SA faces it most critical election since 1994

Posted on February 28, 2014


First produced for the February edition of Zambia’s Bulletin & Record

The South African general election — the most critical in the 20 years since the transition from apartheid — will take place on May 7, just ten days after the anniversary of the first non-racial poll in 1994. As forecast (B&R February) South Africans will cast their ballots amid the continuing turmoil of often violent protests and growing campaigns to boycott the polls for the national government and nine provincial administrations.

In the first six weeks of this year, at least ten people were shot dead in township protests, apparently by police using live ammunition. This provided a boost to the campaigners calling for non-registration and for those demanding that registered voters stay away from the May 7 poll. A more low-key campaign calling on voters to spoil ballot papers in protest against the governing ANC and the political system in general is also underway, promoted by former cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils and leading social activist, Zackie Achmat.

The “spoilers” point out that non-registration is a largely meaningless protest because those who do not register simply do not count and can be said to be content with the status quo. The same, they maintain, applies to those who boycott; that a mass spoiling of ballot papers by what is a fairly sophisticated electorate would make the point that the electorate is disillusioned with the policies of the ANC and the opposition parties.

But such political niceties are generally not debated by the stone throwing, fire bombing and barricade building crowds. To the forefront of these are members of the vast army of the mainly young unemployed, many of them “Born Frees”, youth born after the non-racial political dispensation. They appear to wish a plague on all political houses, resulting in an explosion of frustration and a level of civic upheaval not seen since the 1980s. This has seen some newspaper headlines proclaiming: “South Africa is burning.”

Such headlines are sensational, but understandable. South Africa is not burning, but the fire bombing of council property and roads barricaded by burning tyres and debris have been a dramatic feature of a significant number of the average of more than 30 protests seen every day in townships around the country in the first two months of this year. Police figures reveal that, in the three months to the end of January, the most populous and urbanised provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape between them saw 1,781 protests, with Gauteng leading the way with 668 demonstrations of anger.

This level of civil upheaval, although still restricted almost entirely to the outlying low-income areas, has encouraged perceptions that the country may soon be burning. Such perceptions certainly played a part in the quite precipitous decline in the exchange rate value of the local currency, the rand, providing a sharp rise in the price of fuel and leading to a knock-on effect in costs right across the board. One does not have to delve too far back into recent history to recall that it was similar economic strains and the same youth demographic that shook the apartheid regime to its core. It also saw several states of emergency declared.

However, there are major differences between then and now. In the first place, there is now no coherent opposition on the ground or in waiting; instead there is widespread disillusionment with politicians and political parties. Although the media tends to label all these upheavals as “service delivery protests”, there are a variety of triggers, ranging from alleged official corruption and the forced removal of squatters to the lack of adequate housing and, of course, the absence of services such as water, electricity and sanitation.

Out of this has grown the boycott movement, with angry crowds in one township in the Gauteng province chasing out election commission officials when they tried to register voters. No figures are yet available, but it seems likely that a record number of the voting age population has not registered to vote. In the last general election in 2009, more than 5 million potential voters did not register and another nearly 9 million registered, but did not cast their ballots.

Although the 2009 voter turnout at 77.3% was widely hailed and the governing ANC came within a whisker of a two-thirds parliamentary majority, this was on the basis of only 56.5% (17.9 million) of the voting population of 31.7 million going to the polls. It was a far cry from the nearly 87% who voted in the first non-racial elections of 1994.

In such a volatile environment, opposition parties have also been quick to try to take advantage, aware that the ANC is on the defensive and that President Jacob Zuma’s popularity has plummeted. Most vociferous of these is the recently formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the expelled former ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema. Wearing red berets, EFF members have even been photographed apparently transporting tyres to township protesters. Although EFF “commander-in-chief” Malema may face prison time before May 7 for tax evasion and money laundering, his party is likely to take some 10% of the votes cast. This could give the EFF up to 40 seats in the 400-seat national assembly.

The main parliamentary opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which hopes to take 22% of the votes in May, started this year on a high note that rapidly became discordant. DA leader Helen Zille announced in January that the leader of the newly formed Agang Party, Mamphela Ramphele, would be the DA “presidential candidate” in the coming elections. But this political marriage, sealed with a photograph of the two party leaders kissing, ended in an acrimonious divorce five days later.

In the first place, Agang members had not been informed of the pending nuptials — and rebelled. Then it emerged that South African, but British-based, billionaire businessman Natie Kirsch is Agang’s major funder, and probably promoted the merger of Agang and the DA. The revelation that Kirsch, who holds a Swazi passport, has residence rights in the UK and USA and various tax haven holding companies in different countries, raised again the whole question of party political funding. This has added credibility to stereotypes of venal politicians selling themselves to the highest bidder while the forces of the state crack down ever more harshly on those demanding their rights and insisting that promises made by politicians be kept.

As increasing numbers of protesters tend to remember, Nelson Mandela once said: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” These protesters again feel short-changed and, rightly or wrongly, are applying Mandela’s advice to the present regime and to others seen as part of the system. But it is a full breakdown of the election results that will reveal more than a mere count of how many protests have taken place. Watch this space.

Posted in: Reports abroad