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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: South African Monitor by Heinrich Matthee.1]

Western media on the elections in South Africa

In recent years, Western media has been increasingly disillusioned about South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC).  The New York Times of 30 September 2018 published a report headed “Hit Men and Power: South Africa’s Leaders Are Killing One Another”.  It stated that the increase in killings inside the ANC was a potent reminder of how far the party has strayed from creating, in the ashes of apartheid, a political order based on the rule of law. [2]  On 1 January 2019, after almost a year of the Ramaphosa presidency, The Guardian ran an article by Africa correspondent Jason Burke, headed “Toxic legacy taints ANC as it nears 25- year rule in South Africa”. [3]

In the run-up to the national elections in South Africa on 8 May 2019, Western media commentators did not mince words either about the quality of the ANC’s governance.  On 5 May 2019, Bernd Dörries of the German centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung compared the present-day ANC to a mafia-like criminal gang.  Under the heading “Robbed Freedom” he also stated:

The ANC led by President Ramaphosa will win the elections on Wednesday – even though it does not deserve one single year longer being in power.  It is time, to liberate South Africa from its liberators. [4]

The heading in the Dutch centre-left newspaper Volkskrant was “Will South Africa really vote away the corrupt ANC clique?” [5]

When the ANC won the elections, several sceptical commentaries included the following by Wolfgang Drechsler in Handelsblatt on 10 May 2019:

Elsewhere a government like the ANC would have been immediately voted out after such blatant failure as in the past ten years.  That this has not occurred in South Africa even after the sixth time, clearly shows how deepseated racial resentment still is embedded in many places.  The disastrous politics has in the meantime also torn the economy into a descent …  In addition, the ANC has for years neglected to reform the dilapidated education and health system.  It is a testimony of failure for the successors of Nelson Mandela that children in Ghana or Chad can today read and write better than in South Africa.  Ramaphosa must be able to break the power of the trade unions and relax racial quotas that have largely served to install political cronies and mediocrity.  However, it would be naive to believe that someone who served Zuma as vice-president for years could turn the system around. [6]

The election results: an analysis

ANC rule now rests on 28% of voters

According to Statistics South Africa, there are 35.86 million eligible voters.  More than 9 million eligible voters did not register.  By the end of voter registration in 2019, 26.75 million people had registered to vote, which means that voter registration is at 74.6% of the eligible voting pool. [7]

The turnout of the election was 65.9% of registered voters.  Voters voted for the new members of parliament and of provincial councils.  The ANC obtained 57.5% of the vote, a drop of 5% and 19 seats less after obtaining 62.15% in 2014.  The Democratic Alliance (DA) obtained 20.7% of the votes, less than 22.2% in 2014 and 5 seats less.  The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) obtained 10.79% of the vote, an increase compared to the 6.35% in 2014. However, for all these parties, the result was less than they had expected.

For the ANC, it was the first time that the figure had fallen below the symbolically important threshold of 60%.  Based on the number of eligible voters, the ANC’s rule now effectively rests on just under 28% of the voters.  However, there is a high number of unemployed or impoverished voters now relying on a state grants under the ANC’s one-party-dominant rule.  After 25 years in power, the playing field has been altered and the ANC’s politics of patronage still ensured its dominance.

Many brown, black, white and Asian middle-class voters continued to support the DA.  However, some also voted tactically, supporting the DA in provincial elections and ANC nationally, with the aim to support the Ramaphosa faction in the ANC.  Despite the ANC’s bad record, the DA was unable to achieve a breakthrough among key ANC constituencies.

For the EFF, the results were positive, but less than expected.  Its campaign, based on radical redistributionism and de-Westernization of public institutions, has infuenced the ANC’s political approach.  It will remain a force of pressure.  However, both the Ramaphosa and the Zuma faction have been able to hijack some of its discourse.

Many of the potential supporters of the Zuma faction and the EFF did not vote.  They are in the group aged 18-29, which suffers from high unemployment. [8]  They still constitute a potential supporter base for redistributionist and de-Westernization in politics, but also for protest movements, organized crime, and new political entrepeneurs.  “A lot of people have simply given up on the parties, their leaders and democratic institutions,” said William Gumede, a political scientist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.  “With no economic growth, this is a dangerous situation South Africa is in.” [9]

Regional, class and ethnic constellations still play a major role in South Africa’s politics.  For this reason, the election results are also assessed below by considering some of these dimensions.

Regional and class politics 1: Gauteng

The ANC won with 50.2% in the province of Gauteng, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the economic and political capitals of South Africa.  The party’s share of the vote there was a decline from the 54% it won in 2014. [10]  Gauteng includes the largest concentration of black middle-class South Africans.  Many of them voted against the ANC’s economic mismanagement and entrenched corruption.

