in the government are David Mabuza, the deputy-president, and Ace Magashule, the ANC secretary-general.

Moreover, Ramaphosa has thus far backed down before every pressure group he has confronted. Half of the electorate already regard him as weak. The least one can say is that if Ramaphosa is to fulfil the reforming hopes placed in him he will have to reveal a backbone of steel of which there has been no sign to date.

I was commissioned by the independent TV station, ENCA, to carry out pre-election research. Never have I seen such pervasive and deep levels of depression and demoralization among all races as we saw in our focus groups. Some of our black respondents quite spontaneously welcomed the idea of the return of white rule, at least for a period of time, to help sort out the country’s comprehensive mess. Similarly, since the ANC has now had 25 years in power, we asked voters why they thought that unemployment, corruption, education and health had all got worse under ANC rule. Overwhelmingly voters of all parties, including the ANC, said that the government/the ANC “simply does not care” about such things.

When we probed further 54% of voters (including 55% of ANC voters) said that “the ANC may care but its policies just don’t work”. Only 21% even of ANC voters disagreed about that. Given that 20-30 million people now live in complete penury and South Africa under ANC rule has become the world’s most unequal society, we asked (a multiple choice question) who was to blame for that ? Among ANC voters 55% said “the government” and another 29% said “the ANC”. 16% said “rich whites” and under 1% blamed apartheid. When we asked our focus groups what they thought about the future of the ANC, there was laughter, derision and suggestions that it was all but finished – a strange contrast with the fact that it nonetheless took 57.5% of the vote.

Theoretically the election should have been tailor-made for the opposition DA, but instead they went backwards, losing eight seats and half a million votes. The fact that this disaster occurred on the watch of the party’s first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, has placed the party in a quandary. Maimane’s popularity has steadily declined (he is now less popular than Malema), he is widely seen as indecisive and he has failed to pull over the extra black voters that he hoped for. Shortly before the election the DA’s policy chief resigned, saying that “the party doesn’t take policy seriously” and indeed the party’s policies were mainly a paler version of the ANC’s offerings.

The party had no clear economic policy and its failure to defend Afrikaans language and cultural rights has cost it dearly among the Coloured and white Afrikaans-speakers who had been some of its strongest supporters. The fact that Maimane is young (38) and inexperienced, was previously an ANC supporter who still thinks in ANC terms, and is a pastor in a fundamentalist church which rejects evolution – do not help him with the party’s traditional liberal voters.

But the most serious problem is that the DA has gained in every election since 1994, generating a tremendous spirit of momentum and confidence in the party from top to bottom, a happy sense that “the future belongs to us”. This has now been dashed and the damage is very great. There are demands for the whole top leadership to go and fears that unless the party turns itself round quickly it could face further losses in the local elections in 2021.

The main gainers of the election were the EFF, which advocated the doubling of all social grants and pensions and as many other unfundable promises as it could dream up. Its leaders have been involved in various corrupt scams such as the VBS bank scandal and links to notorious cigarette smugglers but none of this seems to dull the passionate support of many younger blacks (especially young men: in an electorate that is 55% female, the EFF’s support is 59% male).

Ironically, voters associated the party mainly with anti-corruption – a reflection of the many occasions when the EFF reduced Parliament to a shambles by shouting at Zuma “pay back the money”. This was clearly a big hit, with the EFF comprehensively upstaging the DA. Malema’s predominantly young followers are excited by his wild rhetoric, his all-red uniforms and military style.

This, indeed, is the danger: if the ANC continues to fail as badly as it has to date there is a possibility that Malema and the EFF will be the main beneficiaries, in which case the country will be caught in a destructive downward spiral, for Malema frightens investors away, thus causing further job losses. The sight of Ramaphosa appealing to Malema to return to the ANC does little to allay investor anxieties. Ramaphosa’s dilemma with regards choosing a new cabinet was as follows: If he kicked out all the notably corrupt, there would be major ructions within the ANC, but if he failed to do so, hope in the reforming potential of his presidency would collapse.

However, careful analysis of the poll data reveals a more complicated reality. Among ANC voters a majority of 3:1 rejects Zuma’s policy of “radical economic transformation” in favour of more pro-business policies – thought more likely to produce the desperately needed jobs.

An even larger number of EFF voters agreed with this and, despite their leader’s policies, they were also the most likely to favour the privatization of loss-making state-owned industries. Similarly, while Malema says all land should be nationalized, EFF (and ANC) voters heavily endorsed the idea that the land currently administered by the chiefs should be individually owned by whoever lives on it.

Less than 2% thought land reform a burning issue and even EFF voters were overwhelmingly willing to ditch the policy of expropriation without compensation if this was more likely to bring foreign investment. EFF and ANC voters were also happy to ditch both Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action policies if that would help the jobs crisis. And a large majority of EFF voters favoured the idea of South Africa seeking an IMF bail-out.

What this reveals is three things. First, the EFF is a confused populist movement, a sort of African Poujadisme, and its supporters are by no means disciplined supporters of Malema’s views. In effect the hunger for more jobs easily outweighs any sense of party loyalty. Second, the usual ANC/EFF socialist agenda is actually a reflection of the prejudices of a very small elite of political activists who are wildly unrepresentative of their electorates. Third, the large bulk of black South Africans are absolutely desperate. 237,000 more jobs were lost in the first quarter of 2019 alone.

