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This is South Africa’s most important election since apartheid

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John Micklethwait is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News.

If the ruling ANC party is forced to share power, it will be historic – painful at first, perhaps, but fundamentally good.

This famously is the year of elections, with about 40% of humanity having the chance to vote in 2024. And already it has become a bore’s charter. Sit next door to the wrong person at dinner, and many hours will pass while you hear about the crucial importance of Arab Americans to Joe Biden’s chances in the Detroit suburbs or why the Scottish National Party’s performance in Renfrewshire could determine Keir Starmer’s path to Downing Street. The justification for these lectures is always that this particular contest is a “historic” showdown. Just like they insisted the last election was.

So it’s odd that relatively little attention is being paid to the one contest that looks genuinely historic. South Africa’s election, due to be held on 29 May, is the most important since the 1994 contest that vanquished apartheid and swept Nelson Mandela to power. Given the Rainbow Nation’s centrality to democracy on the world’s fastest-growing continent, it has a good claim to being Africa’s most important election for three decades too.

The ANC, the party that Mandela led to victory and which has ruled South Africa ever since, looks likely to fall below 50% of the vote for the first time. Voting for the ANC has been the default option for most black South Africans for a generation. But almost all opinion polls show the ANC will lose its parliamentary majority. The party obtained 57.5% support in the last national election in 2019, which was its worst performance yet. 

In the long term, this is a good thing. Democracy without contestability becomes corrupt and inefficient – two words that sum up the ANC’s recent history. In the short term, though, the ANC not winning outright opens up a series of historic possibilities that range from the promising to the catastrophic.

But for anybody who visited South Africa in the 1990s, as this writer did when Mandela epitomised a form of hope for the whole emerging world, the overall sensation is profound disappointment, especially given the country’s plentiful resources. The economy that used to clearly lead the continent is now competing for that position with Nigeria and Egypt.

The reasons the ANC deserves electoral punishment are visible everywhere. In terms of graft, the ANC possibly reached its nadir under Jacob Zuma, who it finally ditched as the nation’s president in 2018. His replacement, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was Mandela’s favoured successor, has cleaned up the ANC’s act slightly, but failed to keep the lights on. Literally. 

South Africa has become as famous for its blackouts as its rugby. Visiting the country means learning a whole new gruesome vocabulary – of “baseload”, “inverters” and “load shedding”. Every decent-sized business and an increasing number of private homes has its own generator, because nobody can rely on Eskom, the huge state-owned power utility. And even when the lights are on, about 80% of the electricity Eskom does deliver comes from burning coal. A country famous for its sun conspicuously failed to get solar going – and now that it’s finally happening, the ramshackle grid is a barrier to progress.

The same goes for virtually every other piece of infrastructure that the ANC has been entrusted with. Many businesspeople would say that rail and port company Transnet – again a state monopoly – is in even worse shape than Eskom. Freight has to be moved by road, which is neither green nor cheap. In South Africa’s ports, the cranes are broken. Moving goods in and out of the country is a nightmare.

That isn’t to deny the social gains from the ANC’s long period in government. The economy has been reconfigured to cater to the whole population, rather than just a small white minority. There is a much larger black middle class, and many more people have access to clean water, schooling and healthcare. And, of course, the vile system of structural racism that was apartheid has gone.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

But for anybody who visited South Africa in the 1990s, as this writer did when Mandela epitomised a form of hope for the whole emerging world, the overall sensation is profound disappointment, especially given the country’s plentiful resources. The economy that used to clearly lead the continent is now competing for that position with Nigeria and Egypt.

All this, however, begs a question: Might the election make everything worse? 

While the underlying reason for the ANC’s weakness at the polls is decades of incompetence, the tactical reason is that many supporters have lost faith and stopped voting or switched to its rivals. 

An average of recent opinion polls shows the hard-left EFF will obtain about 13% in the election and the uMkhonto Wesizwe party, the new vehicle for Zuma, garnering the same amount. The DA – the party favoured by business – is seen getting about 24%, while the IFP, the traditional bastion for the country’s Zulu vote, is about 7%.

Many investors would say the best outcome would be an ANC-DA alliance. The DA runs South Africa’s most efficient city, Cape Town. If the DA teamed up with the more pragmatic members of Ramaphosa’s team, the country might jump forward. The main barrier to that happening, which is a sad one, is race: The DA’s top leadership is predominantly white, which has limited its appeal to black voters. The DA’s first and only black leader quit after only four years in 2019. 

The other coalitions are less appetising. Any ANC deal with Zuma would surely be a recipe for more graft. Investors would also frown on a tie-up with the EFF. For the most part, the economic freedoms they cherish have little to do with free economics. In a country where many parts of infrastructure call out for privatisation, you could end up with more nationalisation. The EFF wants mines to be nationalised and all land to be placed under state curatorship.

The more South Africa’s businesspeople study these options, the more they tend to revert to “the devil they know”. The same captain of industry who one moment speaks about the ANC ruining the country eventually starts muttering about “Cyril” hopefully not being replaced, given that no suitable alternatives have come to the fore. More generally, the talk in South African capitalism is of resilience: The country’s commerce has somehow survived apartheid and Eskom’s collapse; it can weather a political shake-up.

Whatever the short-term consequences of the ANC losing its monopoly on power – and, economically, they could be pretty dire – something fundamentally good has happened: South African politics has become competitive. To win votes in the future, ANC politicians will have to start focusing on fixing schools, roads and railways – rather than on dispensing patronage.

That could have a deep impact not just on the country but on the whole continent. In general, Africa is moving on from the “big man” sort of politics that the novelist Chinua Achebe used to describe. But even in democracies, having one dominant party is a problem.

In Zimbabwe, it has led to an economic implosion; in Rwanda, to be fair, President Paul Kagame’s economic record has been stellar, but the human rights record of his Rwandan Patriotic Front leaves a lot to be desired. In general, much of the continent’s growth has come from places where democracy feels more real – such as Senegal, Ivory Coast and (with some obvious ups and downs) Nigeria.

The US, UK and the European Union have a vested interest in democracy being embedded in South Africa, given efforts by China and Russia to build influence on the continent. So, if the ANC is forced to share power, it will be historic. It may not initially feel great but, longer-term, this is the way to a better South Africa. DM

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Nicolson says:

    This is one of the most relevant and instructive articles published within the DM. Kudos to John Micklethwait for clear and perceptive writing, summarising the developing and melting-pot situation in SA today.

  • Random Comment says:

    “the overall sensation is profound disappointment” – yip, that about sums up 30 years of ANC misrule.

    What an appallingly wasteful thing to do with the hopes and dreams of millions of South Africans.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    “The DA’s top leadership is predominantly white, which has limited its appeal to black voters.”
    Now, if we invert that we get:
    “The ANC’s top leadership is predominantly black, which has limited its appeal to white voters.”
    And suddenly this post looks different, right?

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      I think you would find most white people don’t care about what color their leadership is. They just want competent non corrupt leaders. I cant speak for black people, but the evidence suggests they want a black corrupt leadership. Over 30 years of ANC tells me this.

    • Skinyela Skinyela says:

      You missed the point completely.

      Try this: having limited appeal to 81,4% of the population vs having limited appeal to 7,3% of the population… (Source Statistics South Africa’s Census 2022)

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