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South Africa's 2019 Elections: Four Key Takeaways

State of the Nation Address in Cape Town
2019 State of the Nation Address in Cape Town

South Africans went to the polls on May 8, 2019, for the sixth National and Provincial elections since 1994. The outcome offers an insight into the continued evolution of the 25-year-old democracy. A victory for the governing African National Congress (ANC) was never in doubt. The question was the margin of the victory in light of the party's shortcomings over the past decade, notably maladministration and corruption as uncovered in the ongoing Commission of Inquiry into State Capture; and the tragedies of the Life Healthcare Esidimeni patients, and Marikana mine protest. In addition, entrenched inequality remains a challenge. The 2018 World Bank report on Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa (compiled with the Government of South Africa), highlights that while progress has been made since 1994, inequality, poverty, and high unemployment persist, with South Africa being one of the most unequal countries in the world. The inequality remains highly racialized. In the robust campaigning that characterized the elections, opposition parties made sure to highlight these issues and others in vying for an increased share of the votes. With the dust settled, the following four issues are worth highlighting.

The Next Five Years will be Critical for the ANC's Future

At the national level, the ANC's share of the vote fell to 57.50 percent, its lowest ever. This translates into a parliamentary majority of 230 seats out of 400 in the National Assembly. The party retained its majority in 8 of the 9 Provinces — Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, and the North West. The win aside, the party undoubtedly lost some support (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Source: Electoral Commission of South Africa Data

The loss highlights the grievances over many issues (non-provision of basic services, energy crisis, etc.) The most urgent, arguably, is the sluggish economic growth that is not creating enough jobs. The number of unemployed people rose to 6.2 million in the first quarter of 2019 (27.6 percent). The most affected are black South Africans, in particular women and youth. Statistics South Africa notes that the youth (15-24 years) are the most vulnerable with the unemployment rate at 55.2 percent for the same quarter, including graduates. In his 2019 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa committed government to accelerating inclusive growth and job creation. Initiatives include a Jobs Summit convened in October 2018 with labor and the private sector that resulted in a Framework Agreement to enable the creation of 275,000 jobs annually.

With the economy still shedding jobs, it is imperative that South Africa addresses the structural challenges and inefficiencies in the system, and work to improve the coordination of support for starting businesses, among others, as highlighted in a number of assessments, such as the 2019 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Report that ranks South Africa 82 out of 190 countries. The country's global competitiveness, ranked by the World Economic Forum, has also lowered in recent years from number 45 in the 2009-2010 Report, to number 67 in the 2018 report. Consequently, the next five years will be a crucial test of President Ramaphosa's leadership, and the party's genuine commitment to change, and above all, to the millions of South Africans whose daily lives are framed by inequality, poverty, and unemployment. The ANC's promise of a 'New Dawn' will be judged against tangible progress government makes in addressing these issues, none more urgent than the unemployment crisis.

Stumbles and Growth for the Opposition

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) received 20.77 percent of the vote (84 seats in the National Assembly), retained power in the Western Cape Province, and is the official opposition in 4 provinces. The DA's share decreased from the 22.23 percent it received in 2014 and the party has been stunned by the results, particularly in light of the gains it made in the 2016 municipal elections. A combination of factors is to blame. The election of President Ramaphosa as the ANC President presented the DA with a strategic challenge as he is not compromised, unlike his predecessor. To date, the DA has been unable to counter this. The public fight with former member and Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille, which saw her eventually resign and start her own party was particularly damaging. The continued internal clashes on transformational policies such as affirmative action highlight the power struggles and unresolved focus. Party leader, Mmusi Maimane's comments on issues of relevance to the black vote such as sustained white privilege caused internal strife; while former party leader and Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille's stance on colonialism and related tweeting incidents caused public uproar. Some of the campaigning choices were in poor taste, such as the use of the names of the Life Esidimeni victims for a DA billboard without the families' consent. As the party regroups, it needs a frank assessment of its policies, and the voters it represents or seeks to represent. The assessment has to consider the party's ongoing challenge with race, policies, and leadership. The DA lacks a clear identity and if the party wants to increase its share among black South Africans, its policies and leadership have to be aligned accordingly.

Apart from the ANC, the two biggest winners in the elections are undoubtedly the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the right-wing Freedom Front Plus (FF+). The EFF — established in 2013 — received 10.79 percent of the vote (44 seats), up from the 6.35 percent received in 2014. It is now the official opposition in 3 provinces (Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and North West). The EFF's growth can be attributed to a number of factors such as a strong grassroots structure; the support provided to the #FeesMustFall student movement and the families of the Marikana miners; prioritization of workers' rights; and the role it played in taking the former President, Jacob Zuma, to the Constitutional Court over the use of state funds for some upgrades to his personal home. The EFF also proposed the 2018 motion on land expropriation which was passed by the National Assembly. The country-wide consultations that followed were the first time since the transition that ordinary South Africans could voice their opinion on the land question in the country. The growth is not as high as was expected by the EFF, in view of its social media presence. Moving forward, the challenge for the party will be to attract more votes from the black middle-class, and ensure that the youth (where it's strongest), actually do vote. The latter had the lowest voter registration numbers for these elections. With the ANC winning 8 provinces and the parliamentary majority outright, the EFF is not in a position to play a kingmaker role, as it would have preferred. The EFF is expected to continue to press the ANC on specific issues such as land expropriation without compensation, as one of its strategies to influence ANC policy.

