Geoff Hill

Who will win South Africa’s election?

President of the African National Congress and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (Getty Images)

From the start, it didn’t look good this time round for the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since Nelson Mandela came to power in the first democratic elections 30 years ago. Since mid-2023, polls for the ANC have ranged from 38 per cent to the high-40s, a long way down from the 57 per cent President Cyril Ramaphosa had won five years ago.

ANC party faithful have long chanted, ‘We will rule till Jesus comes’

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) says it will only have the full results by Sunday, given the unexpectedly high turnout. At the first national vote in 1994, a stunning 87 per cent took part, but in 2019 a third of those registered to vote stayed away. This time turnout has risen, though final figures are get to be released. As the count proceeded, the IEC released provisional numbers showing the ANC fluctuating around 43 per cent, well short of the 201 seats out of 400 that they need for a majority in a parliament of 400.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) led by John Steenhuisen is the official opposition, but lost votes in 2019 under his predecessor, Mmusi Maimane. Electing a white man to lead a party in Africa seemed a bold move when the DA chose Steenhuisen in 2019, but initial results suggest his party has done well. ‘I think we are past the age when the colour of your skin mattered in South African politics,’ he told a pre-election briefing in Johannesburg. ‘People want jobs and a better life and they don’t care who delivers it.’

Voting here is not by constituency. Rather, the total is tallied then each party’s count is divided by 400 to calculate how many seats they have won. Parties release a pre-election list with names of those who will fill their seats from the most senior member at number one. Even groups unlikely to win a single place in the house will often file a hundred or more candidates. As in an any democracy, politicians insist their side is on course to victory.

For the most part, there was no violence around the polling stations on Wednesday, and despite the queues, the mood was jovial and relaxed. With 11 official languages and nine provinces across an area of close to half-a-million square miles, both polls and statistics are difficult, but all the surveys agreed on one point: unemployment was the top issue for voters. Officially one-in-three people are out of work, rising to almost half of those aged under 30. But how do you class a woman in her 20s with good grades at high school and sometimes further study who sells bags of fruit at the roadside? The state ticks her as having a job; she will tell you she sells fruit a few hours a day to pay rent and spends the rest of her time sending out CVs and knocking on doors.

It is possible up to three-quarters of the urban black population consider themselves unemployed, reason enough not to vote ANC.

Then there have been the rolling power cuts, up to eight hours a day from the state-monopoly Eskom that provides most of the country’s electricity. Overstaffed and in debt, critics say Eskom, South African Airways and other companies owned by government are little more than sheltered workshops where the ministers’ families and friends and party loyalists are guaranteed a job. Mysteriously, in March this year the blackouts stopped, and the government insists this was not a trick to win votes but merely a coincidence that all the generators out for repair had been fixed. Cynical voters responded by joking that after the election, ‘South Africa’s D-Day’ would arrive. The D stands for ‘darkness’: the lights, they say, will again go off.

Mandela’s pledge of ‘a better life for all’ has turned out to be better for those at the top. Motorcades of late model Mercedes move back and forth from the seat of government at Union Buildings in Pretoria as ministers attend meetings, but for many in this nation of 62 million, owning a bicycle is out of reach.

For the rest of the continent, this is a land of opportunity. The GDP of Johannesburg is larger than neighbouring Zimbabwe and Botswana combined, and millions of ‘border jumpers’ have crossed illegally into South Africa. As in the UK and America, this is a political issue, especially when jobs are so scarce, and attacks on foreigners are not uncommon.

A high turnout has traditionally favoured the ANC. Maybe not this time. In any country, those with a grievance will queue to vote, and former president Jacob Zuma appears to have robbed his former party of victory. In 2018, they removed him from office before the end of his second and final term over endless claims of corruption and he now faces a number of charges in the courts. Zuma denies any wrongdoing and in January formed his own party, uMkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), named for the ANC’s armed wing when it fought against white minority rule. In those days, Zuma was head of intelligence for MK and exiled in Zambia.

But where the ANC says it fought so that all South Africans could enjoy democracy, Zuma’s party is bound up with the politics of tribe. He is a Zulu, the people raised to prominence in the early 1800s under their warrior-king Shaka. In 1879, it was the Zulu who defeated the might of the British army at the battle of Isandlwana north of Durban.

South Africa has no racial majority, but the Zulu make up a quarter of the population and Zuma is by far their most senior politician. He denies stirring up ethnic unrest, but the majority of his vote — currently on 8 per cent — came from his home province of Kwa Zulu Natal, known here as KZN. This is not enough to account for ANC’s hammering, which appears to have been nationwide, but it is in KZN where they have lost the most votes. Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been loud as usual. They want to nationalise banks, mines and land sans compensation, but have never been a force. In 2019 they won just over 10 per cent of seats, and have suffered a slight drop this election.

The question, then, is who will form an administration, and how? For all the criticism, the ANC has led a business-friendly government; in a bond with the EFF, the tail would always be trying to wag the dog. John Steenhuisen has ruled out a coalition with the ANC, but David Cameron said the same of the Liberal Democrats before he fell short of a majority at the UK election of 2010. Still, the Conservatives had not been in power for three decades in a country where close to half the population were either too young to remember or not yet born when they first took office.

That is what has shaken the ANC, and the population at large.  The party faithful have long chanted, ‘We will rule till Jesus comes’. That day of atonement is now at hand, and no one is sure of how the political afterlife might play out.

Written by
Geoff Hill

Geoff Hill is a Zimbabwean journalist and author of The Battle for Zimbabwe. His book of short stories, Pharaoh’s Bath, will be published later this year.

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