South Africa

Writing the 2019 Election

It was all rather underwhelming, but revealing nonetheless

All things considered, the election was underwhelming and taught us that South Africans are, to a large extent, terribly boring and predictable. The ANC and DA have, between them, secured at least 75% of the vote, over and again over the past 15 years, with very few people showing an appetite for revolutionaries and reactionaries.

It’s all over bar the shouting. That starts when Parliament resumes. All things considered, the 8 May 2019 election was by and large underwhelming. One should not be too smug about this, but the ruling ANC (and its liberal opposition, the Democratic Alliance) were always going to get the bulk of the votes. What has been revealing is the lack of appeal of populism and rejection for the austere ideological leftism that marked 20th century ideologies — of the revolutionaries and reactionaries, actually.

It would be a step too far to imagine copper-bottomed South African leftists — of which the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) is the cynosure — abandoning their nostalgia for the glory days of last century’s ideological tides that swept communists to power from Chile north-eastwards to Cambodia. We can pick at this a little further, below.

The electorate, it seems, has settled for a very broad middle ground. To the extent that they can be lumped together, the ANC and the liberal DA secured 78.3% of the vote, and make up a broad middle ground — flanked as they are by the EFF on the left (with 10.79% of the vote) and the Freedom Front Plus on the right (2.38%).

It should be said that there are times when it is difficult to confidently secure the EFF on the left of a traditional (linear) ideological spectrum. Before we get to the rejection that the left experienced in the poll, the claim that the election was underwhelming may need some explaining.

Apart from the numbers, it was easy to call the election

Very many of things that emerged on the day of the election and during the days immediately thereafter were flagged from October 2018 in this space.

This is not a matter of post-hoc reasoning. It is simply to make the point that there were relatively few surprises that came from the poll. Collectively, the ANC, DA and the EFF were always going to get at least 70% of the vote. It did not take any smarty-pants modelling to reach that conclusion. Also in this space, in December 2018, it was suggested that “less than half of the parties contesting the election (would actually) make it to Parliament, and that “some of the small parties (may) fall out of the system completely”. Of the 48 parties that entered the race, only 14 will be represented in the national legislature.

Among the rowdy newcomers, the Black First Land First (BLF) entity, the Capitalist Party of South Africa and the African Content Movement (or the socialist revolutionaries) could not get enough votes for a single seat in Parliament. More people believe that their religious affiliations are more important than being “black first”, or capitalist, or revolutionary socialists, or that they had cloudy enough judgment to elect the African Content Movement. The Al-Jama-ah (Muslim) and the African Christian Democratic Party will get one and four seats respectively.

Inevitably, once they were shaken out of the race, small parties, claimed – probably correctly, but no less predictably — that lack of funds contributed to their losses. We raised this issue in early April, but it does not take any genius or fancy modelling to work that one out either. The conspiracy train ran on time. The BLF explained that white monopoly capital had captured the election to ensure that, well, white monopoly capitalism controlled the next Parliament. This, too, we saw coming. But let’s say goodbye to our little friends, eh.

With Jacob Zuma away from the control panel, and with the cookie jar almost empty — and about to be closed, anyway — it was perhaps inevitable that the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) would be back, so to speak. In 2014, the IFP got 2.4% of the vote, which translated into 10 seats in Parliament. In the 2019 poll the IFP got 3.38% and 14 seats in Parliament. This, too, was probably inevitable. In January we alluded to an IFP return. Our curiosity was always piqued by the mysterious “disappearance” of the IFP after 2007, and suggested, in April 2015, that it may be because Zuma had brought many of the ANC’s detractors in KwaZulu-Natal into the fold.

What, then, did we learn from the poll?

Of the many outcomes, with the re-election of the ANC giving us the greatest insight into “the mind” of the electorate, the rejection of the left stands out. Now, the EFF might consider itself leftist, and it may have “leftist” ideas in the sense that it speaks for marginalised people and has pretty austere nationalist economics that influence its ideas, it has also reflected quite right-wing tendencies — not unlike the worst populists and dictators of the past century.

That it got just under 11% of the vote suggests that the 1,881,389 people who voted for the EFF either don’t know enough about the dangers of populism, about the politics of revenge, or are they are perfectly comfortable and happy to continue the EFF’s signature vituperation, scapegoating and threats of violence.

In this space we set out, in October 2018, with the observation that “a healthy democracy functions at best when an electorate is knowledgeable, when citizens can make decisions based on the best, and most complete information that is available”. We know, from the Report of the Moerane Commission of Inquiry into the Underlying Causes of the Murder of Politicians in KwaZulu-Natal that political killings continue to plague the province. When the report was released in September 2018, the Moerane Commission said political parties had to take responsibility for the violent competition between their members for political positions and power:

The commission recommends that political parties urgently educate their members about democratic practices, especially the universal practice of peaceful political competition as opposed to political intolerance and violent political competition.”

We should assume, in fairness, that those who voted for the EFF are well educated and have some kind of superior logic. How does one explain the rejection of bona fide leftists such as the SRWP? One way to look at it is that the world has changed significantly since the collapse of Soviet communism at the end of the 1980s, and of capitalism more recently.

Maybe the electorate is sufficiently informed to reject a turn to the market fundamentalism represented by the ZACP, and the ossified workerist revolutionaries of the SRWP. This does not help explain how religious parties received more votes. We know that the German fellow would have us believe that religion was “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. But when it came to last week’s election, the party that most prominently displays its Marxist credentials barely got enough votes to warm them as we go deeper into the cold months of the southern winter.

We know, also, that parties such as the BLF, Azapo or the PAC wanted the election to be about race, as we suggested, and that the FF Plus expanded its appeal, from being almost exclusively white Afrikaans speakers, to include what its leader, Pieter Groenewald, described as “brown” people. This may explain the increase in votes that the FF Plus received.

All things considered, the election was underwhelming — if only because Daily Maverick had flagged most of what went down in the poll — and taught us that South Africans were, to a large extent, terribly boring and predictable people.

The ANC and DA have, between them, secured at least 75% of the vote (over and again over the past 15 years). While the EFF, BLF, SRWP would have us return to some austere 20th century ideology, with touches of racial scapegoating, promises and threats of rapine and grand-scale nationalisation of industries, the electorate has by and large rejected them.

There are, of course, very many things that can be squeezed out of the poll. To this writer, the election was rather unsurprising. Or as the kids would say, Meh! DM


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