Argument

South Africa’s ANC Can’t Take Black Voters for Granted Anymore

The African National Congress won again in South Africa, but a new generation identifies the party more with corruption than liberation and is seeking solutions through protests and lawsuits rather than at the ballot box.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema addresses the crowd during the final EFF presidential election campaign rally at Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg, on May 5.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema addresses the crowd during the final EFF presidential election campaign rally at Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg, on May 5. MICHELE SPATARI/AFP/Getty Images

Cyril Ramaphosa and the governing African National Congress (ANC) handily won South Africa’s national election on May 8, its sixth since the transition to democracy in 1994, securing 57 percent of the vote. Although the campaign was often divisive, in the end Nelson Mandela’s party managed to rally behind Ramaphosa, who faced stiff opposition from key figures within the ANC. 

In many ways, the ANC was running against itself. The official opposition—the center-right Democratic Alliance—came in a distant second with 21 percent of the vote, slightly less than its 2014 total. The left-wing populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which has garnered significant media attention inside and outside the country and has helped to redefine the policy terrain by introducing a more robust approach to politics, made a strong showing with almost 11 percent of the vote. The party’s representatives in Parliament typically dress in red, with the women in the distinctive headscarves and pinafores worn by domestic workers in homes across the country and the men in miner’s hard hats and overalls. On the streets, EFF supporters often sport red berets. 

The EFF’s leader, Julius Malema, is the enfant terrible of South African politics. His calls for the expropriation of land without compensation have shaken many in the business sector, even as they have made him wildly popular among a generation of South Africans who are impatient with the slow pace of change and cynical about the economic concessions made by the first generation of ANC leaders. Malema has disrupted the narrative that all is forgiven. Instead, he walks a fine line between charm and fear—often, in the very same speech. At a rally in 2016, Malema said, “They found peaceful Africans here. They killed them. They slaughtered them like animals. We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now. What we are calling for is the peaceful occupation of the land, and we don’t owe anyone an apology for that.” In a sign of how divided South Africa has become, the comment seemed to offend and delight in equal measure. 

Malema and his EFF were the biggest winners in the contest, although there was a surprising surge for the Freedom Front Plus—a right-wing white supremacist organization that earned widescale scorn within the country last year when one of its leaders thanked U.S. President Donald Trump and Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson for bringing attention to false and incendiary claims about a so-called “white genocide” happening in the country. 

The FF+ was established in 1994 and ran on a single issue: the creation of a separatist white state. As other parties were focused on creating a new multiracial democracy, the FF+ leaders sought to ringfence the status of white Afrikaners after the end of the apartheid state that they had created. They were wildly unsuccessful, garnering just over 2 percent of the vote in 1994. Five years later, the party’s fortunes declined further, with support dropping to less than 1 percent, where it stayed for 20 years. This year, however, the FF+ managed a surprising comeback, securing almost 2.5 percent of the vote. While it continues to represent only a small number of people, it now has five seats in the national parliament. Its growth speaks to the number of white people who no longer feel the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, represents them. The opposition party has attracted more middle-class urban black voters, and, in the process, it has shed those voters attracted to an overtly white nationalist agenda. 

The biggest story of this year’s election was the number of eligible voters who simply refused to participate. Black people’s right to vote was a hard-won battle and involved decades of struggle during which many lives were lost. In 1994, the world watched as millions of South Africans stood in the sun in lines that snaked around schools and libraries in order to cast their first votes. On May 8, there were none of the jubilant scenes that marked the first election, in which Mandela came to power. 

There was no voter roll available in 1994 because black people had never been allowed to vote before, so voter turnout could not be credibly calculated. Still, those scenes made it clear that most of those who could take part did. In 1999, the country had a system in place, and voter turnout stood at almost 90 percent. In last week’s election, voter turnout dropped dramatically to a low of 66 percent—a number more on par with the United States. 