According to Steven Friedman, a political scientist at the University of Johannesburg:

The black middle-class has given up on the ANC — there’s no evidence it’s ever going back. The ANC is now a party of the working class, shack-settlement dwellers and people in the townships who say they’ve had enough with the party, but think it’s worth a try because they see no alternative. [11]

The DA’s effort to attract black middle-class voters has partially succeeded.  However, for the time being, it has reached a provisional ceiling, with emerging internal divisions and without the symbolic capital or access to sources of patronage that have helped the ANC in parts of South Africa.

Widespread protests, often violent, will continue to be used by communities and segments of the citizenry as part of intra-ANC struggles over spoils and to gain government benefits.  Their impact on the transport sector, in combination with weak or neglected infrastructure, may also serve to reinforce the regionalization of economies in South Africa.

Regional politics 2: KwaZulu-Natal

The ANC won by 68-75% in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province.  In contrast, the ANC won 54.1% of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal province.  Its support dropped by more than 10% compared to 2014.  The EFF gained more than 9.7% of the vote, an increase of 7.8% since 2014.  The predominantly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) won 16.3% and 14 seats compared to 10 seats in 2014.  Under the former president, Jacob Zuma ‒ a traditionalist Zulu ‒ Zulu identity and patronage politics also fueled support for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal. [12]

Under Ramaphosa, the Zuma faction will remain an important force in KwaZulu-Natal.  In addition, the IFP and the monarchy of King Goodwill Zwelithini will continue to play an important role in supporting initiatives to gain more powers and forms of autonomy from the ANC’s one-party dominant national regime.  Zulu identity and patronage politics, violent factional struggles and strong socio-economic links between the province and the Indian Ocean region, including southern Mozambique, will continue to fuel distinctive political dynamics in the province.

Regional politics 3: Western Cape

Regional, ethnic and class politics will continue to play a major role.  While the ANC won eight of the nine provinces, the DA won the Western Cape provincial elections again. [13]  The DA will continue to try and use the many structural advantages and different socio-economic and ethnic constellation of the province as a showcase.  As a province ruled by the political opposition, the ANC has not actively intervened to stop a recent surge in farm attacks and farm murders.

In the medium and longer term, regional politics will include initiatives inside and outside the DA to gain more powers and forms of functional autonomy from the ANC’s one-party dominant national regime.  The province already has extensive links to international centres and concentrations of expatriate Westerners.

Such initiatives for more powers and functional autonomy from the centre would also involve new forms of cooperation with international commercial and educational actors.  Simultaneously, as during the run-up to the national elections, the ANC national government may also decide not to intervene with campaigns of disruptive protests, violence and intimidation to make the DA-ruled province less governable in some township areas and along public transport routes.

Minority politics

Among many of the DA’s core Afrikaner supporters in the Western Cape, the party’s stance on land reform and property rights, affirmative action policies and the Afrikaans language in public institutions was seen as being too close to that of the ANC.  As a result, while many continued to support the DA in the provincial elections, some also voted at a national level for the predominantly Afrikaner Freedom Front Plus (FF+). The FF+, which also supports forms of non-territorial cultural autonomy, gained about 2.38% and 414 000 votes nationally and won more seats, 10 compared to 4 in 2014.

However, most Afrikaners still supported the DA, often as a tactical move in their local contexts.  A few Afrikaners even supported the ANC in order to strengten Ramaphosa’s hand against the Zuma faction.  Others abstained from voting in a system they consider demographically and politically rigged against significant change as far as their interests are concerned.

During the past decade, between elections, shifts on the ground have been eroding the security and cultural spaces of many Afrikaners.  International migration among members of this group and other minorities will continue to remain high. [14]  Class and regional differences, including diverse local political constellations, will continue to shape a spectrum of responses among Afrikaners to the ANC’s misrule.

According to Pew, before the elections about 45% of brown or coloured voters were also pessimistic about the prospects of the economy, with about 69% planning to vote for the DA. [15]  Institution-building and other responses outside parliamentary politics will have a significant impact on the destinies of citizens from these smaller groups in the next five years.

ANC factional struggles to drive politics

A deeply divided party

The results of the general election on 8 May 2019 have only sharpened the deep factional divisions within the ruling ANC.  Intra-ANC political machinations first resulted in the announcement of the new cabinet being postponed. [16]  President Cyril Ramaphosa eventually announced his new cabinet of 28 members on 29 May.  This is less than the previous 36 ministers, but he kept a large number of deputy ministerships, also as means to political patronage and to strengthen his faction.  He was still too weak in the party to get rid of deputy president David Mabuza, an ally of former president Jacob Zuma and allegedly involved in major corruption and political assassination scandals. [17]

Meanwhile, factional infighting continues.  Following a meeting of the ANC’s powerful National Executive Committee (NEC), the Zuma ally and party secretary-general Ace Magashule announced on 3 June 2019 that the ANC would recommend extending the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank, the country’s central bank, to include developmental needs.  Some analysts see the proposals as harbingers of nationalisation of the central bank and the introduction of prescribed assets, which would force companies to invest in government development projects.  Ramaphosa was slow to repudiate the statement, but did so after investment bankers issued dire warnings about the effect on foreign investment. [18]

