Most pre-election analyses and commentary surmised that the 2019 South African General Elections would be the most seriously contested since the dawn of democracy-watershed- being the often used term. The general view was that electoral politics were going to experience dramatic changes.
Changes did occur, especially in the performance of major political parties. But to what extent did this ‘breaking point’ scenario play itself out? This article argues that, on the contrary, the changes were largely superficial as the essence of South Africa’s procedural democracy remains static as the seismic shift expected did not occur. It does so by analyzing the performance of political parties, taking into consideration voters’ role and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
The Political Parties
A popular interpretation of the African National Congresses’ (ANC) showing, indicates the beginning of its loss of dominance. However, this deduction is overstated and contestable because despite the party’s waning strength it is still strong relative to the opposition.
For instance, since 1994 , the official position, both the now defunct National Party (NP) and its successor the Democratic Alliance ( DA) , has ever registered half of the ANC’s power at each successive election: which if it were the case, it could be argued they posed a credible threat to the ANC. The 2019 elections affirmed this position with the DA coming in at 20.77% to the ANC’s 57.50%.
Moreover, the ANC retained power in 8 of the 9 provinces, albeit with reduced margins in each. In two provinces, the support is still huge at over 70% (Limpopo – 75.49 and Mpumalanga- 70.5). It managed impressive results in the Eastern Cape (68.74%); North West (61.87%) and Free State (61.14%).
Where it faced some challenges was in the Northern Cape (57.54); KwaZulu Natal (54.22%) and most significantly in the economic hub of the country Gauteng, where it just managed to hang on to power with just (50.19%).
Nationally, the DA won 20.77 % losing 1.46 % from the 2014 elections. In the Western Cape, the province it has led since 2009, its strength was reduced to 55.45% from 59.38%: raising a possible trend that the official opposition is in trouble.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was the most successful party increasing its national strength from 6.35% to 10.79%. This is an impressive sign of a growing party but which is still far from seriously challenging for power. This is because, first, the EFF missed its pre-election target of doubling its national support. Second, its main focus is on capturing the youth vote. But the party faces a serious challenges in this regard- despite having shown inroads into gaining support from the youth from 2014 when it first contested elections- as contemporary electoral trends indicate that the youth are largely detached from electoral processes.
The performance of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Freedom Front Plus (FF+) initially appears significant. The IFP increased its 2014 strength of 2.4% to 3.38%. The FF+ more than doubled its 2014 performance from 0.9 % to 2.38%. However, close scrutiny of these results presents a different picture in the context of the extent of the parties successes when taking a broader picture of their electoral performance over time.
The IFP is around a third of its former strength of 10.54 % of the national support it acquired in 1994. Similarly, the FF+ just managed to fall short of reaching the level of electoral votes it had in 1994 (424 555.00) compared to 2019 (414 869.00).
They rest of the parties confirmed the recurrent trend of electoral politics in South Africa. That is, the preponderance of very weak parties that manage to access the National Assembly (NA) with less than 1% of the vote due to the country’s generous Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system.
In 2019 they are the African Christian Democratic Party [ACDP], United Democratic Movement, [UDM], African Transformation Movement, [ATM] Good, National Freedom Party, [NFP] African Independent Congress [AIC], Congress of the People [Cope], the Pan Africanist Congress [PAC] and Al Jamal-ah.
Of note is that some have even regressed badly from the 2014 elections in losing more than half of their strength (Cope from .67%- .27%; the UDM from 1%- .45% and the NFP from 1.57% – .35%); whilst others have failed to return to parliament [AgangSA and the African Peoples Convention [APC]. The new ones (ATM, Good – Al Jamah) are also weak as they also have less than 1% support. What is ominous about this trend is that these parties constitute a staggering 64% of the parties represented in the NA and yet they are so patently weak.
The nature of South African voter’s behavior has not changed drastically. For example, party allegiance is still strong. For instance, the ANC’s national loss of 4% has not been dramatic and quite significantly has not substantially benefited other parties. Thus it maintains its core support. This vindicates the view that it’s disgruntled voters/ supporters, rather than shifting their allegiance to other parties, stay away from the polls.
The number of those who did not register is very high at 10 million voters- more than the combined strength of all the 13 opposition parties represented in the NA. The voter turnout, although it remains high (65.9%) has continued the downward trend in every election since 1994 save in 2009.
The organization admitted this as the most challenging election since 1994, no less because of the high number of parties that registered to participate with 48 at the national level up from 28 in 2014. It also faced the usual logistical and operational problems such as voting stations not opening on time, shortages of material etc.
Most serious was some small opposition party’s complaints of vote rigging and irregularities. However, no major court case was lodged to fundamentally challenge the election results- compared for example- to the aftermath of the Zimbabwean election of 2018 when the major losing party the MDC –T launched a protracted court case challenging the outcome.
In sum, the 2019 elections indicate that the electoral landscape remains fairly constant. The ANC is still dominant albeit with a reduced majority; the opposition is still very weak with flashes of increases in support- but still marginal- by the EFF, IFP and FF+. South African voters still display traits that have been evident since 1994 such as intense party affiliation and increasing disinterest in elections , whilst the IEC, which despite its challenges still manages to deliver credible electoral outcomes.
Hence, the 2019 elections have not demonstrated a dramatic erosion nor the strengthening of democracy but largely affirmed the nature of the country’s contemporary democratic trajectory: a stable procedural democracy that however is still characteristic of a one dominant party system with very weak opposition.
Dr Thabisi Hoeane is a Senior Lecturer and Subject Leader of International Politics at the Department of Political Sciences, University of South Africa.