South Africa election: Will optimism be rewarded with results?

In no election since Nelson Mandela became president in 1994 has turnout fallen below 73 percent.

Gwynne Dyer

All the major contenders in Wednesday’s elections in South Africa held their closing rallies last weekend, and some striking things were said. As usual, Julius ‘Juju’ Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF), won the prize for the most inflammatory statement.

Maybe he was more emotional than usual because his grandmother passed away last week, but at a huge rally in the Orlando stadium in Soweto on Sunday he actually urged the police to start killing politicians.

“Go and shoot the real criminals,” Malema said, talking about the South African Police (SAP). “If you want to shoot, go to Luthuli House and shoot Ace Magashule. If you want to shoot, go to Parliament and shoot the house which is full of criminals. Police officers, it is like you do not know where the thugs are. Come to me. I have a list.”

Ace Magashule, who has run the province called the Free State for a long time and is now also Secretary-General of the ruling African National Congress party (ANC), is indeed a thug. He is inexplicably wealthy, his critics in the Free State often have sudden and life-changing (or even life-ending) problems, and he probably does deserve to be shot by somebody. But preferably not by a member of the SAP.

As for shooting up parliament, this is a serious breach of political etiquette in most democratic countries. But the EFF crowd loved it, and Malema gets a free ride from the media and the police when he says this sort of thing. Everybody assumes that it’s just the way he talks. And the EFF will at least double its vote in this election – though that would still leave it with only a 14 or 15 percent share of the vote.

The bigger opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, still struggles to shed its old image as the party for well-meaning middle-class white people. The current leader, Mmusi Maimane, concentrated his fire on the ANC, which has been in power since the end of apartheid a quarter-century ago.

“They were once our liberators but today we need to be liberated from them,” Maimane told the crowd. It’s a pretty widespread sentiment, because not nearly enough has changed for the better for black South Africans in the past 25 years.

Like Malema, Maimane’s main target was the corruption that ran wild under the ANC’s last leader (and president of the country for nine years), Jacob Zuma. But the party is not radical enough to attract many people who are looking for major change, and its vote will probably fall (to only 21 percent, according to the last opinion poll) in Wednesday’s election.

Which means that the ANC may be able to win just enough votes (49.5 percent in the last poll) to cling to power with a narrow majority. But it may also have to form a coalition for the first time, probably with one or more of the smaller parties (although Malema has said that the EFF is also willing to join a coalition). And maybe things will really change, and maybe they won’t.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is not corrupt – he doesn’t need to be, since he is already a billionaire – and he does get some credit with the public for finally ousting the execrable Zuma. But he still faces huge resistance to root-and-branch reform within the ANC, many of whose senior members are not ready to walk away from the trough yet.

His own dedication to reform is also in doubt. He promised to make campaign donations to political parties completely transparent, for example, and the law was actually passed – but he delayed signing it long enough to benefit from the famously opaque old rules one last time in this election.

This is billed as a ‘pivotal’ election when South Africa finally turns a corner of some sort, but there is no good reason to believe it. South African economic growth is arthritic, running at below 2 percent while other African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia rack up 6-8 percent annual growth.

True, South Africa is still a much richer country, but it doesn’t feel rich to the working poor and the 27 percent who are unemployed. That’s higher than it was in the last years of the apartheid era, and higher than it was even ten years ago, so it’s little wonder that many people feel something akin to despair.

More kids are in school now, but the quality of public education has fallen even further, and it was never high. Millions of (very modest) new houses have been built, but the housing shortage is just as bad as ever. Public health services are in disrepair, there are frequent power cuts, and even the climate seems to have turned against South Africa (although the water crisis in Cape Town is in remission).

Given all this, and the widespread perception that corruption is rotting the country, it is remarkable that South Africans still have faith that their votes can change things. But they do: in no national election since Nelson Mandela became president in 1994 has the turnout fallen below 73 percent.

As long as it stays up there, you can’t really say that the situation is hopeless. But sooner or later, optimism has to be rewarded with results.

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