South Africa’s Coming Two-Party System

Recent local elections show the bleak future of South African politics: two centrist parties and no left alternative.

South African president Jacob Zuma often boasts that the African National Congress (ANC) “will rule until Jesus comes back.” Voters have consistently given it clear majorities in national, provincial, and local elections since 1994, when South Africa first made the transition to democracy. A certain level of hubris may have been inevitable.

But last week’s local elections shattered the party’s complacency: its share of the national vote dipped below 60 percent for the first time, shaving off some 8 percent of the ANC’s support since the last local election.

As a result, the party lost two key metropolitan areas — Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Tshwane (Pretoria) — to the Democratic Alliance (DA), the center-right opposition party. A close race with the DA in Johannesburg — the country’s largest city and economic capital — was another shock.

Currently, who will govern Tshwane and Johannesburg depends on coalition-brokering between the ANC, the DA, and, crucially, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a smaller, more radical black-nationalist movement.

In response to the results, social media exploded with black humor and schadenfreude: as one meme had it, “Jesus is back, walking in Nelson Mandela Bay. He will visit Tshwane and Johannesburg next.”

Unfortunately, the election did not signal the second coming — but it did reflect a profound rightward turn in South African politics, and the absence of any left alternative to the ANC.

Talk Left, Walk Right

The ANC was never fully a left party. Historically, it consisted of African elites who appealed to British colonial authorities for recognition and lacked a mass base until the 1950s. It only found itself on the Left by default, after aligning with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and later the powerful trade union movement that emerged in the seventies and eighties.

The ANC was split between pro-business nationalist leaders, leftists from the SACP, and the trade union movement. As a result, it formulated a soft social-democratic program in the 1994 elections, ensuring labor’s support.

This leftish platform never translated into actual policy implementation. It was abandoned shortly after 1994 as the party embraced neoliberal policies under the Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki governments.

The Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) policies did create a small welfare state, but also privatized the economy and worked to attract international investments. The ANC marginalized its left-wing members and only activated the unions for voter turnout, ignoring their policy suggestions.

President Thabo Mbeki was particularly hostile to his party’s progressives. This, in combination with his pro-business policies, denial of the HIV crisis, and paranoid-autocratic style of governance, prompted an alliance of the unionists, SACP members, and other forces within the ANC to replace him with Zuma.

They portrayed Zuma as a man of the Left, a populist who would decisively break with Mbeki’s neoliberalism. Their Faustian pact, however, resulted in nothing short of the destruction of the ANC’s left wing, as their candidate proved to be an authoritarian Zulu traditionalist — more concerned with rent-seeking than policy.

The promised left turn never came, and the SACP and allied unions expended whatever political capital they had defending Zuma from scandal after scandal.

Following this tact, the Communist Party effectively declined into a mere extension of the state — functioning as the attack dogs and cheerleaders of a degenerating political class. More recently, the SACP seems to have finally turned against Zuma, after years of unquestioning support, but it is likely too late for it to renew itself.

Within the ANC, the degeneration of the party’s left has also harmed its electoral changes. In 2013, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) officially split from the ANC. Soon after, it was expelled from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). As a result, the ANC is no longer able to rely on what allies it has left in COSATU to campaign door-to-door.

Further damaging its election prospects, the ANC’s ranks are mostly composed of careerist yes-men who trade on loyalty from local factions. Its most effective organizers from the Youth League — like Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu — left the party for the EFF.

On top of this all, the government has been rocked by a deepening economic crisis. Unemployment stands at 26.2 percent (unofficially closer to 40 percent), the economy is not predicted to grow at all this year, and what’s left of manufacturing industry is on its last legs.

So far, the ANC has shown itself incapable of tackling a crisis that has produced the highest inequality rate in the world. Instead the party is paralyzed, and has turned to religious appeals, further neoliberalization, and strongman tactics to try to stay in power.

Divine Right

Zuma’s Christian invocation wasn’t for rhetorical effect: it reflects a growing coalition with religion across South African politics.

In June, an ANC leader inducted four hundred church members into the party with an invocation that “the ANC is God’s own organization,” while another offered land to a church in Soweto in return for votes. Zuma himself is an ordained minister. The ANC’s election rallies increasingly resemble revival meetings.

Evangelical churches also play a key role mobilizing DA voters in the Western Cape, and EFF leaders also highlight their association with Christianity.

But religion has a special place in the ANC mythology. Since Mandela, the party has promoted a messianic narrative characterized by an obsession with divine leadership (which Mandela personified and Zuma currently benefits from) and redemptive politics.