Meanwhile, the chairpersons of the ANC’s parliamentary committees have been named.  Many of them have been publicly linked to contentious projects under former president Jacob Zuma.  They include Faith Muthambi, co-operative governance committee chairperson, Mosebenzi Zwane, transport committee chairperson, Bongani Bongo, now home affairs committee chairperson, Sifiso Buthelezi, appropriations committee chairperson, Joe Maswanganyi, who now heads the Standing Committee on Finance (Scof), and Supra Mahumapelo, the tourism committee chairperson. [19]

Ramaphosa’s limited reach

Ramaphosa has had success in removing some corrupt officials and ANC ministers, but no prosecutions have emanated yet.  However, Ramaphosa’s ability to move beyond rhetoric to actual longer-term political and economic reforms, will remain heavily constrained in the next few years.

There are three major constraints: First, there is a limited state capability that would take years to rebuild.  Economic growth is predicted to be less than 1% this year, unemployment has reached a 15-year official high of 27%, and Oxford Economics now ranks South Africa behind Turkey and Argentina as the big emerging market most at risk of a debt crisis. [20]  This state of affairs is due to the longer-term impact of a decade of economic value destruction and institutional decay under the ANC, while the population has grown by 20% since the ANC had taken over power in 1994.

Secondly, a new symbolic and political order in the shape of a hybrid regime will drive the incentive systems and rules of the game within which even Ramaphosa will have to operate.  Under Jacob Zuma’s ANC, the locus of politics has shifted from accountable democratic institutions to a field of power in which weak democratic institutions and non-democratic institutions interact.  It is unlikely that these dynamics will significantly change during the first term of president Cyril Ramaphosa (2018-present), who had served as deputy president under Zuma from 2014 to 2018.

A third constraint on Ramaphosa is that the ANC, on which power rests, is deeply factionalized and likely to remain so.  The current NEC of the ANC, Ramaphosa’s own support network, his government’s cabinet and the dominant forces in the civil and security forces are also still strongly permeated by non-accountable, non-pluralist and neopatrimonial dynamics.  This state of affairs is reflected in Ramaphosa himself being willing to publicly embrace Zuma as part of the ANC and the ANC’s election campaign in 2019, despite Zuma’s record of incredible power abuse and corruption.

Unexpected shifts and high political risk

As predicted in the South African Monitor reports of the past five years, business in South Africa remains exposed to significant political risks and uncertain or unpleasant economic policies.  Factional struggles within the ANC and between the ANC and opposition groups will continue to generate political turbulence and sometimes violence in the next few years.  The risk of local flashpoints of intergroup tensions, mediatized and abused for political agitation, has risen in many towns and townships in a context of ANC misgovernance, a struggling economy and scapegoat politics.

A recent survey by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) has found that the proportion of blacks who think whites should take second place in South Africa has risen from 29% in 2015 to 62% last year.  The liberal analyst John Kane-Berman comments:

A possible reason for this is the increasing frequency of verbal abuse of whites by politicians in both the African National Congress and the Economic Freedom Fighters, with the Democratic Alliance sometimes in tow.  Another might be the tendency of some opinion leaders, and some parts of the media, to play up anti-black racial incidents while playing down anti-white ones … But despite its finding that 62% of blacks now think whites should take second place, the IRR survey also finds that 60% think that “all this talk about racism and colonialism is politicians trying to find excuses for their own failures”. [21]

Unexpected major shifts and unforeseen high-impact events are possible, as has already happened in various forms: the Ramaphosa government’s decision in 2018 to promote expropriation without compensation, the electricity and water crises due to government mismanagement, political protests and assassinations linked to elections, xenophobic attacks, destructive student unrest, and actions by the Zuma government that triggered negative responses by international financial markets during the period 2015-2017.

International business, cultural and education actors, as well as NGOs are advised to take three steps: first, to institute rigorous and robust risk mitigation measures in South Africa; secondly, to review the timing, form and extent of planned new investments and activities in South Africa; thirdly, to also consider alternative opportunities outside South Africa.

If considering activities in South Africa, such actors should pay renewed attention to two important generators of stability and prosperity: the private business sector and institutions for sustainable communities in South Africa.



1.       Dr Heinrich Matthee is a political risk analyst for companies and NGOs in the Middle East and Africa.

2.  For an in-depth report, see






8.       Amongst the youth aged 15–24 years the official rate of unemployment rate was 55,2% in the 1st quarter of 2019 –










18.     Africa Confidential, 14 June 2019, pp. 10-11.






South Africa at a Glance
59 620 000 (mid 2020 estimate)
3.2% y/y in July 2020 (CPI) & +1.9 y/y in July 2020 (PPI)
-51% q/q (2nd quarter of 2020)
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