South African elections: a “political turning point”?

South Africa’s municipal elections are scheduled to take place on 3 August. One think-tank has argued that the next few months could be a “political turning point” for the country, with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) losing significant support to newly resurgent opposition parties, most notably the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Since the ANC’s victory in the 2014 national and provincial elections, economic mismanagement and damaging scandals have weakened the ruling party; the reputation of South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, has been particularly affected.

The run-up to the elections has seen some of the most serious political violence since the end of Apartheid, with ANC infighting and ethnic rivalries playing a significant part in triggering it. In Vuwani, Limpopo Province, in May, 24 schools were burnt down by residents unhappy about plans to merge municipalities divided by ethnicity and language. And five people died in violent protests in Tshwane (formerly Pretoria) in June after the ANC did not retain the mayoral incumbent as its candidate.

Fraying of ANC support

The DA, long considered to be fundamentally a ‘white’ party of the centre-right, is having some success in shrugging off that label under its new leader Mmusi Maimane. Having been the governing party in the City of Cape Town for a decade, the DA is now targeting three key metropolitan municipalities: Johannesburg; Tshwane; and Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes Port Elizabeth. Current polling suggests that the DA has overtaken the ANC in all three key municipalities.

South Africa Source: www.southafrica.info

Although it is unlikely that the left-wing EFF will win any municipalities, the party does seem to have increased its support amongst the black working class. Its firebrand leader, Julius Malema, has adopted a more pragmatic tone, suggesting that he would be willing to cooperate with other parties in future. Meanwhile, some trade unions, led by the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA), have broken with the ANC. Significant realignments on the left of South African politics may be underway.

The ANC is also struggling to hold onto the support of black students. Over the last year or so, there has been a series of protests across the country’s universities about its failure to do more to overturn the legacies of Apartheid in higher education and beyond, symbolised most powerfully by the ‘Rhodes must fall’ movement.

Mismanagement and scandals

Over the past year President Zuma has been very much on the defensive. In December 2015 he replaced Nhlanhla Nene, the government’s respected Minister of Finance, who had protested against reckless government spending on a $100 billion nuclear power station programme. It later emerged that a family with close personal connections to the president had major investments in uranium and may have influenced Nene’s dismissal. There are doubts that the programme will go ahead.

In April, he survived an impeachment vote in the National Assembly after the Constitutional Court ruled that he had broken the law by refusing to refund state money spent on refurbishing his private residence in KwaZulu Natal. Zuma eventually agreed to reimburse the state for non-security related expenditure.

Nene’s inexperienced replacement did not last long. Amid turmoil in the ANC, markets crashed as business leaders and the public accused Zuma of putting his personal interests before good economic management. The eventual appointment of the experienced Pravin Gordhan stabilised the situation somewhat – although he soon found himself under attack within the ANC over policy.

But the country’s economic prospects remain fragile, with the Rand having fallen 22 per cent against the dollar since the start of last year and unemployment reaching an 11 year high in the first quarter of 2016. Foreign direct investment fell 74% to $1.5 billion last year, and growth forecasts for 2016 have been revised down to 0.6 per cent.

The ANC tries to shore up its position

The ANC has responded to the challenge to its urban support by trying to shore up its rural base through a closer alliance with traditional leaders. The ANC is trying – so far unsuccessfully – to pass legislation that would give them greater judicial powers over their subjects.

Zuma’s critics also claim that he and his supporters are failing to uphold South Africa’s hitherto impressive record on civil liberties. There are reports that the president is planning to introduce legislation that will restrict access to foreign funding for local NGOs and require foreign NGOs to hold state licences. This has surfaced amid warnings by senior ANC officials that outside groups are plotting ‘regime change’.

There are also growing concerns about the independence and impartiality of the public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The SABC refused to broadcast images of ANC supporters rioting in Tshwane in June; three senior journalists were also suspended for objecting to an instruction not to report on a protest against censorship.

Last but not least, the legitimacy of the voters’ roll has been questioned, leading some to ask if the upcoming elections will be free or fair. In October 2015, Zuma appointed a former advisor to head the Independent Electoral Commission.

Zuma’s prospects

Calls on the president to resign early have so far fallen on deaf ears. Zuma has every incentive to hang on until the end of his second term in 2019 and appoint a sympathetic successor who might protect him from future prosecution. In June a court dismissed an appeal by his lawyers against the reinstatement of longstanding multiple charges of corruption, fraud and racketeering in connection with an arms deal.

Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is currently head of the African Union Commission, could be his favoured successor. The other frontrunner is Cyril Ramaphosa, the Deputy President. But Ramaphosa, a businessman and former trade union leader, could be less generous to Zuma after he leaves office.

Zuma still has strong support within the ANC and his ability to ride out tough political times should not be underestimated. One political analyst has concluded: “There is no question that a poor result in the August election, alongside an impending corruption case against Jacob Zuma, might fragment the currently very solid voting support he has within the ANC structures.”

Picture credit: Hope you voted by Darryn van der Walt, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)