The ANC’s hostile reaction to criticism and dissent has alienated long-standing supporters, and the current leadership seems unable to change its ways.
South Africa’s fifth general election since the end of apartheid in 1994 and its first since the death of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 has produced another substantial victory for the ruling African National Congress. In the May 7 poll, held under a closed party list proportional system, 73 per cent of the 25 million voters returned the ANC to the 400-seat Parliament in Cape Town with a 62.1 per cent vote share, down from 65.9 in 2009. The expected inroads into the ANC’s support base did not materialise, though the main opposition, Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance (DA), raised its share from 16.7 per cent to 22.2, and the newly formed left party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by expelled ANC leader Julius Malema, took 6.4 per cent. The results will mean, respectively, parliamentary blocs of 249, 89, and 25 seats. As for the provincial chambers, the ANC won eight of the nine provinces. The one Assembly it did not hold, Western Cape, remains firmly in the hands of the DA, which increased its vote share there from 51.5 to 59.4 per cent. Polling was peaceful almost everywhere, though a heavy police presence figured in the Gauteng mining town of Marikana, where 47 people had died in a violent crackdown on a strike in August 2012, and in Bekkersdal township (also in Gauteng province), where two Electoral Commission tents were burnt just before the election in protests against unemployment and poverty.
Marikana and Bekkersdal nevertheless exemplify the challenges awaiting the reelected ANC. Unemployment may be the toughest. Estimated at 37 per cent overall, it is the worst among the young; 3.3 million of the 15-24 age cohort are not in education, employment or training. This in turn increases inequalities, which exactly mirror the racial divide. Black household incomes are still one-sixth those of white ones, and 44 per cent of workers earn under 10 rand a day – just enough for a loaf of bread. Secondly, state successes, which include the provision of electricity connections to millions of the country’s poorest citizens, are tarnished by maintenance and delivery failures. Opponents cite bad construction of the five million houses built, defunct electricity and telephone lines, and deepening corruption. The ANC’s hostile reaction to criticism and dissent has alienated long-standing supporters, and the current leadership seems unable to change its ways. Younger voters too, with no memory of the anti-apartheid struggle, may well be less forgiving of failure. The ANC will be severely tested for the next five years, while its rivals develop alternatives. The ANC mould may not be broken yet, but it is certainly cracking.