South Africa, Africa

Analysis: The power of electorates

By Greg Mills & Jeffrey Herbst 17 September 2015

The Tripartite Alliance’s consistently poor performance on job creation coupled with voter alienation cannot inspire confidence in its longer-term electoral prospects. The African National Congress, now increasingly distant from its heroic act of liberating South Africa from apartheid, is called upon to deliver. Today, the growth market in South African politics is apathy. By GREG MILLS and JEFFREY HERBST.

Does South Africa’s poor economic growth record, rising number of unemployed, infrastructure failures, and an inability to attract investment mean the African National Congress (ANC) is at risk of electoral defeat soon?

Certainly, there are instances in Africa where parties that seemed an indelibly part of the landscape were rather unceremoniously dumped. During the mid-1980s, the first time we visited Zambia, few could have imagined the government without Kenneth Kaunda or his United National Independence Party (Unip), in power since independence from Britain in 1964.

However, by 1991, Kaunda was gone, kicked out by his voters in the first democratic election since the declaration in 1973 of a ‘one-party participatory democracy’. Following food riots and a coup attempt in 1990, Kaunda buckled to public pressure ending Unip’s monopoly on power. The party lost the election to Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy, and was quickly marginalised. In the 2001 elections, Unip won just over 10% of the vote, and secured 13 out of 150 seats in parliament. By 2006, it had effectively been swallowed up in a coalition with the United Party for National Development.

Despite Unip’s independence credentials and Kaunda’s status as the father of the nation and patron of southern African liberation movements, both were unceremoniously kicked out by voters fed up with years of low economic growth and chronic mismanagement.

The same is true for the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), formed in 1944, which ruled the former British colony from independence in 1963. Within that decade, by 1969, Kanu had effectively become the sole political party, and in 1982 Kenya officially became a one-party state. Multiparty elections were again held in 1992, and in 2002, the party won just 29% of the vote, 64 out of 212 parliamentary seats, and the party’s candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, was defeated in the presidential contest by Mwai Kibaki, 62.2% to 31.1%, thus ending 40 years of single-party rule.

However, electoral shocks to the liberation parties is not that common in southern Africa. Frelimo still rules Mozambique, and the MPLA in Angola are now celebrating their 40th year in power. And even in Zimbabwe, where several electoral shocks have recently been delivered, Zanu-PF has clung onto power since 1980. Initially this was done through the confines of one-party rule. More recently, violence, election fiddling and outright rigging have been among Zanu’s preferred means, ensuring the facade only of Zimbabwe’s democracy.

Of course, Kenya and Zambia received independence more than a decade before Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. It may therefore be that they are simply ahead of the curve of disillusionment that eventually affects all regimes that run relatively free and fair elections. However, it is also the case that the three southern Africa countries fought long wars of liberation that tied the ruling elite to the military and to the civilian population in a way that was much more powerful than in Kenya and Zambia.

Authority is not only a function of the presence of authoritarianism of course. The power of leadership also reflects the legitimacy accorded through elections, personal charisma, and the links, if any, to traditional ruling classes.

Decline in the power of liberation movements may in some cases be related to the disappearance of the liberation icons, such as Jomo Kenyatta. Equally, however, Tanzania’s CCM survived Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s death; as the ANC has, so far, Nelson Mandela’s demise and Mozambique and Angola the loss of their charismatic initial leaders.

Elsewhere, in Southeast Asia, peaceful leadership change among the first generation of liberators has relied less on democratic processes than on public tolerance of individuals. For example, Sukarno was removed from power in Indonesia in 1965 when his mismanagement plunged the country in debt and four-figure inflation. Enter General Suharto – Bapak Bembangunan (Father of Development) to Sukarno’s Bung Karno (buddy).

Despite the cultism and his relatively stellar development record, Suharto left 31 years later when public support waned. Contrary to the belief that an authoritarian state is required for development, Indonesians were willing to accept that regime only when it delivered growth. When Suharto’s excesses outweighed his successes and the nepotism proved too great a burden to bear, the old system of ‘guided democracy’ gave way to parliamentary democracy.

Certainly, there is cause for the ANC to worry. The Tripartite Alliance’s consistently poor performance on job creation coupled with voter alienation cannot inspire confidence in its longer-term electoral prospects. The ANC, now increasingly distant from its heroic act of liberating South Africa from apartheid, is called upon to deliver. The growth market in South African politics is apathy. At least 31.4-million South Africans were eligible to vote in the 2014 election. Of this number, 25.3-million registered but just 18.6-million voted, fewer than did so in 1994, despite considerable population growth. Some 11.4-million voted for the ANC, representing 43% of 25-million voters but only about one-third of those who could have voted. In 2009, the ANC majority represented 50% of registered voters, in 2004, 53%, and in 1999, 58%. Further indicating the alienation of the youth, in the 2014 election, the Independent Electoral Commission revealed that only 23% of voters aged 18 or 19 were even registered and only 55% of those between 20 and 29.

There are now a remarkable number of South Africans, many without a job, who are ‘up for grabs’ in the political marketplace. The ANC’s immediate challenge is that they will lose the unemployed to alienation and will continue to win, albeit with reduced margins, at the ballot box. Sooner or later, those who are economically disenfranchised will find someone else to vote for.

In response, however, the ANC has so far turned inwards, concerned with internal politicking and manoeuvre. The party’s own report cards say it has failed to deliver on promised targets for health, energy, water, education and infrastructure, among other sectors; that it has ‘messed up’.

The ANC’s current trajectory suggests that it will continue to utilise the stock of political capital created by the struggle years and Mandela’s presidency. Without a more powerful opposition, it does not face an immediate threat to its continued hold on power. However, when that opposition does emerge, and it may occur on a schedule faster than many expect, the ANC may be unable to adjust and come to be viewed as having feet of clay because it failed to mobilise new support for so long. At that point, the next phase in South Africa’s evolution as a democracy will begin. DM

Dr Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation; Dr Herbst is the CEO of the Newseum in Washington DC. They are the authors recently of ‘How South Africa Works – and Must Do Better‘ (Pan Macmillan).

Photo of president Jacob Zuma by Greg Nicolson.

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