How South African Politics Is Going to Extremes

How South African Politics Is Going to Extremes

Supporters of South African radical-left opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters gesture as they sing, cheer and dance during a mass rally marking the party's fourth anniversary at the Curries Fountain Stadium in Durban.

SourceRAJESH JANTILAL/Getty

Why you should care

The ANC and the Democratic Alliance remain the country’s political poles, but they’re losing ground to more extremist parties. 

This is not a winner-takes-all kind of story. In an April 10 by-election in a Soweto ward, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) won comfortably with 72 percent of the vote. But in this ANC stronghold — and the largest township in South Africa — the victory actually marked a 5 percent loss in votes compared to 2016. Upstart conservative and church-backed African Transformation Movement (ATM), meanwhile, reaped almost exactly that 5 percent difference in votes.

Just over 600 miles away in a predominantly White Afrikaner ward in the coastal town of George, the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country’s official opposition party, retained its seat with 73 percent of the vote — down from 92 percent three years ago. There, the conservative Afrikaner-led Freedom Front Plus (FF+) saw its share rise from 3 to 17 percent. These margins of victory are wide enough to point to the likely result of national elections when South Africa goes to the polls on May 8, namely that the ANC is expected to win under President Cyril Ramaphosa while the DA is likely to retain its status as the main opposition party.

But they also indicate that a slow but definite shift is underway. The declining vote share of both major parties in recent bypolls shows that the ANC and DA are losing ground to parties with more extreme positions.

The patience of the electorate is wearing thin.

Mzoxolo Mpolase, political analyst


Amid a lingering stain of corruption on the one hand, and frustration over unfulfilled promises on the other, the ANC is now predicted by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) to win 54.2 percent of the national vote — down from 62.1 percent in 2014. It’s being squeezed on its right by the ATM and the similarly conservative African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), and on the left by the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (who stand for redistribution of both land and wealth without compensation). The EFF is polling at more than 12 percent, double their 6 percent showing in 2014.

The DA has its own share of problems. Its long-running focus on trying to win over Black nationalist voters has led to the neglect of the concerns and sensitivities of its core Afrikaner vote, says James Myburgh, a political observer and editor of Politicsweb, a political analysis website. In its stronghold, Western Cape province, the party’s majority is now marginal, with the more extreme FF+ and other small parties such as the ACDP and the newly formed GOOD eating into its vote.

This shift could force the two big parties to also pander to more extreme sentiments, a move that could reshape the future of South African politics. For the ANC and the DA, the message is clear, says political analyst Mzoxolo Mpolase: “The patience of the electorate is wearing thin.”

An early test of the compromises the ANC and DA may need to make could come from the province of Gauteng, which contains both Johannesburg and Soweto and is the economic hub of the country. In provincial elections — held with the national elections — the EFF could corner as much as 18 percent of the vote, according to the IRR’s latest poll. That could leave the ANC without a majority there. Both the DA and the ANC might need to consider a coalition with the EFF — a prospect that neither party will relish — to govern the province, says Gareth van Onselen, IRR’s head of politics and governance.

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EFF supporters rally and sing songs outside the Pretoria High Court.

Source Christopher Furlong/Getty

Even within the ANC, Ramaphosa’s narrow grip on his party means there’s a constant trade-off between his capitalist-friendly ideas and more radical leftist elements. Not to mention pressure from the EFF. If the ANC “was even relatively stable and coherent,” says van Onselen, the EFF “wouldn’t get more than 6 or 7 percent.” While the DA won’t bleed as many votes as the ANC, he says, it is “an indictment” that after 10 years of the widely discredited Jacob Zuma’s fraught rule they aren’t doing better than a distant second place.

Globally, mainstream parties that have tried to cater to more extreme sentiments to ward off populist threats have managed to hold on to power longer — but whether in Germany or Italy, they’ve not managed to wean support away from populists. It’s no different in South Africa, suggests Mpolase. “Voters are going shopping because the main parties don’t know who they are,” he says.

Meanwhile, public leadership squabbles in the Western Cape have also undermined the DA’s support there. The party is multiracial — with comparable representation of Blacks, Whites and voters of mixed European/African/Asian ancestry, apart from 8 percent Indian voters. That contrasts with the ANC (96 percent Black) and EFF (98 percent Black). But in a country still dealing with the effects of apartheid, that’s not necessarily a recipe for success. Especially when the party’s “leadership fails to convey any great sense of conviction as to what they really believe in,” says Myburgh.

Contrast this with the radical EFF and their firebrand leader, Julius Malema, who — love him or hate him — knows exactly what he stands for. While “some of the EFF’s stances may be borderline unconstitutional,” says Mpolase, “they are unapologetic.” The EFF has very clear internal policies and “strong top-down leadership,” says van Onselen.

Minority parties on the other side of the spectrum also have a clear idea of what matters to their voters. The FF+ is often dismissed as a throwback to apartheid because of their opposition to land redistribution without compensation and their emphasis on minority rights. But the party “is not actually super conservative,” says Mpolase, citing their support for freedom of the press as an example. The rise of the ATM, ACDP and FF+ represents a rejection of the chaos of ANC rule, he says.

For sure, not all evidence of the expansion of these more extreme parties will translate into votes in the national elections. The EFF, for instance, performed better than ever in student elections in 2018, taking control of campuses across the country. Van Onselen, however, is reluctant to read too much into this: “They’re not real elections,” he says, “and besides, the youth don’t vote.”

The “squeeze factor,” says van Onselen, has also played a major role in all of South Africa’s most recent elections. The DA runs explicit (and historically extremely effective) campaigns imploring citizens not to split the opposition vote. The ANC similarly “squeezes Black voters” to return to their “natural” political home. And the ATM, which ate into the ANC’s vote in the Soweto by-election, suffered a split in late April.

Still, all the evidence suggests 2019 is unlikely to be a stellar election for the ANC or the DA. But will the results cause either party to change tack? It’s unclear, experts say. The ANC, according to Mpolase, will likely — given its track record — “carry on as per normal,” with “no reflection, introspection or internal renewal.” They will, he says, “simply be grateful for having retained” power.

What is clear is that South Africa is changing. And the two main parties risk ignoring that — and smaller parties — at their own peril.

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