The 2019 South African Election: A Primer for Americans

On Wednesday, May 8th, South Africans will come out in their numbers to vote for national and provincial legislators in the country’s sixth general election since 1994. I’m a little ambivalent about writing this post, because I know I can’t really do justice to the subject in what little time I have to write (and finish this) before Wednesday, so it will be of some use.

Nevertheless, American media coverage of South African politics is, to put it mildly, abysmal. This is, I suspect, because South Africa is a complicated place that doesn’t neatly fit into any of the categories the American news uses to group the hazy collection of countries that are not America.

Essentially, we can boil the story of South Africa according to the American media down to four major nuggets of wisdom: (1) apartheid bad, (2) Nelson Mandela VERY VERY GOOD, (3) other black people probably bad, and (4) it’s Zimbabwe waiting to happen. There’s a certain awareness that apartheid was “bad,” but little understanding of why it was different than American Jim Crow. Nelson Mandela was a great man, but he’s remembered only for what he did after being released from prison (the smiling, harmless, grandfatherly Mandela), not for what got him there. He comes across as a South African version of a caricature of Martin Luther King, Jr.: acting heroically and on his own, without help from the thousands of other people of all races who fought and died for South African democracy. Despite Mandela’s brilliance, however, according to these commentators present-day South Africa is composed mainly of vengeful and incompetent black people who ignored his pleas for forgiveness and, by advocating the expropriation of land without compensation, are going to take the country down exactly the same path as Zimbabwe. It’s all very tidy.

I don’t have time to comprehensively address each of these points. Suffice it to say that each assumption contains a germ of truth: apartheid was a crime against humanity, Nelson Mandela was definitely a hero, lots of poor South Africans are unhappy with the slow pace of change post-’94, and land reform could indeed go poorly! But since Africa is very far away, and complexity is seen to be hard for many people, these ideas are often presented more or less nuance-free.

Election placards in Johannesburg

This is really a shame, however, because we could learn a lot from South Africa if we paid attention. After all, South Africa is the only place I’m aware of since the election of Donald Trump where a corrupt populist has actually been removed from power, where we can observe how the remains of a country’s democratic institutions are left to pick up the pieces. President Jacob Zuma presided over looting on a mass scale. In the thrall of the notorious Gupta family, he and his allies swept in on a wave of populist sentiment and proceeded to plunder almost everything they could get at, from the state revenue agency to the public broadcaster to the national airline. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who managed to oust him after narrowly beating his preferred successor in the race for African National Congress (A.N.C.) president, was one of the chief negotiators of South Africa’s democratic constitution. He’s urbane, soft-spoken to a fault, cautious but formidable. In other words, aside from being very rich, he is the perhaps the perfect cosmic antithesis of Donald Trump. Personally, he’s popular with almost all segments of society. But Jacob Zuma’s faction didn’t vanish into thin air when their leader left office. Like Donald Trump’s hardcore supporters, they remain an energetic minority within the A.N.C.’s leadership. They would jump at the chance to regain power, if only to stay out of jail.

The dilemma for ordinary voters has to do with South Africa’s unique proportional voting system. South Africa’s houses of parliament are elected on a purely proportional basis: you vote for a political party and depending how many votes they get a certain number of people off of their parliamentary candidates list take up office. Parliament, in turn, elects the president. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this system. The main rationale for it in 1994 was that it would protect minority rights in South Africa, but it was not meant to be a permanent solution; in 2003 the Van Zyl Slabbert commission recommended introducing multiple-member constituencies, but this was never enacted. Without constituencies, MPs and provincial legislators are essentially at the mercy of their party’s leadership, which decided whether they’re on its list. Ordinary citizens, in turn, have no say over who gets to be on the list. This is a dilemma because, for example, the A.N.C. list for 2019 includes many politicians credibly suspected of corruption mixed in with the anti-corruption hawks. If the A.N.C. returns to power with a strong mandate, which faction would be empowered? Likewise, if the A.N.C. takes a beating because of the corrupt politicians on its list, it’s possible that Ramaphosa will be weakened as leader of the party, or possibly removed. It’s fundamentally unclear how voters’ preferences on the ballot will affect what is in many ways the more important fight: a factional battle within the A.N.C. over which ordinary citizens don’t have much control.

