The 2o19 election was rich with signals that South African politics is changing and elections are no longer the playfield of starry-eyed believers in the 1994 dream of multi-party democracy. The much-lowered turnout, many variations on the theme of vote-splitting and spoilt ballots conveyed this message. This message from the edge was driven home by the 300,000-plus votes for inconsequential small parties and community protest action resuming while the ink on the election results was still drying.
South African elections have now descended into the normal (by international standards) category of modestly high turnout rates. Despite the number of registered voters rising by 5.5% nationally (to 26.8 million), roughly 10 million of the 35.9 million voting-age population had not registered, by choice.
The 70%-40% phenomenon sheds further light: just over 70% had registered and illustrated a potential interest in voting, while pre-election surveys detected that about 40% said no existing political party articulated their needs. Of the 70% who registered, 66% turned out to vote. The final effect was that roughly 983,000 fewer people voted in 2019 than in 2014 (18.7 million cast their ballots in 2014).
Politicians and policy-makers should take note of this composite set of trends, as they contemplate the sobering sets of results that all three main political parties achieved: the African National Congress down by five percentage points to an all-time national low of just under 58%, the Democratic Alliance stagnating in the early twenties, and the Economic Freedom Fighters growing but not nearly at a rate that delivers prospects for becoming a majority party. These three mandates are silent about that large body of voices that did not enter the electoral arena.
Within this arena, the 2019 election demonstrated that voting choices frequently were no straightforward matter. Vote-splitting and protest voting were evident. Vote-splitting showed that voters feel less of a compulsion to support one party possibly blindly, through thick and thin. Many ANC voters did specific, strategic calculations about the message they wanted the ANC to get. They wanted it to be clear that they have questions about the cleaning-up of government and the credibility of their party.
Other voters stepped in in a multiparty act to rescue the ANC in Gauteng, or Cyril Ramaphosa nationally, from the intra-ANC factional threat. Many in opposition parties followed suit and came into the arena to “defend Cyril”. In the process, this depletion of, for example, the DA vote, bolstered DA attacks on Mmusi Maimane as an underperforming national leader.
In all likelihood, Ramaphosa’s narrow Nasrec victory and the ongoing post-Nasrec factional fallout inflated the ANC’s margin of victory – or at least balanced out the damage that the ANC was suffering as a result of the Zondo (and other) Commission’s ongoing parades of dirty linen and the flagrant non-repentance of the implicated ones.
Spoilt ballots were part of the game within the election arena. It was not big: the total number of spoilt ballots dropped marginally from 2014’s approximately 252,000 to this election’s 236,000. The total percentage of spoilt votes this time around came to a mere 1.35% of all votes cast (both the valid and the spoilt ones). This low level might have been aided by the abundance of new, minor political parties that served, among others, as recipients of protest votes.
Many among the deluge of new participants were formed in the hope of achieving an election miracle. Instant fame, “fortune” (given that the state funds political parties that have gained representation), and king-making powers to the big league might have awaited them. In their ranks were interest groups such as taxi owners, land protagonists, capitalists and Gupta-ist remnants, identity groups such as the Khoisan, identity extremists or traditional leaders, and some who are protest movements rather than parties.
It remains possible that a few among this group of 254 unsuccessful participants (in national and each of the provincial races) could still emerge as a viable party of the future … In the interim, their combined 309,000 votes at national level constitute a diverse bloc of voices that articulate protest, dissidence or feelings of being under-represented in the party mainstream.
Many in the ranks of the established and the recent-new-participant parties, along with the abstainers and boycotters, have already been back on the “protest streets” to further supplement South Africa’s partially representative multiparty democracy. The N2 at Grabouw has had the resumption of protest blockades, this time around by farmworkers demanding higher wages; in Durban, truck drivers have been blockading roads for better security and working conditions, and in Pietermaritzburg, communities have been blockading roads for ending electricity cuts. Many other variations are unfolding.
The 2019 election has changed the South African political landscape in giving the ANC a conditional endorsement, serving notice of its “last chance” electorally to get things right. The meaning of this mandate might be adjusted downward substantially, given the extent of people’s parallel channels of expressing political needs and the electorate’s adjustments to the rules of electoral engagement. DM
Saddam Hussein authored a best-selling romance novel. "Sabibah and the King" also spawned a 20-part series.