• Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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South Africa and a looming election imbroglio

South Africa and a looming election imbroglio

On May 29, South Africans will be going to the polls in national and provincial elections to elect members of their National Assembly and their provincial legislatures. These will be the seventh elections since the country achieved universal adult suffrage with the official abrogation of apartheid in 1990 and the ground-breaking elections of 1994 that ushered in the ANC and the Mandela Presidency.

These may well be the most critical elections yet in the country’s history. It is a ‘To Be or Not To Be…’ moment for the ANC and for South Africa.

“South Africa has a unique, customised parliamentary democracy in which the elected head of government is a president with executive powers.”

There are four hundred seats in the National Assembly, and a majority vote requires a minimum of 201. In the current Assembly, the ANC has 230 seats, giving it a slim majority. That ability to proceed unfettered and to take its own destiny, and the nation’s, in its hands, has become increasingly tenuous over the years.

The writing on the wall was there for all to see in 2021, when, for the first time, the party failed to get up to 50 percent of the vote across the nation, losing support in the key provinces of Pretoria, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and Durban.

In August 2023, a multi-party charter was signed by other parties to oppose the ANC. Signatories were the Democratic Alliance (DA), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), ActionSA, Freedom Front Plus (FFPlus), United Independent Movement (UIM), and the Spectrum National Party (SNP). Two months later, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) joined the Charter. As it stands, the bloc has 112 of the 400 seats in Parliament, with the prospect of further gains.

There are two major forces pushing the opposition to unify their disparate agendas. One is to try to put an end to the prolonged dominance of the ANC.

The other is a very real worry on the part of many people concerning the rise and rise of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Stormy Petrel and former Youth ANC Youth League Leader Julius Malema.

South Africa has a unique, customised parliamentary democracy in which the elected head of government is a president with executive powers. Its unicameral legislature represents a sort of ‘lean and mean’ hybrid between the traditional parliamentary and presidential systems.

As elections approach and tensions run high, it is anticipated that South Africa, a country with a high crime rate and the unsavoury statistic of up to 84 murders a day, may experience a further unravelling of its social fabric. The stakes are high, and the players are letting fly with everything in their armoury. Buzz words fly about like bullets and flit across the headlines of newspapers. Crime. Land redistribution to empower black indigenes dispossessed by the racism of Apartheid, under the epithet ‘Expropriation without Compensation’. The loud accusations of ‘State Capture’. There is, too, the fallout of South Africa’s decision to take Israel to the International Criminal Court over its depredations in Gaza.

The dramatis personae in the political theatre are colourful. Every one of them is a focus of contradiction and controversy.

The ANC was founded in 1912. Its present leader, regarded by many as the designated heir of Nelson Mandela, is Cyril Ramaphosa. He has been president for four years and is seeking election for a second term. He has had a rocky time in office. There are positives, such as showing the courage to allow the law to take its course and send his popular predecessor Jacob Zuma to jail, despite political upheaval and the cost of political capital. There are negatives too, such as the still rampant perception of corruption, his own ‘Farmgate’ scandal, and accusations of ‘State Capture’ with ANC operatives profiting unfairly from government institutions. And an ailing economy. And a failing public power supply is leading to rolling power cuts. More recently, there has been a political fallout from taking Israel to the ICC and incurring the wrath of America.

Other players on the political scene include the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which scare many establishment people by advocating radical change, including the nationalisation of industries and land expropriation without compensation.

There are the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Freedom Front Plus (FF+), and United Democratic Movement (UDM).

Among the newer ones are ActionSA, Patriotic Alliance (PA), which uses populism and encourages xenophobia among disaffected blacks, Arise South Africa, and Rise Mzansi.

A curious one among the recent upstarts is the MK Party, founded in 2023 by Jabulani Sibongiseni Khumalo, a former ANC member. It is appropriating the populism and symbolism of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, which fought against white rule in the days of Apartheid. Its support by Jacob Zuma raises the possibility that it could make a strong showing, especially in Zuma’s base of Kwazulu Natal province.

Which way, South Africans?

The crystal ball is a fickle entity to stare through at a historic juncture like this.

The ANC will probably win the elections. Erosion of their majority in Parliament may necessitate a much-dreaded but almost inevitable working relationship with Malema’s EFF, which will cause pain but re-energise its dwindling street credibility. The challenge of this radical infusion may become the opportunity that will strengthen Ramaphosa’s hand to tackle land reform and redistribution, a move the ANC had previously failed to achieve through Parliament.

Standing up for freedom against oppression in Gaza and standing as the conscience of the world reflects a founding principle of the ANC. It may offend the USA and lead to economic consequences. But it will shore up Ramaphosa’s and South Africa’s position in African leadership, marking the beginning of a new era of mutual respect in international relations, an autonomous re-definition of African statehood and interests, and a brave readiness to get away from the begging bowl mentality that has characterised the continent’s relationships with Europe and America heretofore. It is a high-risk, high-reward scenario, fraught with danger, but capable of awakening a sleeping giant.