South Africa’s Election Offers a Miserable Choice

In Wednesday’s election, South Africa’s ruling ANC risks losing its majority for the first time. But with the opposition split between xenophobic posturing, threats of violence, and dull technocratic solutions, the vote offers little hope of positive change.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during the party's final rally ahead of the upcoming election in Johannesburg, South Africa, on May 25, 2024. (Zhang Yudong / Xinhua via Getty Images)

Thirty years since South Africa’s first democratic vote, this Wednesday’s general election is putting voters to the test like never before. Sadly, the reason they are under such strain is an unprecedented lack of good options. Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, as many as one-third of likely voters are yet to make up their minds — and the African National Congress (ANC) may well lose its 50 percent majority for the first time.

This would, indeed, be a historic shift — meaning that South Africa will likely be governed by a coalition for the first time since the Government of National Unity of 1994–96. Surely this is a rather disconcerting prospect given the disastrous record of the existing coalitions that run large cities such as Johannesburg and Durban, which are more defined by the looting of public funds rather than answering social problems. This is, however, just part of wider ills.

Incumbent president Cyril Ramaphosa (ANC), a trade union leader-turned-billionaire, had come to power in 2018 promising a new start after “the nine wasted years” of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. This latter’s time in office had been defined by “state capture,” i.e., allowing private interests — most notably the Guptas, a third-rate Indian business clan — to define policy and public appointments. While Ramaphosa has strengthened some elements of the state such as the tax collection service, things have, if anything, gotten even worse.

Today South Africa’s unemployment rate officially stands at 32.9 percent and unofficially runs closer to 50 percent. GDP per capita has declined significantly over the last decade; an astonishing 50 percent of South African households now receive some sort of social grant, and most of these households depend on this as their primary source of income. Infrastructure in much of the country is in ruins; scheduled blackouts, which can last over 11.5 hours a day, dubbed “loadshedding,” are normal, as are — increasingly — water outages in major cities. At the same time, violent crime is rising at a disturbing rate (with a higher murder rate than Colombia and Mexico) and large parts of the economy and country are controlled by organized crime.

Given the crisis that South Africa finds itself in, the ANC’s decline comes as no surprise. But despite all the above, this has been a remarkably low-energy campaign. The ruling party’s promise has waned since the heady days of 1994, in turn spawning many rival outfits and splits. What this hasn’t done is produce a different force truly ready to pick up the slack.

ANC Agenda

Despite the ANC’s weakness after years of declining living standards, opposition parties have been surprisingly lethargic in this campaign (with two notable exceptions, to which we shall return). For the most part, the main anti-ANC forces have focused on rallying their existing base or trying to win votes from the official opposition party, i.e., the center-right Democratic Alliance (DA, which won 20.8 percent of the vote in 2019), which is perceived as vulnerable.

If there is a trend this election, it is that the ANC’s decline has yet to produce anything new. Rather, we see the constant return of the old, through a retreat to the defensive politics of group identification. The opposition is a mishmash of ethnonationalist parties like the Afrikaner-nationalist Freedom Front Plus (VF+) and the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), along with so-called “good governance” campaigners, Christian or Muslim parties, and all sorts of hybrids of the above.

Still there are also more energetic forces. One is former president Zuma’s newly formed UMkhonto weSizwe (MK Party), which takes the name of the armed wing of the ANC during the anti-apartheid struggle. It is promising to overturn constitutional rule if elected and has issued various violent threats to launch an insurrection if the election does not go its way. Then there is the Patriotic Alliance (PA), a xenophobic far-right colored (rather than white supremacist) nationalist party that promises to “build a wall” to keep illegal immigrants out, restore the death penalty, and bring “God into schools.” It is headed by former prison gang boss Gayton Mckenzie and his partner in crime (they met in jail) “controversial businessman”/amateur DJ Kenny “the Sushi King” Kunene.