What about the opposition? The second largest political party is the Democratic Alliance, or D.A., led by a charismatic young Barack Obama-wannabe named Mmusi Maimane. He’s the first black leader of the D.A., which is the successor to the Progressive Federal Party, the most racially liberal legal (white) political party during apartheid. The party’s positions are analogous to that of a very centrist Democrat in America: capitalism with a human face, skepticism about economic redistribution, and a professed commitment to diversity. These are middle class, suburban values, and the D.A. in recent years has attracted middle class voters of all races in the country. Most whites, Indians, and “Coloured” (mixed race) South Africans vote D.A., which has resulted in notable success: the party governs in one province, the Western Cape, and in three of South Africa’s largest cities: Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Tshwane (Pretoria). But with success has come new challenges. Corruption is easy to disavow when your party doesn’t control any largesse of its own, but when there’s loot to fight over, factional battles inevitably arise. Patricia de Lille, the popular (Coloured) mayor of Cape Town, was hounded from office recently on hazy and unsubstantiated corruption allegations; she has since founded her own political party. Helen Zille, the former leader of the party and the premier (governor) of the Western Cape, was suspended from the party (but not her office) after a lengthy and unedifying fight over tweets she wrote that implied colonialism wasn’t “all bad.” Which highlights the D.A.’s persistent cultural problem: many people will never vote D.A. because they see it as an essentially white party. Mmusi Maimane is a gifted orator, but these controversies and others have contributed to a narrative that he doesn’t really run the show; that the core of the party’s leadership is still very white and quite conservative. Because of the party’s troubles in the Western Cape, they are expected to lose votes on Wednesday overall but probably hold on to the province, since the A.N.C. leadership there remains inept and unpopular. Depending on the A.N.C.’s performance in Gauteng, the largest and most urbanized province, they have a shot at governing in a coalition there with the Economic Freedom Fighters and smaller parties. They are unlikely to make much of a dent in the other provinces, winning 20-25% of the nationwide vote.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (E.F.F.) are poised for big gains on Wednesday, expecting 10-15% of all votes. Now, I could spent pages and pages talking about Malema and what everyone and his uncle thinks about Bra Julius, as he’s known, but suffice it to say that he’s a brilliant man. I can remember when he was the firebrand president of the A.N.C. Youth League, convicted of hate speech for singing the struggle song “Dubula iBhunu” (“Shoot the Boer”) at rallies. Now, almost a decade later, he’s matured significantly, but remains something of a political chameleon. One day he’ll make statements that seem to advocate (or at least be open to) bigotry, violent revolt, and extremism, and the next day he’ll say things that seem eminently reasonable. His signature issues have always been expropriation of land without compensation and the nationalization of key industries, and, despite leading a fairly small party, he’s the one responsible for putting the land issue at the front of everyone’s mind. People used to accuse him of being unintelligent; they know better now. His base of support consists of people who are traditionally among the hardest to get to the polls: unemployed youth, the poor, the disaffected. But even if his party underwhelms on Wednesday, he’ll likely be right where he wants to be: in the catbird seat as a political kingmaker deciding whether the A.N.C. or the D.A. governs in key areas.

The three biggest issues in the election are pretty simple: land reform, corruption, and the state of the economy, which has remained pretty dismal since the Great Recession began. The A.N.C. and E.F.F. support land expropriation without compensation, but as yet there isn’t a concrete plan to enact this policy. The overseas media likes to portray this issue as Zimbabwe-redux, with fat, sunburned white farmers squaring off against hate-filled black zealots, but the reality is much more complicated. Nearly one in five South Africans lives in an informal or shack settlement, often without electricity, plumbing, or running water. Racist laws like the 1913 Natives’ Land Act and the 1950 Group Areas Act directly contributed to this state of affairs by enshrining white ownership of about 90% of the land and moving black people from cities to far-off, hellish “bantustans” and peri-urban “native locations,” later called townships. Thus, while many rural Africans want white-owned land for subsistence or commercial farming, the desire for land inside and close to cities is even more in demand, and much of this prime real estate is owned either by corporations or the state, and left idle. Thus the battle over land in South Africa isn’t so much about taking land away from white farmers (and remember that only a small minority of white South Africans are farmers), but redesigning the inherently racist spatial configuration of South African society.

This is, as you can imagine, incredibly tough to do. The laws that would address this have yet to appear in any form that I’ve seen. Even then, it’s no secret that while South Africa has some of the best laws in the world, implementation is an entirely different matter. I don’t think there will be any violent land grabs like we saw in Zimbabwe twenty years ago; South Africa and Zimbabwe have very different histories in this regard. I suspect and hope the powers that be will figure something out; but it will take someone above my pay grade to figure it all out.

The last thing I’ll say is this: corruption is the great vexation of modern South Africa, but it has deep structural roots going back literally centuries. The economy has always been structured in a very top-down manner, with almost every industry consolidated into the hands of a few massive enterprises who are able to exploit an enormous, largely unskilled and poorly-paid workforce. This, sadly, is a recipe for corruption, regardless of the moral probity of whoever happens to be in power (very much a colorblind disease, by the way). As much as I love and admire the democratic values of this country and its constitution, I don’t have confidence that any opposition party would do a much better job than the A.N.C. of preventing graft and looting. And, of course, the poor are the worst victims of corruption. When your children die falling into pit toilets at their primary school, your business fails because the power is cut to your house four hours a day, and you lose another job in the faraway city center because the commuter rail network is unsafe and unreliable, what use is the vote? Julius Malema is right to argue that the basic economic structure of South Africa needs to be overhauled, because if not the social contract is in great danger. I’m just not sure he—and if not he, who else?—is the man for the job.