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The South African Election 2024: A background briefing

South Africans continue to get by and to innovate and even prosper despite having intermittent water supplies, incessant blackouts and a collapsing infrastructure. But despair is a state of mind that its people cannot afford and certainly do not deserve. Here, SUE ONSLOW and MARTIN PLAUT look at what is in store as the nation heads to a crucial vote.

The erosion of support for the ANC

Part of the problem is that the party has been in power too long, has run out of ideas and is losing cohesion. Zuma has continued to hold onto his ANC membership, despite forming a rival political party. (He is almost certain to be forced to out of the ANC, but the gloves are now off.) The ANC’s secretary-general, Fikile Mbalula now openly admits that the ANC lied to parliament, pretending that a swimming pool built at public expense for Zuma was a ‘fire pool’ installed as a safety feature. At the same time, Zuma continues to attract support from his home province, KwaZulu-Natal and has some following among younger South Africans who regard him as a radical. Recent by-election results suggests that MK will make substantial inroads into ANC rural support in KwaZuluNatal and Mpumalanga, with some commentators describing Zuma as a possible national ‘kingmaker’.

In the three decades that the ANC has governed the country’s infrastructure has been allowed to fall into decay while the economy has stagnated. Income per person has made some recovery after a sharp fall during the Covid pandemic but has failed to show any real increase (as measured by GDP per capital) since 2010. As Andrew Kenny (BizNews 11 March 2024) succinctly describes:

The promise of dismantling apartheid’s racial inequality has given way to a deliberate shift towards economic disparity. The ANC, once a symbol of liberation, has fostered a black elite centred around political leaders, widening the wealth gap. The opulent lifestyles of the ruling class, coupled with policies like [Black Economic Empowerment] BEE, have fuelled class inequality, resulting in high crime rates.– Andrew Kenny

Ordinary MPs now earn R1.2 million a year – about 4 times the annual earnings of the average worker in South Africa. Furthermore, rather than reduce the inherited structural and racial inequalities of the apartheid era, Black Economic Empowerment has widened social, racial and class divides. Indeed, BEE has enriched a small black elite, at the expense of wider South African black, Indian and Coloured society. This black elite is centred around the ANC, but which also includes the South African Communist Party (SACP) and EFF leaders and has joined a cohort of rich whites who have continued to dominate business. The new black elite is entrenched in government positions at national and local level through cadre deployment. Not only does this ‘cadre’ class enjoy huge salaries and associated perks, in sharp contrast to working class and rural black South Africans. Recent revelations have shone light on the highly politicised control of appointments of SOEs and other government appointments by the ANC leadership, on the basis of political loyalty rather than professional capability. The strain on the South African exchequer has been compounded by ‘tender-preneurship’ – political well-connected black businessmen with preferential access to tenders and contracts at inflated prices, and insufficient oversight of service delivery.

However, it is the living conditions of ordinary South Africans that is a far more important issue. 

So what will decide this election?

Past elections provide fewer clues. South Africa is moving away from what might be termed post-apartheid ‘football team politics’ – i.e. ‘my party right or wrong’ – into an era which voters are holding parties and their leaders accountable, either through voting for alternatives, or by not voting at all. As RW Johnson has pointed out, this shift in voter preference and behaviour echoes processes of transition in other African countries following independence. However, this process is uneven. Under South Africa’s current system of proportional representation and the candidate list system, individual MPs remain unaccountable to their electorates. Reform of the South African political list system, enshrined in the 1996 Constitution, will require an amendment supported by at least two thirds of the National Assembly (ie at least 267 MPs out of 400), and by the National Council of the provinces, with the supporting vote of six of the nine provinces. Hardly surprisingly, the dominant ANC has shown little appetite for electoral reform, and consequently there has been no progress on this issue since the Van Zyl Slabbert electoral proposals of 2003.

No matter the current disillusion with the ANC government, South African voters need credible alternatives. The 2019 election demonstrated that dissatisfied ANC voters only switched their votes if they believed that the alternative had a proved track record of competence, seemed inclusive, or if they had a favourable view of the party’s leader. Promised policies such as clear and credible employment strategies, access to public health care are persuasive, as are negative campaigning and divisive issues, such as immigration. The number of immigrants has doubled over the past decade, with repeated outbursts of xenophobic violence, and South Africa’s liberal asylum system is now a political issue. 

Excerpt three: Outcome

What the election holds in store for South Africans, and their friends and allies around the world, is impossible to predict. Much depends on turnout and the ability of parties to mobilise their supporters. In the past the nation has repeatedly reached the edge of despair. One only needs recall the disastrous impact of the Mfekane, the Anglo-South African war, the Rand Revolt, the Apartheid system, the Sharpeville massacre, the state sponsored murders, the Marikana massacre and the riots following the arrest of Jacob Zuma in 2021 to see how serious the situation can become. Yet South Africans continue to get by and to innovate and even prosper despite having intermittent water supplies, incessant blackouts and a collapsing infrastructure. Despair is a state of mind that its people cannot afford and certainly do not deserve. The Independent Election Commission has generally overseen free and fair elections and we must hope and anticipate that they will do the same in 2024. We must all await the verdict of the people, as they decide their future at the ballot box.


The excerpts were taken from a background briefing written ahead of a pre-election webinar which took place on on 4 April. You can now watch webinar in full here.

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