SA elections results: from the polls to Parliament

The South African elections are done and dusted - but what do the results tell us, and what happens now?

Now that the dust has officially settled on South Africa’s 2014 elections, the focus turns squarely to Parliament. These elections saw 18 654 457 South Africans cast their vote; a 73,43% turnout based on a registered voting population of 25 381 293. While the nation can be rightly proud of this voter turnout, it does belie the real numbers. The eligible voting-age population is 32,6 million, which means that the turnout in fact represented only 56,6% of the eligible voting-age population.

Far more work needs to be done to determine why citizens do not register. What are the barriers to registration, for instance, and why do some register but fail to vote in the end? Whether this is because a sizeable portion of the citizenry believes the current buffet of political offerings is not to their taste, or for other reasons, we simply do not know at present.

The African National Congress (ANC) has managed to retain its majority with relative ease, and with 62,15% of the vote, the ANC can be well pleased. The ruling party entered the elections with severe challenges, not least of which was the controversy surrounding the Public Protector’s report on excessive expenditure at the president’s Nkandla homestead. The country also saw frequent service-delivery protests that often turned violent – as happened in Bekkersdal. Also, for the first time, South Africa saw violence directed at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), with registration and polling booths being burnt down. Due to the 13 million people who did not vote, it should concern the ANC that it governs with the expressed consent of only one out of every three citizens who are eligible to vote.

Parliament will certainly be a more interesting place with the red berets of the EFF

Yet, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) managed to increase its share of the vote to 22,23%. This is an increase from the 2009 result of 16,66%, but it still fails to match the DA’s performance in the 2011 local government elections, when it managed to garner just under 24% of the vote nationally. The DA had initially set its sights on 30% of the vote, yet that percentage was reduced quite early on in the election campaign. Always styling itself as the ‘next government,’ the DA would perhaps have expected a better showing overall at the polls in these elections.

Certainly, it managed to easily hold on to the Western Cape with a near 60% lead – which indicates quite clearly that the ANC in this province will need to think very hard about its 2016 local government elections campaign. In the Western Cape the DA also managed to bring out its base and core suburban vote; something the ANC did not manage to do in the townships. While the DA has grown overall, the question is whether it grown enough in the right places, or if too much of its growth is attributable to the implosion of the Congress of the People (COPE), which only managed to earn 0,67% of the vote this time around.

In Gauteng, the DA increased its share of the vote to 30,78% from 21,86%. This will surely create insecurity within the ANC, which has managed to hang onto Gauteng with 53,59%, compared to its 64,04% in 2009. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) managed 10,30% of the votes in Gauteng, suggesting an urban vote that is less loyal and more fluid. So, while the DA will be able to make a convincing and legitimate play for the cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane in 2016, the real question is whether they are managing to sufficiently penetrate township areas. The party had poured massive resources into winning Gauteng – yet did not come close. That’s worth remembering. Of course, the ‘new kid on the block’ EFF managed over 6%: pretty solid for a new party, though they did not do as well as COPE had in 2009.

Will these parties have the staying power to effectively engage in Parliament?

How will these election results translate into the corridors of power in Parliament? Well, the more things change the more they stay the same, one might say. The ANC returns to the fifth Parliament with a slightly reduced majority. The new Parliament will therefore be proportionally represented as follows: ANC 249 seats (down from 264); DA 89 (up from 67); EFF 25; Inkatha Freedom Party 10; National Freedom Party 6; United Democratic Movement 4; COPE 3 (down from 30); African Independent Congress 3; African Christian Democratic Party 3; Agang SA 2.

Parliament will certainly be a more interesting place with the red berets of the EFF on the opposition benches, and more rowdy DA members of parliament (MPs) to add to the mix. There is no love lost between the ANC and the EFF – and while this will no doubt spill over to the Parliamentary benches, constructive debate is what Parliament sorely needs at this juncture.

A key concern, of course, is also whether these parties will truly have the staying power to engage effectively in Parliament. The lessons of COPE are salutary here. It is also the battle of most smaller parties: are they able to stay the course and develop a Parliamentary strategy within committees, or is the workload simply too overwhelming? While the debates in plenary are often what catches the media and public’s attention, the system of committee work has a rich and vibrant history.

Yes, there have been moments when the ANC has unceremoniously used its majority to push through controversial pieces of legislation (the Protection of State Information Bill comes to mind), but committees mostly engage in sparring and ‘give and take’ around specific sections in bills before Parliament. The work is also often deeply technocratic. For newcomers like the EFF, this may prove a challenge – especially when trying to master the art of skipping from one committee to the next, trying to deal with issues as complex as trade and industry to minerals and energy. New MPs also need to become au fait with Parliamentary processes and procedures, often reducing the speed with which matters are taken care of. But process, once learnt, can be a powerful tool in the hands of newer, smaller parties.

The immediate question is who will be appointed speaker. Former speaker Max Sisulu attempted an even-handed job, despite pressure from his own party at times. Will the new speaker reinstate the committee investigating the Nkandla matter; or will deference to the constitution be of little concern? And will the very able Themba Godi retain his position as chair of the all-important oversight Committee on Public Accounts, which has tried to retrieve itself since the damaging arms deal debacle of 2000? For the individual parties, their choice of party whips (discipline is all important) and Parliamentary leaders will determine how successful they are at bringing people’s concerns from the streets to Parliament, be it through Parliamentary questions to ministers, or in committees.

President Zuma will most likely announce his cabinet a week or two after the first sitting of Parliament on 21 May. That is likely to provide clear indicators of his government’s commitment to implementing the National Development Plan (NDP), and also of the priorities of the state for the next five years.

Parliament’s oversight role in ensuring the ruling ANC delivers on its mandate will be axiomatic; whether Parliament rises to its constitutional challenges remains to be seen. The new characters on its stage must provide for more than titillation and fiery debate, but also for meaningful engagement with citizens. What is certain is that the fifth Parliament will be anything but dull. Let the games begin!

Judith February, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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