South Africa’s centre holds, for now

By Saul Musker 12 May 2019

Cyril Ramaphosa is congratulated by DA leader Mmusi Maimane after being sworn in as the new president of the Republic of South Africa in Parliament on February 15, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Jaco Marais)

This election was a crucial victory both for the ANC and for the moderate centre in South African politics. The work of restoring faith in our democratic institutions and reducing inequality, however, has only begun.

There are two ways to interpret the results of this election.

One view emphasises the gains made by extremist parties at both ends of the political spectrum — the EFF on the left, and the FF Plus on the right.

This seems intuitively to be an accurate analysis — after all, the EFF grew its share of the vote from 6.35% to 10.79%, and the FF Plus from 0.90% to 2.38%. The former attracted a significant number of voters from the ANC, especially in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, and the latter pulled white voters from the DA and smaller opposition parties.

Another view, however, points out that the ANC made a surprisingly strong recovery under the circumstances, and that the extremist fringes made only minor gains in the National Assembly. The FF Plus more than doubled its vote, but it remains a small and relatively insignificant presence in the grand scheme of things, with only 10 seats.

The EFF, meanwhile, was expected to receive between 12% and 14% of the vote — its own leaders and Twitter disciples even insisted that it would win a majority, or overtake the DA as the official opposition — but it only just passed 10%. Compared to predictions, the EFF’s performance was, in fact, a disappointment for the party.

Which of these interpretations is correct?

There is no doubt that this election was the most closely contested in South Africa’s history and the first time that citizens around the country could watch the results trickle in without knowing what the outcome would be.

After almost 10 years of disastrous rule under Jacob Zuma, whose approval ratings reached a nadir of close to 20%, many predicted the fragmentation of the political landscape in our sixth election. Anger at successive corruption scandals and rising unemployment were always expected to drive a backlash against the ANC. And the rise of the EFF, whose signature proposals include the expropriation of land without compensation and the nationalisation of key industries, prompted warnings of a populist surge.

None of this came to pass. Instead, the ANC has maintained a clear majority despite losing several seats in the National Assembly. The DA has remained fairly steady, even if it did not grow, and has kept its hold on the provincial government in the Western Cape. Voters gave Cyril Ramaphosa a strong endorsement and returned the DA as the official opposition.

This is an encouraging sign for South Africa. The resounding conclusion of this election is that centrist parties enjoy a comfortable two-thirds majority, with 78% of all seats in the National Assembly, and have maintained popular support despite energetic threats from both the left and right.

The narrow victory of the ANC in Gauteng in particular, where it rebounded from its 2016 lows, kept both the EFF and the FF Plus out of government. If the ANC had dropped below 50% in the province, no coalition would have been possible without at least one extremist party.

It would be a mistake to interpret the limited gains made by left-wing populists or right-wing nationalists outside this context. The worst outcome of this election would have been a “de-alignment” of politics, or the abandonment of mainstream political parties by the electorate, signalling a deterioration in trust and a collapse of the party system. The other real threat was the entry of extremist politicians into government. Neither of these dangers materialised.

In fact, it is hard to imagine conditions that would have been more conducive to extremist parties — a decade of corruption and economic decline, a polarising debate on land reform and high levels of inequality and unemployment should have provided an ideal environment for populist and nationalist politics to thrive. In this sense, it is surprising how muted their growth has been. And it is possible that both the EFF and the FF Plus have approached their limits.

For now, liberal democracy in South Africa is safe. The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as leader of the ANC has prevented real fragmentation, and held the centre.

This does not mean, however, that it will be safe.

By far the most concerning trend in this election was the low rate of participation among young voters, whose concerns about racial justice are not properly reflected in the platforms of the ANC or the DA.

The real election to watch will be in 2029, when a new cohort of young voters rises to replace an older generation. The next 10 years provide a crucial opportunity to gain these voters’ trust in the political system, and to demonstrate that meaningful structural reform is possible within the democratic process.

It is up to President-elect Ramaphosa to rise to this challenge. He has the mandate to do so. Now we must work together to make it happen. DM


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