Freedom News

South African elections: Long road to nowhere?

Record-low turnout shows loss of faith in the ANC party-state, but popular power has yet to fill the gap

South Africa held its national and provincial elections on 29 May, amidst the 30th anniversary of the end of Apartheid. Contrary to the impression given in the international media, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) once again did get the most votes, and will lead the seventh post-apartheid government. At just over 40 percent, it is far larger than the next four big parties: the Democratic Alliance (22%), MKP (15%), the Economic Freedom Fighters (9.5%) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (3.8%). But for the first time, the ANC cannot go it alone and will need to form a coalition.

The ANC is in a Tripartite Alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). To a large extent the competition between the ANC and its EFF and MKP splinters is a replay of factional battles that previously took place out of the public eye, within the ANC. Any coalition government will continue these battles in a new forum.

The first thing to explain is not why the ANC has declined, but why it has survived. The obvious part of the answer is that the party is identified with the transition to a new South Africa, a (relatively) peaceful political revolution and profound cultural and social shift, driven above all by ordinary working-class and poor people. Under the ANC, there was a massive expansion of housing; household electrification; a desegregation, expansion, and partial equalisation of education, health and other services; a substantial breakdown in the old rigid divisions of labour and power; and unprecedented, sweeping legal and policy reforms to entrench equal rights.

But in terms of wealth and power, what the ANC relies on is its fusion with the state. The party operates extensive patronage networks, especially through state contracts and the appointment of loyalists to key posts in state-owned enterprises (“cadre deployment”). The state is the largest single employer, income-earner and landowner, and many state corporations are gigantic – national electricity provider ESKOM is the fourth largest profit-making company in Africa. A major reason why the ANC party-state became so crucial to the growing black elite is that the private sector is dominated by large corporations, either foreign or owned by local white capitalists: access is very limited.

Breakaways and disillusioned voters

Several factors contribute to the ANC’s declining support. The emergence of splinter groups like the EFF in 2013 and MKP in 2023 has eroded its voter base. The EFF, led by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, relied heavily on mocking and denouncing the ANC, including Nelson Mandela and former president Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s MKP was very different, winning over many ANC voters and blatantly using its symbols. The DA, in contrast, draws support primarily from the Coloured, Indian, and white minorities.

However, the ANC’s decline predates these breakaways. Its vote share had been decreasing since 2009 when it secured nearly 70 percent. Nor do the EFF and MKP’s gains fully account for the ANC’s losses, with the MKP drawing mainly on the Zulu regional vote.

A significant issue is the steep decline in voter turnout. In 2024, only 16,3 out of 42 million eligible voters participated (39%), indicating widespread political disengagement. Many South Africans distrust elections and political parties, viewing them as instruments serving the powerful and wealthy. This disillusionment is reflected in the shrinking voter base for all parties, making them increasingly unrepresentative of popular opinion.

Generally, people are not switching parties but switching off. Surveys indicate that many people, distrust politicians and government: as early as 2012, according to an HSRC survey, only half trusted national government, and only a third, local government, i.e., municipalities.

Factionalism and competition

So, what is going on? Here we need to return to the ANC party-state, where competition for key party and government positions intensified sharply. It is true that the ANC-based state elite works with the private sector elite, and indeed, facilitates some of the most extractive forms of profiteering imaginable. However, the cumulative effect of patronage, cadre deployment, and corruption, especially in state contracts, has been to throttle basic state operations. Meanwhile, factionalism, competing agendas and a lack of coordination in the state make it extremely difficult for the ANC to act coherently or carry out long-term plans.

This has created a factional war between accumulators seeking to grab state resources, and reformers trying to make the ANC more inclusive. 

South Africa remains the world’s most unequal nation. Photo: Unicorn Riot

Accumulators were central to Zuma’s dominant faction between 2007-2018, with the leftist rhetoric of Radical Economic Transformation (RET) masking unprecedented levels of looting. A small circle of politicians and capitalists built a criminal “shadow state” that channelled billions into private bank accounts. From the mid-2010s, ANC reformers around billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa centred their faction on independently wealthy people and ANC technocrats. In 2018 the reformers prevailed, including criminal trials for corruption, but they could not uproot the RET faction, resulting in the MKP and influencing parts of the EFF.

The post-Zuma ANC government under the Ramaphosa reformer faction has made strides in fixing Zuma’s mess – often partnering with big business and unions – but the problems are huge, and the capacity of the state very limited. No matter what party or faction wields the levers of state power, it must operate through the state the ANC has shaped, with its incoherence, weak implementation, corruption, and patronage.

Popular alienation and the left

It is here that the ANC’s power counts against it. Ordinary people, who experience the state as uncaring and corrupt, know full well that the ANC is in power. Most working-class protests are not against private businesses, but against the state, which in most cases means against ANC-run services or municipalities, ESKOM.  

There is not simply a disillusion with the ANC, but a more widespread disillusion in elections, parties, and the status quo – but it feeds into a larger social fragmentation, consumerism, liberal individualism, polarisation, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, crime and gangsterism. However, the loss of faith in elections has not translated into substantial support for an alternative left project, or a widespread working-class movement for change.

The root of the problem is that the ANC is itself part of the larger left milieu. As in many African countries, the left is identified by many people with a corrupt, disappointing left-leaning government. Indeed, most on the left, including the independent left, still consider parties like the ANC, EFF or MKP to be “progressive” or even anti-capitalist, and as always preferable to the “bourgeois,” “conservative,” or “liberal” DA and its splinters like ActionSA. When the cards are down, they still line up beyond the ANC and/ or its splinters as the supposed lesser evils.  

Most South Africans, however, do not. They often understand, intuitively and from experience, that political parties and governments serve the powerful and wealthy. They do not care about winning state power through parties. The space remains open for oppositional movements in the sphere of independent self-organisation, including alternatives to failing state services, and popular and workers’ education.

~ Lucien van der Walt

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