The shift has been rapid. A new generation of citizens—many of them born after 1994’s historic elections—are not as emotionally attached to the idea of voting as their parents and grandparents are. For South Africans who grew up under apartheid and were politically disenfranchised until 1994, there is a strong sentimental attachment not just to voting but to the ANC, which is the party that to a large extent made that vote possible. Younger South Africans, on the other hand, see the ANC as a party of corruptors, rather than one of liberators. 

Only 75 percent of those eligible to vote registered, which means more than 9 million people who could have registered opted not to. Then, on election day, participation was at its lowest levels in the country’s democratic history, with just over two-thirds of the electorate voting. This represents a 7.5 percent drop since the last elections in 2014. 

It would be a mistake to chalk this up only to voter apathy. Apathy indicates a lack of interest. In other words, alienation from the electoral process is not the same as alienation from wider participation in democracy. In a country where disenchantment often translates into direct action, this distinction matters. 

Certainly, if South Africans were apathetic, they wouldn’t be regularly taking to the streets. Yet levels of protest in South Africa in general are very high. Between 1997 and 2013, it is estimated that almost 68,000 protests took place. These protests were largely centered on poor wages, labor disputes, poor service delivery, and the lack of public transport, which remains a stark legacy of apartheid spatial planning.

A few years ago, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, a university-based think tank in Johannesburg, published a widely praised study a few years ago, in which it analyzed how protests unfolded and then were dealt with over the span of several years—beginning in 2008. Coining the phrase “insurgent citizenship,” the group noted that protests in many parts of the country often begin with mass meetings and marches and then escalate when citizen demands are ignored. When public representatives fail to show up at an agreed-on time, or renege on agreements they have made, these democratic expressions often devolve into chaos—and sometimes violence. 

In a system in which politicians often don’t listen, it makes sense that citizens would learn to circumvent routine channels in order to get attention and have their problems resolved. This provides a perverse incentive. Communities use more and more extreme forms of action to get results, and when they are successful, they have less reason to invest in more peaceful actions in the future. In this sense, low voter turnout is part of a wider trend in which citizens have learned to invest in other ways of being heard—not all of which are healthy. 

Another example of high-impact protest relates to higher education. A year after the 2014 national elections, university students united under the banner of #FeesMustFall, demanding tuition-free universities and bringing the country to a standstill. They forced the ANC government to commit significant resources to higher education and were able to shift the national policy agenda without lobbying politicians or making education an election issue. 

In addition to protesting on the streets, South Africans have also leaned heavily on the country’s exceptionally broad and progressive constitution and on the judiciary as the interpreter of that constitution. As the University of New South Wales law professor Theunis Roux has pointed out, South Africa’s democracy has been “[d]enied the sunlight of regularly rotating governments.” As a result, he argues, it has “developed certain well-known pathologies.” 

To counter the corruption and cronyism that have been the governing party’s primary pathologies, a range of public-interest organizations have petitioned the Constitutional Court on issues including whether or not the ruling party was obliged to censure then-President Jacob Zuma for failing to abide by recommendations that he repay the state for unauthorized spending on his mansion and whether spontaneous gatherings of people had to apply for permission to protest.

The court’s justices have been wary of being accused of overreach. Still, the use of the judiciary in more activist ways than are typically seen in democracies where there is a regular change in government indicates that South Africans understand the need to defend and protect their democracy at all times. With this in mind, low voter turnout need not be seen as a disaster. The disenchantment that drives it, however, should concern the ANC’s leaders and all politicians in the country. 

Ramaphosa and the ANC will be congratulating themselves on their victory last week. When they begin their new term of office, however, they will most certainly be faced with the sorts of protests that have become part of daily life in South Africa. Those who didn’t have their say at the ballot box will continue their minor rebellions. South Africans know their rights. In the past 25 years, they have learned that while the right to vote is key, the right to protest may be more tactically important. 

Sisonke Msimang is a fellow at the University of the Witswatersrand Institute for Social and Economic Research and the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela. Twitter: @Sisonkemsimang

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