It is therefore ironic that the “swing demographic” of centrist black voters — who either turned away from the ANC or simply skipped the election — trace their opposition to a set of values that combine pro-business, anti-corruption sentiments with prosperity-gospel evangelicalism.

Mostly based in larger towns and cities, this new center promises a depressing future for South African electoral politics as the vote seems to be split between this urban, middle-class base — on whom the ANC can no longer rely — and a rural base still firmly loyal to the “party of liberation.”

Neither of these camps, however, support the social-democratic consensus that ANC used to get elected twenty-two years ago.

Urban voters increasingly support a politics of market solutions, self-help rhetoric, and oppose the limited welfare state, which is often associated with corruption and rural backwardness. This aligns neatly with the growing churches that preach a prosperity gospel appealing to aspirant middle-class South Africans — whose anti-ANC sentiments come primarily from their frustration over corruption, scandals, and service delivery.

While this evangelical center has yet to consolidate itself into an organized movement with coherent demands or platforms, its rise would mirror the remarkable growth of evangelical Christianity as an organized political phenomenon in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria.

In contrast, traditional leaders — who use violence and access to state patronage to get out the vote — mobilize ANC’s reliable rural bloc, which is primarily located in Kwazulu Natal, the only province where the ruling party’s vote grew in this election.

Kwazulu Natal is where violence has been (and is) an inescapable part of political competition. The brutal proxy war between the ANC and the apartheid-government-backed Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the eighties and nineties killed over twenty thousand people.

Under Zuma — who plays up his Zulu identity — the ANC has won over the nationalists and warlords previously aligned with the IFP. But this has transformed the Kwazulu Natal ANC into the IFP’s political successor.

Political violence has again reared its ugly head in the region, as a number of activists have been murdered and battles between local ANC factions have escalated. A record number of politicians were killed before this year’s election. The media and middle classes located in Johannesburg and Cape Town have largely ignored this disturbing trend.

The ANC has blamed low turnout for its disappointing election, but the reliable Independent Electoral Commission reports that nearly 1.6 million more South Africans voted on August 3 than in the last local elections. This means that the ANC suffered a relative loss of over 3.3 million votes in just five years.

Some analysts have attributed this to a high suburban turnout, while working-class (and mainly black) voters in the country’s townships stayed at home. There’s some truth to this, though a portion of black voters defected from the ANC.

For instance, Gauteng — South Africa’s most populous and urbanized province — saw its turnout increase some 3 percent. It appears a substantial number of black voters in both metropolitan areas and in provinces like Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and Northwest voted for the DA or the EFF.

The DA has obviously celebrated the results. But we should be clear: the DA didn’t win; the ANC lost. One of the main features of this election was that neither party offered any transformative program or coherent policy agenda.

The ANC relied on its total control of the public broadcaster, the SABC, and on the vast sums of money it used to hold poorly attended rallies complete with celebrities and DJs. One estimate of the ANC’s total budget was $73 million. These events pathetically imitated American political conventions.

The DA firmly believes that South Africa’s political system should imitate the American model. Mmusi Maimane, the party’s leader, likes to compare himself to Barack Obama.

They chose to focus on big-name candidates, to trumpet their supposedly miraculous achievements governing Cape Town — the country’s murder capital and one of the most unequal and dangerous cities in the world — and to claim to be the authentic representative of Mandela’s legacy.

The DA mayoral candidate in Johannesburg, businessman Herman Mashaba — a millionaire libertarian whose fortune came from a hair-product empire called “Black Like Me” — used his pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps backstory to attract voters. He campaigned on privatizing everything possible and expressing a deep admiration for ex-London mayor Boris Johnson.

The EFF is certainly more progressive than either the ANC or the DA, but its ideology ranges from evangelical Christian posturing to calls for socialist revolution.

Just as the ANC built a cult of personality around Zuma, so has the EFF created one around ex–Youth League leader Julius Malema. Also like the ANC, the EFF has virtually no internal democracy.

The EFF did see its vote share improve by a few points this election, but the upsurge in their numbers projected by some in the media never materialized. Instead the EFF was only able to peel votes off in key areas and municipalities that are strongly anti-ANC.

For instance, the party’s best showing was in Rustenburg, which contains Marikana, the site of an August 2012 police massacre of thirty-four striking platinum miners followed by dozens of political assassinations. The locals suffer from severe unemployment and lack of service delivery. This turned them against the mafia-like ANC establishment, which has aligned itself with traditional leaders and big mining companies.

The EFF might appeal to voters more as a protest party than a party of governance. While they certainly provide the only real left program on offer, their noisy brand of performance politics does not translate into a party that voters want to run their municipality.