The Freedom Front Plus' growth is a reaction to the DA's perceived weakening in defending the interests of the white (and specifically Afrikaans speaking) minority and the targeting of other Afrikaans speaking minorities by the party. While the party was formed in 1994, this is its best performance in the national and provincial elections. The party's share of the vote increased from 0.90 percent in 2014 to the current 2.38 percent (10 seats). The increase is due to growth in provinces such as the North West, Free State, and Northern Cape. The land question undoubtedly contributed to the party's growth, as well as its continued opposition to other policies, for instance, affirmative action, and the language policy in public schools. The growth is also in line with the resurgence of right-wing nationalism globally. For a country that has yet to heal from Apartheid, the growth (albeit small) of the party adds another layer into the complex politics of belonging and nationhood in South Africa.

Lowest Voter Turn Out

The integrity of the electoral system also rests on the participation of the people. Of the 26,779,025 people on the voters' roll, only 17,436,144 voted. This means that over 9 million voters did not vote. Voter turnout at 65.99 percent was down from the 73.48 percent in 2014, and 77.3 percent in 2009. In fact, it is the lowest voter turnout since 1994. There are a number of reasons why people might not vote on election day. These include — weather conditions, health, family responsibilities, transportation costs to get to the voting station, work, and of course, disillusionment with the political system and general apathy. The low voter turnout is concerning and points to the growing disconnect between South Africans and the political system. When people do not vote they lose their voice on the kind of government and public policies they want. This is an area that should be included in social studies /civic engagement in schools in order to encourage ownership of voting rights at a young age. It also points to a need for continuous voter education and civic education, as well as rebuilding the public trust in the political process.

The Importance of a Capable and Trusted Electoral Commission for Democracy

South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has the sole mandate to manage and pronounce on the elections of national, provincial, and municipal legislative bodies. The IEC is one of the six institutions established through Chapter 9 of the 1996 South African Constitution (Chapter 9 Institutions) to support constitutional democracy. Its independence is crucial for the integrity of the process and results, and by extension, the role of the electoral process in South Africa's democracy.

These elections were certainly the most contested, resulting in heightened scrutiny of the IEC's conduct and processes. The IEC managed 22,925 voting stations, with special votes cast on May 6-7, 2019 while overseas-based voters cast theirs on April 27, 2019. The Commission utilized social media to its advantage, in particular, Facebook and Twitter. The Results Operations Centre (ROC) was operational from April 30, 2019, and enabled live viewing of the results as they trickled in. The ROC goes a long way in ensuring transparency in the manner in which the results are captured as all contesting parties and registered media have access.

The contestation arguably increased the number of reported irregularities. The IEC received 47 objections of which five were upheld and five were withdrawn by the objecting parties. According to the IEC, most of the objections did not meet the requirements of Section 55 of the 1998 Electoral Act and lacked any evidence of irregularity. The IEC was quick to react to reported incidences of inappropriate behavior by its officials or political party agents. This includes the removal of a Deputy Presiding Officer from a voting station in Benoni, Ekurhuleni following an investigation into a video showing a party agent assisting with the transfer of special votes. The IEC also instituted an audit (conducted by the Statistician-General) of a representative sample of 1020 voting stations where complaints or allegations of double voting have been received. By May 10, 2019, twenty-two people had been arrested for attempted double-voting.

There are lessons for the IEC moving forward. It is critical that proactive processes are instituted to limit possibilities of future attempts at double-voting and other illegal activities. There have to be stricter penalties for officials who go against the electoral code of conduct, beyond mere dismissal. Social media played an important role in providing for scrutiny by parties and ordinary South Africans. The IEC was quick to respond to issues raised online, which was vital in avoiding the spread of misinformation and paranoia. The lessons from these elections should bode well for the 2021 local municipal elections. It is no small feat to conduct elections and have results accepted by the population in today's world, as seen in many countries. The IEC and South Africans should be proud.

Zintle Kozais a Hubert H. Humphrey Fulbright Fellow at the University of Minnesota and Director for International Organizations at the National Treasury of South Africa. She is also a former Public Policy Fellow with the Africa Program.

About the Author

Zintle Koza

Former Public Policy Fellow;
Hubert H. Humphrey Fulbright Fellow at the University of Minnesota, Director for International Organizations at the National Treasury of South Africa

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more