South Africa’s 2019 election is a crossroads poll. It expresses the great uncertainty and elevated fluidity that have replaced the pre- and post-1994 adoration of the African National Congress. It exposes a weak, but still dominant former liberation movement. The election forces a comparison of mountains of unfulfilled and continuously arising needs with the expectations of 1994, besides showing off a governing party and government that may have lost the ability to self-correct.
New politics and new political cultures are in the process of overtaking the current order. The 2019 election has catalysed the process. More than offering solutions, the election confirms that the next five years are going to be more uncertain and unsettled. If the ANC has a plan to escape relatively unscathed, it is not showing at present.
The 2019 election has confirmed that the door to more populist politics is open, in and beyond Parliament. The electorate will elect a government that has to rescue the incoming government from its own pre-election misconduct, without changing much of the leadership for the foreseeable future.
The 2019 election is a second chance – which may very well be the last chance – for the ANC to get its house in order and regain the confidence of citizens and voters. Voters still want to believe that the ANC can go into self-correction mode, beyond the superficial reassurances of the present election campaign.
On the assumption that the ANC maintains its outright national majority, the 2019 election comes in a time of continuous heightened insistence on accountability – albeit not to the extent of alternating political parties in the election. Much of the pro-ANC support will be on the understanding that senior ANC figures implicated in wrongdoing will not be in high government positions.
However, at the past weekend’s Siyanqoba rally President Cyril Ramaphosa gave the more limited undertaking that “those found guilty of corruption and State Capture will not be allowed to occupy positions of power in ANC, government or Parliament”. Ramaphosa acknowledged that there is resistance… Thus, if not found guilty they could very well be in positions in the ANC, Parliament and government.
Heightened uncertainty as a feature of the post-election era is also indicated in the lack of predictable, consistent and solution-bearing policies. How far and how fast can the required economic-growth turnarounds materialise? How much borrowing to rescue state-owned enterprises can the South African economy handle? The fate of governments the world over is coupled with whether citizens believe there is hope that national economies will bring a better future. In South Africa, uncertainty will accumulate unless economic prospects evolve rapidly.
Pre-election policy uncertainty is set to heighten, as the space for treading water to avoid bringing new policies to life narrows. Land redistribution and ownership, nationalisation of the SA Reserve Bank, accelerated access to a national health service, ongoing guarantees of access to higher education, the battle between renewable, coal and nuclear energy provision — all reveal fronts on which the ANC faces constraints. The ANC can no longer please all constituencies and many of the policy spaces are volatile.
The election stands in the context of formal institutional politics already being complemented through protest politics, which unfolds at ground level in many disaffected (occasionally simply disgruntled, hoping for better delivery) communities. Multiparty democracy and elections are an important, but no longer the only, game in town. At multiple sites, protests are being brought into elections. Research by the Human Sciences Research Council has detected that citizens increasingly combine formal and informal processes. Even if they vote, communities will be ready to resume their parallel streams of direct action as soon as the results are announced at the IEC centre in Pretoria.
The uncertainties surrounding the election also rise in terms of South Africa’s approximate two-party system, which albeit within dominant party parameters, is ending. The Economic Freedom Fighters hold the hearts of a large, growing body of young voters – the electoral constituency of the future. Election 2019 is set to confirm that the EFF is in South African politics to stay. The party has passed the viability test that the United Democratic Movement and Congress of the People (two previous split-offs from the ANC) have failed.
High levels of disaffection from formal and parliamentary politics are expressed through the likely 70% or fewer expected electoral participation rate in this week’s election. This signals that not even the EFF is in charge of expressions of the new politics of South Africa (despite its base support exceeding its electoral support).
A broader development affects parties across the board: Party identification has been loosening up. The electorate is generally far less committed to political parties than just a few years ago. This time around, through credible public opinion polls, we know that close to 40% say that none of the available parties represents their needs and desires. The hitherto bottomless pit of blind party loyalty is drying up. Party support has become far more contingent and for the ANC in particular, this is bad news.
This changing pattern is true for young people as well, to the extent that they will be participating in the 2019 election. There has been a significant decline in the Electoral Commission’s registration of especially 18-19-year-olds. A meagre 19% of voters in this age category have registered.
The Zuma years have fostered and accelerated the greater cynicism of established governance processes. Politicians in and beyond the former liberation movements have been exposed as having feet of clay, fingers covered in cookie jar jam, and a profound incapacity to come clean in substantive ways.
A recent international study illuminates this trend. The YouGov-Cambridge Centre and The Guardian study reported that next to Brazil, South Africa scores the highest on a populism index… serial corruption scandals have rocked both countries. A total of 84% of South African respondents reported their belief that the government is run by a few self-interested powers. There was similarly high South African support in this 23-country study for the statement that “the will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics”.
Much of the damage of distrust in core institutions of state and government is water under the bridge. The past damage is now bolstered by the question whether, as South Africa embarks on the next five years, the ANC can extract itself from its own corrupt past and re-centre politics on the constitutional-institutional centre. By all indications, the cynics have the answer.
The 2019 election, therefore, signals in all probability the end of an era.
It could very well be the last of a kind — the point at which the ANC stops receiving secure endorsements. Politics is changing, orientations are sceptical, and party identities infinitely more fluid than 20 to 25 years ago. The next five-year stretch is for the daring and the flexible, for those with stomachs for political populism, social lawlessness and a government that hovers on the edge. DM
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