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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Deutsche Welle by Martina Schwikowski.]

South Africans vote in municipal elections next week and the ruling ANC could suffer substantial losses. It is unclear how Jacob Zuma’s record as a scandal-prone president will affect the outcome.

South African President Jacob Zuma is under severe pressure as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) contests municipal elections next week. Zuma, who is president of the ANC as well of the country, is touring South Africa ahead of the polls on 3 August, lashing out at the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which he promised to “crush.”

Zuma sings struggle songs, dances and lambasts the DA as the party of apartheid and oppression. But many South Africans see this as an attempt to deflect attention away from the failings of his own party.

His insistence that the ANC is the only party with a struggle history has a hollow ring for many people at the grassroots level, because inequality and poverty has not declined but grown in post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s former party of liberation suffers from infighting and loss of credibility.


“This is a critical election for the ANC. The party has been racked by a variety of scandals, many associated with the leadership of Jacob Zuma himself,” political commentator Daniel Silke told DW. “Zuma is now a controversial figure in South African politics and even within his own party, he seems to be facing a degree of opposition.”

Political scandals, cronyism and corruption have damaged the ANC’s prospects. It is fighting these elections with a president who fired two finance ministers in the space of a week at the end of last year, and who was embroiled in a scandal over the misuse public funds for the modernization of his home in Nkandla in rural Kwazulu-Natal. Just this week the Constitutional Court ruled that the president has to pay back about $500,000 (450,000 euros) in taxpayers’ money within 45 days. The move came after lengthy legal proceeddings initiated by opposition parties. Zuma defeated an oppostion bid to impeach him and apologized to the nation.

Inequality breeds frustration

Africa’s most industrialized country suffers from slow economic growth and the official unemployment rate is now as high as 27 percent. Inequality is a source of deep frustration among South Africans. “We have underperformed economically since 1994. We have succeeded in some aspects of social redress but we were unable to grow the economy and absorb new job seekers,” Silke said.

Economic stagnation paired with mismanagement is scaring away foreign investors. South Africans showed their dissatisfaction with their government by joining daily social delivery protests that grew more and more violent and destructive. Schoola and libraries have been burned down and people have been injured in many townships.

Violence is also challenging the integrity of the elections. Several candidates, most of them from the ANC, have been murdered over the past few months. At least 12 were killed in KwaZulu-Natal. Fourteen people have been arrested following a parliamentary probe into what are believed to be politically motivated killings.

Ruling party vulnerable

South Africa may be voting in local elections next week, but, according to Silke, they also amount to an unofficial referendum on the quality of political leadership and the broader economic direction in which South Africa is heading. “The ANC is probably at its most vulnerable since 1994 and its support has been slipping marginally. As a result we are seeing a much more competitive election then ever before,” he said.

Aubrey Matshiqi, political analyst with the Helen Suzman Foundation, has his doubts about some of the forecasts being made about the outcome of these elections.

“We only know the ANC will lose some level of support, but I am not sure if it is as deep as analysts are assuming,” she said.

The image crisis surrounding Jacob Zuma will not determine the outcome of these elections on its own. There are many reasons why South Africans might vote, or not vote, for the ruling party. “If people vote for the ANC, it does not mean they are expressing their approval for Zuma, the party leader,” Matshiqi added.

Support for the ANC is declining. In 2009 the party received 66 percent of the vote nationwide; in 2014 it won 62 percent, but in some major urban areas the ruling party barely garnered 50 percent. Silke said the ANC still has a secure grip on power nationwide. The political battleground next week will be the metropolitan areas, especially the capital Pretoria and the Nelson Mandela Bay area around Port Elizabeth, where the ANC could face heavy losses. If the ANC polls less than 50 percent, it might be forced to enter a coalition with one of its opponents in several metropolitan municipalities, including areas in Johannesburg, for the first time.

Matshiqi insists, though, that the prospect of coalitions be kept in its proper perspective. There are more than 200 municipalities. “In the majority of cases, there will be no need for a coalition,” she said.

Opposition parties set to gain

Silke said many South Africans are disillusioned and more prepared then ever to vote for other parties. What do opposition parties have to offer them? “The DA has shown in the Western Cape and the city of Cape Town that they can govern successfully, that is their trump card,” said Silke. “They show greater efficiency and ability to roll out services to the people and have a cleaner administration than the ANC.” They were long seen as a party of big business dominated by white people, but the election of Mmusi Maimane as its first black leader after the 2014 elections could draw votes especially from middle-class blacks.

The far left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with its radical leader Julius Malema is a relatively new group in the political arena and claims to represent the poor. Since its formation in 2013, the EFF has grown to become the third largest party in parliament. It has no track record in government, but could play the kingmaker in local councils that need a coalition to govern, Silke said.

Zuma’s leadership

Sileke believes the long term challenge for the ANC is how to resolve factionalism. “There is a substantial body of senior members of the party who like to reboot and reform the economic policies to become more investor friendly and others who want to protect their vested interests that have become part and parcel of ANC politics in the last 20 years,” he said.

Silke also said the ANC will “see some electoral shocks” which could mean “reviewing policy lines” and “perhaps the end to Jacob Zuma’s leadership.”

Matshiqi disagrees and is “not persuaded that this election will deliver political realignment and a dramatic shift in support for the ANC.”

South Africa at a Glance
58 780 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in June 2019 (CPI) & +5.8 y/y in June 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
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