Malema admitted as much, declaring that the EFF had not received a mandate to govern, despite growing from 6 percent to 8 percent of the total vote share.

Although it made only small gains, the EFF finds itself thrust into the role of kingmaker, holding a marginal, but decisive, share of the vote in Tshwane and Johannesburg. The idea of the radical, black nationalist EFF aligning itself with the DA — the party often associated with South Africa’s parochial brand of white liberalism — is simultaneously intriguing and absurd.

The EFF must decide what currency will be traded in return for their support — a decision that will most likely further entrench corruption into the political fabric of the nation. It is unclear how the instability, rent-seeking, and accommodations that tend to accompany coalition governments will contribute to the EFF’s agenda of fundamentally reordering the social and economic context of these cities and towns.

Ultimately, the ANC’s poor performance should be traced to the Zuma administration’s scandals and the hubris of a party that believes it is entitled to the vote of all black South Africans. For example, in Tshwane, the ANC shunned local candidates and shuttled in a former government minister whose constituency lives in another province. Predictably, the local ANC did not support her and staged violent protests against the nomination that shut that down the capital for several days.

More troublingly, the ANC has a poor record as an opposition party. Despite the DA’s spotty record in Cape Town and the Western Cape province — just look at sanitation, affordable housing, racism, policing, and corruption for evidence — the regional ANC kneecapped its own agenda by indulging in internal squabbles and driving into the ground local authorities where they had control through corruption and lack of delivery.

It remains to be seen if the ANC can undertake the kind of strategic introspection necessary to renew itself. So far, its response to the election has been a combination of paranoid accusations — the general secretary blamed disloyal voters — infighting, and denial, which suggests that the party lacks ideas, new leaders, or anything beyond their sense of entitlement to power.

The Missing Left

Even more depressing than the ANC’s decline is the realization that a left project is out of reach in South Africa. Outside the EFF, not a single high profile left-wing candidate or party ran. The only other showing by a leftist party was in Nelson Mandela Bay, where a candidate aligned with NUMSA’s United Front secured a seat.

It is becoming very hard to identify a formation or set of organizations worthy of being dubbed “the Left” in South Africa. The once-mighty trade union movement has fractured, trapped in a sea of political intrigue and corrupt backroom dealings with the ruling party — which resulted in its justification of police violence against workers — or weakened by the dire consequences of economic stagnation and deindustrialization.

No vibrant array of small organizations, social movements, and other civil society organizations exist to draw on for a new left formation. Whatever remains of the socialist projects persists in only the memories of old trade unionists and ex-SACP members.

The surges in student militancy in 2015 have so far not translated into any gains for the Left among young, middle-class South Africans. The main outlines of that movement have been more attracted to the 1970s black nationalism of marginal parties like the Pan-Africanist Congress (which has little traction among the mass of South Africans) than anything more radical and have privileged the struggles of students at elite universities over broader concerns.

The most promising route for socialist revival in South Africa seems to have hit a wall, as well. When NUMSA turned its back on the ANC in 2013, declaring a new path forward for the Left through the formation of a “United Front” of social movements, communities, and workers, it inspired hope.

But its leadership largely comes from South Africa’s numerous left-leaning NGOs, who have failed to connect with workers or communities in struggle.

Instead, they’ve used their limited resources inexplicably on budget justice campaigns and an attempt to ally with South Africa’s largely white middle class through anti-corruption protests. The #ZUMAMUSTFALL protests last year only managed to alienate the United Front from working-class, black South Africans.

Anti-corruption politics of this type represent a political dead end for the Left. The Brazilian constitutional coup earlier this year demonstrates how these politics almost always translate into a type of reactionary moralism that portrays corruption as the product of bad leaders, not as a structural feature of capital accumulation.

The ANC has completely eroded what was a mass, mainstream left project in South Africa that focused on transforming the country’s economy through mobilizing the black working class. It’s telling that the first post-election protest was held in Mandela’s home village, Qunu, and that it involved ANC members picketing their own organization over who should represent them on the local town council.

With a void on the Left, it seems likely that, in the long run, the ANC’s rivals for power will consist of a strong, black, center-right group. The DA will evolve and gain support from the media, middle-class voters across racial lines, and business, eventually growing to almost equal the size of the ANC.

But what they offer voters won’t be much different: both parties depend on draining ideology and meaning from South African politics. The more boring — or even carnivalesque — meaningless, and fake politics are, the better.

In this coming two-party system, elections will become about “character,” piety, and patronage. “Regular changes in incumbency” as the two trade power will be deemed as progress by the “international community.”

In a way, South African politics will become depressingly normal, and the possibility of a left alternative will move further away than ever.