Clear Signals from Election 2019

SOUTH AFRICA - Cape Town - 8 May 2019 - Ballot boxes at Kalkfontein Primary School voting station in Kuilsriver as South Africans head to the polls today to vote in the country's sixth national elections. Pictures: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

South Africa’s sixth national election holds within it the most significant signal yet from its voters. Following years of economic decline amidst increasing levels of corruption and governance issues, the electorate have sent a clear message to the ANC that whilst still largely supportive – at a 57% majority, their patience is wearing thin.

Indeed, both major incumbent political parties, the ANC and the opposition DA lost ground – again a reflection not only of frustration with the internal dynamics of the political organisations themselves but reflecting the tougher macro-economic and social conditions that has seen GDP decline, unemployment remain stubbornly high and poverty levels creep upwards.

The disillusionment with those in power therefore reflected quite directly the broader frustrations felt by ordinary South Africans and was amplified by the lowest turnout yet for a South African election at only 66% of registered voters.

For the ANC, this election was always going to be tough. Amidst serious and on-going allegations of graft and corruption, the party did manage to turnaround its fortunes over its dismal 2016 local government poll results.

For Cyril Ramaphosa, this will provide him with some level of encouragement that his mandate – now finally secured – is a sign to begin a process of critically needed reform both from within the economic policy arena and also from an internal party perspective.

But, at 57%, Ramaphosa now has little cushion of comfort. Gone are the days of 60%-plus majorities. The ANC barely managed to keep control of the economic powerhouse province of Gauteng and it saw dramatic voter erosion in KwaZulu-Natal amongst other provinces.

Critically, Ramaphosa now has to deliver – and deliver quickly or the ANC will begin to feel even more vulnerable come the 2021 local government elections and the next national ballot 3 years thereafter.

Voters have clearly given a conditional mandate to Ramaphosa. There is no more blind loyalty. The dramatic rise of the EFF across all provinces will be felt by the ANC at every level. And for Ramaphosa, his central challenge will be to manage his own party and the policy framework going forward as Julius Malema’s even louder voice will lobby further for more populist policy interventions in direct contrast to more market-friendly options perhaps favoured by the
Ramaphosa faction within the ANC.

South African politics in recent years has become more racially focussed. Induced by the EFF and followed – to some degree – by elements in the ANC, varying degrees of populism has unnerved minority groups.

Malema’s strident quasi-nationalism has found a fertile ground amongst a sector of the black youth – and its polarising outcomes created an opportunity for the Freedom Front Plus to gain votes on a ticket that was seen by more conservative, largely Afrikaans-speaking White voters as a greater protector of their rights.

This is precisely where the DA lost ground as the party failed to appease the concerns of its more tense White supporters whilst at the same time attempting to increase its footprint amongst the black majority. In failing to straddle this complex divide, the party ended up satisfying neither group and lost support for the first time since 1994.

The DA will certainly be relieved that it still managed a relatively comfortable 55% win in the Western Cape and whilst its national vote is down, the party managed to recapture some support from what has been a very rocky period given the Patricia De Lille saga amongst other leadership spats over the last 18 months.

From an Opposition standpoint, the clear winner was Julius Malema. This was an impressive national showing at all levels. But what characterises the EFF gains was that it was a party out of any aspect of government. Both the ANC and DA could be blamed – at varying levels – for the inability to deliver adequately but for the EFF – with no accountability in actual governance, it was easier for them to up-the-ante against the incumbent parties.

As the party moves towards having to take responsibility in both local and possibly provincial governments, it too will face an increasingly critical and cynical electorate looking for real answer.

Finally – and despite the views to the contrary by ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule, this is an election that reflects the message of hope from Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa won this election for the ANC and without him, those ANC losses of 5% might’ve been alarmingly larger.

But, the pressure is on the President-elect. Not just from within his own party, but from the electorate at large. In five years’ time, Ramaphosa’s promises will be judged by an electorate with heightened expectations. Ramaphosa will need to regain the centrist ground within his organisation to restore domestic and global confidence. If he is unable to do this, South Africa’s ‘New Dawn’ will be even more polarised next time around.

Daniel Silke is a political-economy analyst, author and keynote speaker. He can be found on Twitter (@DanielSilke) and his website is Silke is Director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is based in Cape Town.