In 2014 South Africa held its 5th national and provincial elections. This coincided with the country’s 20-year anniversary and second decade of its democratic rule. In the run-up to the election several major factors and issues underscored the electoral.
The first important issue to be noted about this election was that this was the first time that the generation born after Mandela took office (or, ‘born frees’) will be voting, seemingly without the political baggage of the past. Much of the attention focused on what would influence and shape the voting attitudes of this cross section of the population who are often referred to as Mandela’s generation. The second and more poignant factor to emerge for this election was that it marked the first real test of President Zuma’s five years in power amid the controversies of corruption scandals, irregular procurement of state resources and four cabinet reshuffles that characterised his administration.
The third issue, while linked to the latter point, was closely related to Mandela’s legacy, which the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) sought to invoke, in what some commentators interpreted, as a sympathy or loyalty vote following the passing away of the International Statesman in December 2013. Fourth was the pragmatic question of whether opposition parties would be able to consolidate their electoral footprint in the country. The official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), had pulled out all the stops to garner significant support mainly among African voters.
For other smaller opposition parties, the critical issue was whether they could sustain their political relevance by improving their electoral support at the polls. This was definitely aligned to the final issue, which saw the emergence of two new political parties, namely Agang SA and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). While the phenomena of new parties emerging on the eve of elections is not new, the circumstances that led to the rise of these two parties had made the electoral landscape that more intriguing. Unfortunately for Agang SA, which was formed in early 2012 by MampheleRamphele, a former political activist and manager at the World Bank, the razzmatazz of its presence soon dissolved into a spiral of poor timing, internal strife, and a botched merger with the DA.
Voter apathy remained an underlying throughout the months preceding the election, especially around how the cynicism of the electorate about unfilled promises; endemic corruption; and a
complacent ruling party would impact results.
On aggregate a total of 29 political parties contested the national election with only 13 parties managing to garner enough votes to make it into the National Parliament. The challenge for the smaller political parties is to establish their relevance and identity amongst a discerning electorate, especially in view of the upcoming local government elections that will take place in 2016.
The ANC retained its position as the ruling party winning 62 per cent of the vote with the DA consolidating its status as the official position with the 22 per cent and the new kid on the block, the EFF, probably being the biggest winner with 6.6 per cent of the electoral support. Despite the ANC noting that its victory was a vindication of twenty years in power, the party’s support base was in slow decline that needs to be contextualised within the broader purview of the electoral landscape. According to Collette Schultz-Herzenburg, an analyst on party support “the proportion of eligible voters voting for the ANC decreased steadily since its peak at 54 per cent in 1994 to 35 per cent by the end of the second democratic decade. Despite its continued electoral dominance in the 2014 elections, the party has suffered significant losses over 20 years of democracy”.
So what lessons can the ANC learn from India’s national election in 2014 about dominant party systems. First, is that electorates should not be underestimated in their sophistication and understanding of who best represents their interests. While the ANC still enjoys support the numbers seem to mask a deeper issue of apathy among the party’s electoral support. Second, hanging on to historical platitudes may continue to advance a loyalty vote but economic performance is an important indicator of voter behaviour. This was definitely a strategic consideration in the Indian election. And for the ANC it should become a pulse check for the country’s weak economic growth and the impact it will have in the forthcoming local government elections to take place in 2016.
Perhaps South Africa has some time before it starts to see electoral trends like that which was witnessed in India’s 2014 election result but the landscape is definitely seeing a realignment of power structures both internal to party structures as well as in the way that the electorate has responded to what were previously perceived as traditional voting constituencies.
Clearly the lesson drawn from this election is that voters will use their vote to demonstrate their frustrations against inefficiencies, poor governance, unfilled promises, and lack of service delivery. And in time they can call the bluff of the ruling government.
Conceived by Kalyan Mukherjee,
Consulting Editor, Africa Rising
Research & Advertising by Aman Ramrakha