On the Left, there are slim pickings, with no clear socialist option on the ballot. For all its radical rhetoric, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF, the third-biggest party in 2019) is a radical nationalist formation of ANC leaders in exile with ties to powerful tobacco mafias and a tendency to flip-flop on any given issue. If the polls have some truth to them, the EFF may well lose support this election, its growth checked by Zuma’s return to electoral politics, and voters who have tired of EFF’s attempts to turn parliament and other key national institutions into a farce through endless disruptions and melodrama.

The ANC’s tripartite alliance partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) are both pale shadows of their former selves, weakened by both their support of the Zuma presidency and a rapidly deindustrializing economy. The alliance means that SACP and COSATU leaders are also card-carrying ANC members and run as ANC candidates rather than SACP or COSATU representatives — meaning the “alliance” is by now more symbolic than anything else.

There are also a couple of smaller parties that could be classified as center-left such as newcomer Rise Mzansi, which identifies as social democratic, or the Good Party, but they rely mostly on tropes of renewed “leadership” and “good governance” rather than a clear program. We could also cite a handful of left-wing independents such as veteran activist Zackie Achmat.

This meager selection reflects the fact that in policy terms there is a considerable consensus among most South African parties. There is an agreement on the need for redistribution, historical redress for apartheid, improving basic services, fixing education, and maintaining some sort of welfare state. The disagreement is about how far the private sector rather than the state will be involved in doing all this. The exceptions to this are the libertarian Patriotic Alliance and the radical nationalist EFF and MK Party, which either propose a total handover of the economy to the private sector or else the nationalization of strategic industries.

In reality, South Africa’s policy agenda continues to be defined by the ANC. If it emerges as the majority party, it will largely be by default — above all an effect of the opposition’s inability to provide a credible vision for the future of South Africa that significantly differs with the ANC. This is despite the fact that the ANC has degenerated into a collection of factional and mafia politics, and its electoral list features an array of senior leaders who helped ensure that the funds meant to modernize our infrastructure, create good paying industrial jobs, and deliver “a better life for all” were transferred to private foreign bank accounts.

The broad consensus also applies to foreign policy, despite efforts to suggest otherwise. While the South African government was attempting to stop a genocide at the International Court of Justice, the opposition DA issued a rather pathetic letter begging Antony Blinken to help ensure a free and fair election. In reality, the Independent Electoral Commission remains unimpeachable, and this will again be a free and fair election, notwithstanding the threats of violence coming from the MK Party.

As a sign of this ANC hegemony, past elections have often seen opposition parties promising to implement the ANC’s policies in a more efficient manner than the ruling party. This is a doctrine of “good governance” and “leadership,” which tries to steer clear of real “politics.”

So, while this election could in many senses represent a historic shift in South African history, with the ANC losing its majority, the campaign itself sees not grand alternatives but rather a mix of defensive messaging by some and outlandish xenophobic posturing and threats of violence by others. It could be added that this is hardly unique to South Africa. We might as well be talking about the upcoming British election or even this November’s US presidential election: despite the potential for historically significant results such as the annihilation of the Tory party or Donald Trump’s return to the White House, millions upon millions of people for various reasons feel largely ambivalent. Voters are struggling to find inspiration to try something new or motivation to cast their vote for the same party as in the last election.


Still, South Africa’s campaign has heated up somewhat in the final stretch. Over the last two weeks, the ANC has rolled out its big guns in a massive ground operation, while President Ramaphosa has signed bill after bill, in what reeks of a desperate last-ditch attempt to win over voters. Then there is the fact that — in an auspiciously timed development — South Africa is enjoying the longest stretch of loadshedding-free, uninterrupted electricity in years. New projects from reopened train lines to new ambulances for public hospitals are being rolled out day by day in the run-up to the election. The DA has focused on a defensive messaging around protecting the sole province it governs (the Western Cape), as the only one in the country that “works.” The DA’s strategy seems to be to rally its core base rather than make an ambitious play for ANC voters that may see more right-wing colored and white voters try out some of the old or new reactionary options on the ballot.

