The post-election acid test

William Saunderson-Meyer on the significance of who the ANC forms coalitions with


Before 1994, South African politics was driven by the stymied desire of the black majority to vote. Today, ironically, the biggest challenge is the enormous number of black citizens who don’t and won’t vote.

It’s a measure of increasing disillusionment. Democracy has for many lost the gloss it briefly had during the Nelson Mandela years. As survey after survey has shown, many who supported the African National Congress — especially the youth — are alienated from it, yet don’t much trust any of the opposition parties as an alternative political home. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The result is apathy, with participation in the key mechanism driving democracy, regular free-and-fair elections, sagging steadily. Measured both in voter registration and polling day turnout, South Africa is among the poorest performing countries in the world.

In that first democratic election there was a 72% turnout, which has eased to a deceptively respectable 66% in the 2019 general election. However, to get the true measure of citizen alienation, one needs to add into the equation the high numbers of those who are legally entitled to vote but don’t register.

In 2019, the Independent Electoral Commission estimated that more than a quarter of those who could register, didn’t bother to do so. On that basis, the “real” turnout dropped to less than half (49%) of those eligible to vote.

This is not a novel phenomenon in our history. Apathy springs from futility. In the 1970s, when the National Party appeared invincible, turnout in the all-white elections for the National Assembly hovered around 50%. It was only once the non-racial Progressive Federal Party made its electoral breakthrough, that participation again soared.

In present day, democratic South Africa, however, things are getting worse. Some 40m people are qualified to vote in Monday’s local government election. But one-third of those, more than 13m potential voters, haven’t registered. There are over half a million fewer voters on the roll now, than two years ago.

This massive non-voting constituency, composed as it overwhelmingly is of black South Africans, is a headache for the ANC, especially in this election.

First, not only have large numbers of its traditional voters not registered, but turnout is invariably lower in local elections, which disproportionately affects the ANC’s showing. In 2016, on a turnout of 58%, the ANC vote dropped a staggering eight percentage points to 54%, its worst performance ever, costing it control of three major metros.

Second, until now, the increasing number of its core supporters who are disillusioned with the performance of the governing party have simply abstained. Very few have transferred their votes to other parties. If on Monday, they were in any numbers to act on their disenchantment by voting for any of the opposition parties, the ANC could have a nasty surprise.

Such tactical voting should appeal to gatvol ANC loyalists. Sulkily threatening to “withdraw support” — a refrain that President Cyril Ramaphosa has encountered repeatedly during his hectic campaigning over the past weeks — doesn’t cut it.

There is nothing in the world that shakes up a political party more effectively than the stalwarts saying “thus far, nor further”. If a significant number of ANC supporters voted for any other party, rather than passively abstaining, it is perhaps be the one thing that could induce a change of behaviour on the part of an arrogant ANC government that is destroying South Africa.

And a local election is the ideal vehicle for that kind of tactical voting. ANC mavericks can kick the shins of their party at a municipal level without any fear of disrupting the balance of power at a national level.

Such a switch in alliances would also give voters a sense of where the ANC ideological heart truly lies. For the first time before an election, the ANC has admitted that it is readying itself for coalition talks.

Without naming the parties, acting secretary-general Jessie Duarte this week said that the ANC had already identified those with which it is not willing to negotiate, based on their ideological standpoints. Since both the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters would, from their sides, be open to working in coalition with the ANC, what happens next is something of an acid test.

It is likely that the ANC, as now constituted, would as a matter of principle rule out allying with the DA. However, there would be far less resistance within the party to aligning with the EFF.

This would be a grim portent for South Africa’s future. The one is a party that’s been unable to progress beyond being vehicle for the country’s race and ethnic minorities, but generally has governed honestly and well in the areas it controls. The other is a fascist, black nationalist party that threatens South Africa’s minorities with violence and dispossession and is corrupt to the core.

Election permutations might spare the ANC the blushes arising from how its coalition choices reflect its professed commitment to non-racialism. A strong showing by a couple of the smaller players, such as GOOD in the Western Cape and ActionSA in Gauteng — neither of which party existed in the last municipal election — could let the ANC off the moral hook.

It’s possible that GOOD will hold the balance of power in several DA-controlled Western Cap municipalities. Since its leader is already serving as a minister in Ramaphosa’s cabinet, GOOD and the ANC would readily work in a coalition.

Similarly, in Johannesburg. After Mashaba became mayor in 2016 under the banner of the DA, he entered into a disastrous informal coalition with the EFF that collapsed in recriminations. Mashaba now leads his own party and — nursing EFF-burnt fingers and a DA-bruised ego — would likely by choice prefer to do a deal with the ANC.

The essence of participative democracy is, duh, participating. To not vote on Monday is a betrayal of the hard-fought battle for universal suffrage in South Africa.

These are third-tier elections that are going to have profound national ramifications. Abstention, whether it is premised on the vanity that no party quite meets your high moral standards, or because you cannot turn your back — even as a once-off tactic — on an ANC that has consistently failed and betrayed you, is a luxury South Africa cannot afford.

The apathetic and the disillusioned can make the difference. And it’s entirely likely, the way things are going, that if they instead wait for the 2024 general election to rouse themselves, it will be too late.

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