When you speak to ordinary Africans they are bewildered. They were promised so much, the ANC has failed them so utterly and they don’t know where to turn. Some nineteen million adults failed either to register or, if registered, failed to vote. It is easy now to find nostalgia for the “good old days” of higher employment and greater order under white rule and our focus groups even showed that there was nostalgia for the old black homelands.

Despite the apparent stability of ANC dominance, large shifts are taking place. The electorate is becoming far more fluid and less firmly attached to any party. We found that over 25% of all our respondents had switched either their party or into abstention during the election campaign. The greatest fluidity was found among African voters, 17.1% of whom had changed parties in that period. Nothing like that existed in the Mandela period. Secondly, the standard way the ANC has campaigned against the DA is to say that if the DA win they will restore apartheid and cancel all social grants.

This canard has worked wonderfully well for years but this time we found that only 38.8% of African voters said they believed this claim, while 43.3% didn’t. (Among the 18-24s a 2:1 majority disbelieved this central piece of ANC propaganda.) Similarly, less than 40% of black voters believe the government’s promise that they will restore Eskom to health. The other 60% expect them to fail and/or say that Eskom should be privatized. ANC credibility is now thin.

Moreover, the ANC vote is increasingly fragile. Among all African voters only one third said they would vote ANC whoever the leader was. (In the Mandela period this figure would have been 80-90%) 27.3% said they would never vote ANC. 19.4% said they would vote ANC because they had confidence in Ramaphosa even though there were many crooks on the ANC list. This exactly bears out the claim by the ANC election boss, Fikile Mbalula, that without Ramaphosa the party might have fallen to 40%. This dependence on a single individual is also new: in the past there was fierce loyalty to the ANC as an institution and a historic force. Those who still feel that way are concentrated among the older age groups and are thus literally dying off.

Finally, another 20% of African voters said they might have voted ANC but there were just too many corrupt people on the party’s list – so they wouldn’t. Again, this degree of discrimination is new. The old image of the ideologically committed unconditional ANC voter is fading fast – and among the young is it close to vanishing. The idea of the ANC as a non-racial party has also largely faded – the top white on its election list, Barbara Creecy, was in 53rd position, and the top Asian, Pravin Gordhan, was 73rd.

Finally, Ramaphosa’s popularity, though large, is also fragile. Half of all voters say either that he is weak or that he is just doing whatever he can to stay afloat. Most of the latter – about a quarter of black voters – say he is just another politician, full of empty promises. Until now Ramaphosa has given way to almost every pressure group. Unless he sharply ceases such behaviour he will rapidly fall into disrepute. His popularity is his greatest asset but unless he uses it to bring in major reforms, he will rapidly lose it.

When an experienced old politician like Motlanthe says that this is the ANC’s last chance, what does that mean? Perhaps that they could just be voted out next time – though it is hard to see the DA, in its present dilapidated state, replacing it. What seems more likely is that the government could just lose control of the country. This is already happening. Hundreds of small towns are in virtual ruins as corrupt ANC councillors steal the money for maintenance, sewage, road repairs and everything else.

A major university town like Grahamstown now has sewage running in the streets, broken roads, power cuts and water cut-offs on a regular basis. The railways have largely ceased to work. The country is plunging ever more heavily into debt. Eskom alone owes $35 billion and the government has no means of paying it. Large numbers of professionals are emigrating and the result is that the tax base is shrinking. Two of the three ratings agencies have consigned South Africa to junk status: if the third (Moody’s) follows, there will be a catastrophic outflow of capital. The government, meanwhile, is living in fairyland: Ramaphosa has announced that he is determined to set up a national health service which will cost at least another 5-6% of GDP. With the national debt already out of control it takes magical thinking to imagine where that might come from.

Perhaps most striking of all, there are currently 84 major infrastructural projects stalled because in each case thugs descend on the works and demand a 30% equity share in the company concerned, while meanwhile the locals demand that all the construction jobs must go to them. If these groups don’t get what they want they then destroy the plant and buildings of the companies concerned. Hence the companies pull out – many of them international companies of just the sort Ramaphosa is trying to entice to invest in South Africa. How can this happen? Mainly because the police are nowhere to be seen. There is, after all, nothing in it for them. These days when you’re driving and a policeman pulls you over it is often to demand a small money present (“money for a cool drink”). When we asked voters which institutions they trusted the most the police came rock bottom.

As against this Ramaphosa enjoys the enthusiastic support of the business and financial world. He will need all the help he can get. But he still clings to many orthodox ANC platitudes: there will be no privatization; there will be no recourse to the IMF; inflation-plus wage increases have been granted to the civil service and the staff of state-owned enterprises, though no one has any idea how to fund them; there will be an immensely expensive national health service which also cannot be funded; he will legislate the expropriation of property without compensation though in a way which does not frighten investors away; he has legislated a minimum wage policy which is already putting more poor people out of work.

It may be, of course, that all this has been done or promised simply because Ramaphosa was desperate to win the election and that he will start backing away from all such promises now that he has been elected. But the worrying possibility exists that Ramaphosa actually means what he says, in which case he has yet to understand properly how dire is the situation that he and the country are in and how large are the challenges that he thus faces.

R.W. Johnson’s latest book is Fighting for the Dream.

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.