Two weeks ago, President Ramaphosa signed the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme into law, promising universal quality health care for all South Africa. This is a commendable ambition, but it has yet to be costed and the government is currently implementing harsh austerity on public health budgets. Then, on the Sunday night before the election, he gave a national address, using his pulpit as president to deliver a thinly veiled campaign speech claiming that “[w]hen this administration took office in 2019, our country stood at a turning point. We had endured a decade of corruption and state capture, of weak economic growth and the erosion of our public institutions. We have put that era behind us.” The ANC seems desperate to pick up whatever last-minute votes it can.

However, this campaign has been largely defined by the endless drama surrounding Zuma. Last December, Zuma announced he would not campaign for the ANC and would instead support the newly formed MK Party, once again making him a major electoral protagonist. According to polls, the MK Party may be the third-largest party in South Africa and the biggest in KwaZulu-Natal, the second most populous province. This is largely because Zuma, an avowed tribalist, enjoys substantial support among Zulus, powerful mafias, and much of the KwaZulu-Natal ANC leadership, allowing him to mobilize voters through cannibalizing party infrastructure and mobilizing voters through patronage networks.

Still, there are problems. In the last week before the election, Zuma was disqualified from sitting in parliament due to a recent criminal conviction. The MK Party has brushed over Zuma’s ineligibility by claiming it will win the two-thirds national majority necessary to change the 1996 constitution regarded by many as the most progressive in the world — a document that it claims is “colonial,” anti-African, and the reason for the continued oppression of black people. As well as promising to thereby pardon Zuma, it proposes more broadly to replace constitutional rule with “parliamentary sovereignty.” At the MK Party’s manifesto launch at a packed stadium in Soweto, Zuma declared in Zulu that “power must come back to the people.” Yet he also insisted that further powers must be granted to South Africa’s traditional leaders — feudal lords whom former president Kgalema Motlanthe correctly described as tin-pot dictators — who hold power over millions through customary law.

Members of the MK Party have also repeatedly threatened to challenge the election results with a violent insurrection if things don’t go their way. This is, indeed, a real threat given that pro-Zuma forces unleashed an insurrection that claimed the lives of 354 people and inflicted billions of dollars of economic damage when Zuma was jailed for contempt of court in July 2021. By the end of 2023, only one conviction had been secured for instigating the rioting and looting, although 65 people were arrested for offences ranging from terrorism to incitement of public violence. So far, the feared unrest has yet to materialize. Still there is good reason to be cautious, as the election results finally trickle in, about the possibilities of targeted violence and destabilization, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

There are also reasons to doubt the MK Party’s claimed level of support. Its campaign has featured endless infighting including the expulsion of the founder of the party, Jabulani Khumalo, and credible allegations that it committed fraud to register for the election. A significant majority of South Africans supported Zuma’s removal from office and oppose his and his allies’ attempts to hold the country hostage to protect him from legal repercussions for his misdeeds.

Things Can Always Get Worse

Analysts suggest several possible scenarios for the election, albeit in each case with the ANC as the largest and governing party. The first is that the ANC gets somewhere between 45 and 49 percent of the vote and can form a stable coalition with smaller parties. This would mean things more or less staying the same under a second Ramaphosa government. The second sees the ANC just scrape over the 50 percent line; and in the third and least likely scenario, the ANC gets under 45 percent and either forms a coalition with radical nationalist forces such as the EFF and MK Party or else the DA, which offers a coalition to stop “the doomsday coalition” of the EFF and Zuma. Opposition attempts to build “a moonshot coalition” to remove the ANC from power are not a serious possibility.

Given the meager options on offer, the best the Left can hope for this time round is for stability and a coalition that does not require concessions to ethnonationalist and reactionary forces to govern. But for there to be a possibility for a better South Africa, there needs to be a restoration of state capacity, economic growth, and a concerted effort to reduce the power of organized crime. A second term for Ramaphosa, in coalition with the least-worst smaller parties, is something we can live with, while building better options for the next election.