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On South Africa’s Harsh Election Choices

The ANC’s goal in Wednesday’s election will be to staunch the bleeding of its support. The ANC has reason to feel anxious. For months, the polls have been indicating the ANC will lose its overall majority for the first time since the Mandela election of 1994. The size of any ANC slippage below 50% will dictate the nature of the coalition it would then need to form.

At anything between 45-50% the ANC could probably scrape together a governing majority in coalition with one or two minor parties – although both of the contenders for that role carry problematic baggage. If the ANC’s share of the vote slips closer to 40-45%, then maybe even a “grand coalition” with the white-dominated Democratic Alliance (DA) led by John Steenhuisen could be considered by the ANC.

Both of the other minor party options – Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Jacob Zuma’s MK party – splintered off some time ago from the ANC, for a variety of policy and personal reasons. The prospect of either being in government would rattle foreign investors, but that may be the least of the ANC’s immediate concerns. Some in the ANC would prefer to make amends with former allies like Malema and Zuma than to attempt a working relationship with the DA.

The EFF’s radical agenda of land seizures, nationalisation of the economy and meaningful wealth re-distribution is popular with young voters, especially in the EFF’s stronghold of Gauteng. Gauteng comprises only 1.5% of the country’s land area but it contains 16 million people, or roughly a quarter of South Africa’s entire population. Much of the population is concentrated in the financial hub of Johannesburg, where the galling extremes of wealth and poverty are most apparent.

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On Wednesday, elections will be held nationally, but also at the local government level, within the nine provincial legislatures. Last time around in 2019, the EFF won 11 seats in Gauteng’s 73-person provincial legislature, and it is expected to do even better this time. Nationally though… partly because of the EFF’s organisational liabilities, and partly due to the polarising nature of its rhetoric, it seems unable to break through nationwide, beyond a sizeable minority.

In 2019, the EFF increased its vote from 6.3% to just under 11%. Yet despite polling right up at 18% late last year, the advent of fresh competition from Jacob Zuma’s MK has pushed the EFF back to 11% again, according to a poll taken in late April. This year is looming as a watershed election for the EFF, as well as for the ANC.

Similar problems confront the ANC in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the centre of national support for the country’s former president, Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s conviction in 2021 (for contempt of court) has disqualified him from running in this week’s election but - if anything – this martyrdom at the hands of the Establishment will boost support for the MK party. Early on, MK was recording some extraordinary polling numbers (14% to 20% in some polls!). An IPSOS poll in late April however, had it slipping back to 8.4%.

Like the EFF, MK may lack sufficient organisation on the ground to deliver the turnout to match its early poll numbers. Still, Zuma’s “maltreatment” (after nine years of rampant corruption) will help MK to cut into ANC support. Clearly. neither the fiery Malema nor the vengeful Zuma would be comfortable bedfellows for the ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa.

Zuma is 82 though, albeit with a 22-year-old wife, and a 2-year-old son. Perhaps he might be seen by the ANC as a more manageable, more transient problem to have on board than Malema would be. Still, it is worth noting that the ANC – in a bid to blunt Malema’s appeal – passed a parliamentary bill in March that would allow for land expropriation that can meet a public interest test. An indication perhaps, that the ANC cannot forever postpone taking new and meaningful steps in the way of wealth generation, and wealth redistribution.

Problems, problems

The country’s problems are well known. In 2023, South Africa had one of the most extreme levels of wealth disparity in the world, with (on World Bank figures) the poorest 40% of South Africans holding only 7% of the nation’s income. Unemployment is running at 33% on average last year, but was at nearly 40% among black South Africans, while being only 7.5% among whites. Government debt has trebled to 75% of GDP over the past 15 years, and the basic infrastructure seems to be crumbling:

Last year Eskom, the state-run power company, had to schedule a record number of blackouts because its generation fell so far short of demand. Almost 40% of piped water is lost before it reaches customers. Dysfunctional railways and locomotives mean that Transnet, the state freight firm, is unable to transport what firms want it to shift. The lost exports amounted to about 1bn rand a day over the past two years.

Violent crime is another chronic problem. By some estimates, one murder is committed every 20 minutes in South Africa, while figures indicate that over 130 women a day are victims of rape. At central and local government levels alike, corruption tends to be common, mainly because party patronage is one of the few reliable gateways to jobs, assets and wealth. Arguably, many of these problems are a by-product of the Mandela era’s postponement of the structural change required to bring about wealth re-distribution.

Currently, however, Julius Malema is the face of what that option would entail - and at this point, only a minority of South Africa’s black population are embracing it. Ironically, the plummeting voter turnout - from 86% in 1994 to 49% in 2019 – will probably help the ANC. All political parties are viewed with high levels of mistrust.

Basically, the ANC is still running on fumes from the Mandela era. As a result, it will be relying once again on its bedrock of support among older, poorer, rural voters who still harbour feelings of gratitude that the ANC – despite its faults – is still the party that delivered black South Africa from the evils of apartheid. That sentiment though isn’t much of a foundation on which to build the country’s future.

Grounds for optimism

Covid belongs to a past we’d prefer to forget and ignore, but the virus hasn’t got the message. In fact, we’re in the middle of a major surge in Covid hospitalisations, and the Public Health Coalition has called for a public campaign to encourage mask wearing, and thereby reduce the risks of infection, prevent personal harm, and limit the winter burden on public health workers.

Offhand, this track from 2020 always reminds me of lockdown – the empty, empty streets and the sense of quiet isolation, and the way the mask-wearing individual in this video still manages a state of grace, regardless. The song laments the loss (at the time, it seemed forever) of human beings being able to congregate in the likes of club basements, to dance the night away. But the song (and the simple, effortlessly beautiful video) more than compensates:

Talking of 2020 flashbacks poised to become reality once again, Cassandra Jenkins' “Hard Drive” was the track that IMO, best evoked the depressed, desperate feelings of the Trump presidential era. The various meanings of the term ‘hard drive” are the song’s currency. Like the “Bodies” track, it also conveys ( “one two three”) reasons for optimism. Such feelings being necessary here too, given the dark days that New Zealand is living through right now.

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