clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

South Africa’s election was a test for Nelson Mandela’s party. It’s now poised to win.

The ruling ANC party was beleaguered by corruption. Twenty-five years after the fall of apartheid, the party is set to win — but likely with less support.

President Cyril Ramaphosa of the African National Congress votes at a primary school in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, on May 8, 2019.
Ben Curtis/AP
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

South Africans voted Wednesday in the country’s sixth national election since the formation of its democratic government 25 years ago.

This election was seen as a test for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his party, the African National Congress (ANC), which has led South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Ramaphosa and the ANC were expected to prevail, and early results, which started trickling in Thursday, suggest they will do so — but likely with a reduced majority.

Ramaphosa came to power in February 2018, after the scandal-plagued President Jacob Zuma was forced to resign. Ramaphosa promised to clean up the corruption that had diminished the ANC under Zuma’s leadership, calling his tenure the start of a “new dawn.”

Ramaphosa has taken some steps to crack down on corruption — including establishing a special tribunal to speed up efforts to recover state funds lost to graft — but voters’ enthusiasm, or “Ramaphoria,” seems to have waned a bit over the past year.

That’s partly because the corruption in South African’s government seems so entrenched, and some of the politicians who have been accused of corruption are still part of the ANC. South Africa’s economy also faces serious economic challenges, and some voters have been critical of the pace of change under ANC leadership. South Africa’s unemployment rate is currently 27 percent, and the country stands as one of the world’s most unequal countries. That inequality falls starkly along racial lines, with white South Africans, who make up less than a tenth of the population, still controlling most of the country’s wealth.

Twenty-five years after the fall of apartheid, South Africans are “looking realistically at the constraints” on their democracy, Douglas Foster, associate professor at Northwestern University who’s written a book about post-apartheid South Africa, told me on Wednesday.

This has spurred a reckoning for both the ANC and South Africa in this election, as voters question whether the party has fallen short on its promise to make the country more egalitarian. This is especially true, experts say, among younger generations who grew up in a democratic South Africa and are seen as more disillusioned with the pace of change.

“This time around people are a little bit subdued,” Kealeboga Maphunye, chair of the department of political sciences at the University of South Africa, said about the election on Wednesday. “The older generation is not as euphoric as they were in 1994, but they are generally happy: ‘Look, we’re still being able to cast our votes.’”

But for younger voters, the elections have taken on a different tenor. “Some of them stand in those queues,” Maphunye said, “with a sense of maybe loss of hope.”

Corruption, inequality, and a generational divide are major issues in this election

South Africa’s 2019 election shaped up to be a referendum on the current president’s promise to clean up the government, his party, and deliver a “new dawn” for the country.

Ramaphosa, who himself remains fairly popular, campaigned on this anti-corruption message that he first embraced when he took office in 2018. But some of his efforts to root out graft within his party have been stymied by some of the top officials within the ANC who are less enthusiastic about his reforms.

The optics for the ANC are also not great. A slew of ANC members who have been accused of corruption remained candidates in 2019, though an integrity commission recommended some be removed. South Africa has a system of proportional representation, so voters elect the party, not individual candidates. The share of votes the party wins determines the number of people who serve in the National Assembly, and they’re ranked in order on a list.

The inclusion of those tainted candidates could present a problem for Ramaphosa, Herman Wasserman, a media studies professor at the University of Cape Town, told me Wednesday. The question is whether “whether they will still give him a chance, whether they will still believe he will root out corruption in the party.”

That whiff of corruption meant the ANC entered the elections as the “limping party,” as Maphunye, chair of the department of political sciences at the University of South Africa, told me on Wednesday.

But some of it goes beyond the corruption issue. The ANC has been in power for 25 years, and voters will need to decide whether they believe the party is failing to fight inequality and reform the economy.

Inequality has lessened in some ways since apartheid, South Africa’s institutionalized system of racial discrimination and segregation lasting from the late 1940s to 1994. A democratic government replaced apartheid rule in 1994, giving everyone the right to vote. But economic inequality has been a much more intractable problem. Conditions have improved since 1994, and the black middle class has expanded. But whites are still disproportionately represented in the higher economic classes. The gap between rich and poor is widening, and all this has created, as Vox previously put it, “de facto segregation in politics, neighborhoods, schools.”

Maphunye said the younger generation, or the “born frees,” who grew up after apartheid ended in 1994, are more likely to vote “with a sense of caution and concern,” not quite shared by the older generation, who lived through the struggle for liberation and are deeply connected to the ANC. These younger voters, Maphunye said, “they are not so optimistic that the future looks bright, that the ANC will deliver the goods.”

This is where the opposition parties come in — particularly the Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF, which embraced a far-left platform of state control of the economy and revolutionary rhetoric. Their leader, Julius Malema, goes by the title “commander-in-chief,” and he and his supporters wear a uniform of red.

Anti-Zuma Protests in South Africa
Economic Freedom Fighters and other activists protest former president Jacob Zuma in April 2017.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The EFF capitalized on some of the disillusionment around the ANC, especially among this younger generation who can “now can vote and feel disgruntled or disillusioned with the party of their parents — the ANC — the party of liberation that has not delivered enough democratic dividends for them,” Wasserman said.

The EFF was expected to gain seats in South Africa’s Parliament, though it appears some predictions of a surge were overblown. As of Thursday, with more than 50 percent of the vote counted, the EFF had won about 9 percent of the vote, coming in third. Still, its rise has challenged the ANC from the left, most notably on the thorny issue of land reform in South Africa.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is a centrist/center-right party, made big gains in local elections in 2016 under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane, the party’s first black leader who took charge in 2015. But the DA still has an image of mostly attracting liberal white voters, experts told me, which was likely to limit its success. With more than 50 percent of the vote counted, the DA remains in second place with about 22 percent of the vote, potentially making marginal gains.

The ANC will win. But this might be its worst performance since 1994.

The ANC now has won just shy of 57 percent of the vote, with more than half the votes counted across South Africa. Official results won’t be announced until Saturday, but these early numbers suggest the ANC might end up shy of the 60 percent it’s won in every election since 1994.

It’s a victory, but it may still hamper Ramaphosa and the ANC, as he may lack a strong mandate to tackle corruption and instigate those economic reforms he’s promised. “He’s got to maintain leverage in order to get anything done,” Foster, the professor and journalist, told me.

Turnout was also likely a factor in this election. According to the IEC, South Africa’s electoral commission, early turnout figures are at about 65 percent, down from 73 percent in the last national election in 2014.

Inclement weather may have impacted turnout in some areas, and the IEC said it would conduct an audit for certain polling stations because of reports of duplicate voting. But for the most part, the vote was uneventful, a sign of the strength for South African democracy.

The test for Ramaphosa and the ANC now will be whether they can overcome the current challenges that the party, and South Africa, faces during a likely five-year term.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.