South African politics beyond Zille


On Sunday 12 April, Helen Zille – the leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) – announced that she would be stepping down.

This shift in the country’s political landscape is set to rekindle interest in the potential outcomes of the 2016 local government elections, the election of a new leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in 2017 and prospects for the national elections in 2019.

In February 2014, ahead of the May elections, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) published a set of scenarios for the future of South Africa up to 2030. This year is the horizon of the National Development Plan, which became government policy in 2012.

South Africa’s current development pathway, called ‘Bafana Bafana’, was the story of a perennial underachiever. ‘Mandela Magic’ was the story of a country with a clear economic and developmental vision that succeeds in implementing the National Development Plan. The third scenario, ‘A Nation Divided,’ reflected a South Africa that grows, but does so very slowly as factional dynamics and policy zigzagging open the door to populist politics.

Born-free voters are also expected to switch parties more readily than older voters

The May 2014 elections saw ANC support dropping by 6%; the DA increasing its support by 33% and the upstart Economic Freedom Fighters capturing a remarkable 6.4% of the votes cast. Modest as these changes were in real terms, they collectively represent the start of a fundamental shift in South Africa’s post-liberation politics. This is particularly true if seen within the broader context of the fractures within the ANC’s most important ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

The large decrease in voter participation further reflected that shift (which also points to apathy or declining support for the governing party), and a sense of drift as the country battled a hostile global financial climate over which it had little control. South Africa’s demographics will also affect the political landscape in other ways. The figure below presents the changing size of South Africa’s population, defined by year of birth for four cohorts for 2014, when the most recent national elections occurred, and the national polls scheduled for 2019, 2024, 2029 and 2034.

South Africa’s population by voting cohort and under 18s under national elections

Source: Author’s calculations based on International Futures 7.09

The four cohorts are: people born as part of the Union of South Africa up to 1961 (reflecting the triumph of Afrikaner nationalism); the period of black nationalist struggle (from 1962 to 1993); South Africans born in 1994 and thereafter who are old enough to register and vote; and finally children and youth not yet old enough to register and vote for the 2014, 2019, 2029 and 2034 elections.

The impact of these changes will first be felt in the upcoming 2019 national elections

The third category comprises the so-called ‘born-free voters,’ who are generally expected to exhibit different voting behaviour to their parents. Last year, only 3 million ‘born-frees’ were of voting age, but by the 2019 elections this number will jump to 8.3 million. It will increase with each election thereafter to the extent that by 2029, the number of born-free voters will roughly equal that of the other major voting cohorts.

By the 2034 elections, the number of born-free voters will be greater than the combined total of the other two voting cohorts. The impact of these changes will first be felt in the upcoming 2019 national elections, which the DA will now run under new leadership. The challenge will be to get born-frees to register and vote.

Pundits generally agree that the most significant drawcard for ANC voters is its liberation credentials. A vote for the ANC is a vote of solidarity in recognition of its remarkable legacy and key role in unshackling South Africa from apartheid. The memory and experience of apartheid and the role of the ANC in South Africa’s freedom struggle will dim with the steady increase in born-free voters. Instead, the demands for effective implementation and policies that deliver jobs, education and services will increase.

Born-free voters are also expected to switch parties more readily than older voters, thus increasing volatility in voting behaviour. This generational transition is key to the future of South Africa. Already, the high levels of integration in the education system and broader society bode well for a future where the demon of race has largely been put to rest, although unemployment and inequality will remain high.

How should we expect these dynamics to take shape in coming years? In an ISS Today published shortly after the May elections last year, I wrote that the outcome of those elections could see substantial change and potentially important shifts in party-political support, but these may take longer to play out than most would expect.

It may take longer than most expect to lift the ANC from power

The most likely scenario forecasts a steady but slow decline in ANC support at national level from 62% in 2014 to an estimated 50% at the time of the national elections in 2029. Support for the DA was expected to grow from its current 22% to roughly 40% during the same period. These forecasts were premised on higher economic growth forecasts than are currently expected, however, and did not fully unpack the impact of the change in voting cohorts set out in the figure above.

Both developments could accelerate change, although they assume that the DA would be able to continue with leadership and policy renewal and maintain past growth rates of around of 30% with each national election.

Education and urbanisation are two additional factors that will have an impact politically. Already the official opposition is eyeing South Africa’s economic heartland, Gauteng, as the next province to conquer. Although unlikely in 2019 (when the ANC could, however, lose its absolute majority in the province), the DA could reasonably gain majority support of Gauteng in 2024. Given the importance of Gauteng in the national economy, this could have a knock-on effect on political change in other provinces and open the door to a new era of coalition politics.

Together with changing demographics, poor economic growth will impact upon politics in one of two ways. The first is an inevitable rise in populism to the left of the ANC. If the ANC itself does not jump leftward, this could benefit either the Economic Freedom Fighters (if it does not itself implode) or the new United Front party that the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa intends to establish. The second likely effect is increased multiparty democracy and opposition to the ANC, most likely to the additional benefit of the DA.

It is possible that a reinvigorated ANC ­– under new leadership as from 2019 – may sustain its current high levels of popular support. This would, however, require changes in current trends of dissatisfaction and disaffection with public perceptions of levels of corruption, poor service delivery and nepotism. In the meantime, appropriate and effective leadership change within the DA could unlock additional momentum – but it may take longer than most expect to lift the ANC from power.

Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, Institute for Security Studies

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