Nachricht | Economic / Social Policy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southern Africa The ANC’s Last Chance

Elections on 29 May present South Africa’s ruling party with an opportunity to recover lost credibility



Charles Simane, Roland Ngam,

There are unprecedented expectations that the South African general elections to be held on 29 May 2024 will lead to a sea change in the country’s politics due to a set of inextricably intertwined challenges: a gloomy post-COVID economic context, constrained electricity supply, sabotage and organized crime, unemployment, inequality, worsening climate shocks, and overall socioeconomic malaise exemplified by the June 2021 riots.

Charles Simane is a Project Manager at the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC) in Johannesburg.

Roland Ngam works as a Programme Manager for Climate Justice at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Johannesburg Office.

A recent IPSOS poll has given many people even more hope that the African National Congress (ANC) can finally be toppled. However, a more educated analysis of the South African context does not point to a seismic shift in national politics. Furthermore, a failure by the ANC to secure a majority will neither fundamentally nor structurally transform South Africa’s market democracy.

These elections are not going to be about the ANC’s defeat. That is not the story. The ANC still enjoys strong loyalties in many parts of the country. For millions of people in rural areas, the question is going to be: how do you vote against a party that has given you virtually everything you have? After all, the ANC has presented itself as one with the state. This is really the dilemma that currently inhabits the collective consciousness.

Furthermore, post-apartheid South Africa is a bifurcated state where rural leadership has been stripped of its African roots and remodelled into “decentralized despotism”. This leadership has deep loyalties to the ANC and knows how to marshal votes for the party. As Roland Ngam has argued recently, South Africa is still a country of two economies, and that works very much in the ANC’s favour. The ANC has been aware of this and has pulled out all the stops to right the ship ahead of the elections. Whether this is going to be enough to cause its final tally to dip below 50 percent and, ipso facto, usher in an era of coalition politics at the national level is really the key question of these elections.

The Socioeconomic Context

The post-COVID context in South Africa has been decidedly gloomy. In fact, most of the country’s challenges predate the pandemic. For example, household food insecurity and hunger have been on the rise since 2015. The past ten years have been characterized by runaway corruption at different levels (national, provincial, and local).

During the Jacob Zuma years, the party was taken over by a new kind of cadre that was more interested in winning government tenders, synonymous with quick self-enrichment. So rampant was the looting that the ANC itself calls Zuma’s tenure “the nine wasted years” which produced the notorious Gupta brothers who are accused of effectively capturing the state and hollowing out some of its capacity, especially the South African revenue services and its ability to collect sufficient revenue for service delivery.

At the local level, self-serving ANC leaders introduced the trend of “it is our time to eat”, spending lavishly on fancy cars, houses, expensive trips to Dubai and elsewhere, and making side deals on major projects such as on the construction of houses for the poor. This corruption in housing projects has resulted in dubious business forums infamously referred to as the “construction mafia”.

The general mood in the country turned foul, and a number of political parties have since been created as people try to provide the answers that the ANC does not seem to have.

Service delivery suffered as a consequence. Parastatals like PRASA and Metrorail fell into disrepair, complicating life for the poorest of the poor. Rural hospitals and economies generally underperformed. An erratic electricity supply, beginning in 2007, significantly worsened from 2019 on when the ageing coal infrastructure and its 81 units could not maintain an energy availability factor above 60.

To be sure, the 2008 global economic downturn also hit manufacturing and exports, but many of the challenges are due to poor leadership. Unemployment currently stands at just 32 percent (in the expanded definition, it is 41.1 percent), meaning over 11 million people are jobless, with young graduates the most impacted. About 1 million people enter the job market every year and the economy’s inability to absorb more people has been one of the major talking points in the country since the end of the COVID pandemic — besides the electricity supply, of course.

The July 2021 riots following former President Jacob Zuma’s incarceration on contempt of court charges were characterized by the looting of major supermarkets and shopping centres and brought racial tensions to an all-time high in democratic South Africa. The general mood in the country turned foul, and a number of political parties have since been created as people try to provide the answers that the ANC does not seem to have.

The Political Context

A number of political parties hope to topple the ANC on 29 May. They fall broadly into three categories.

The first group is the liberal parties, and the top choice of course is the Democratic Alliance (DA), the number-one opposition party in parliament. The DA has done a fairly good job in the province it controls, the Western Cape, even if not all people in the Western Cape are benefitting from that. However, the DA is a majority white party, and it has become decidedly whiter after its efforts to consolidate its white voter base following the 2019 elections.

When the majority-white Freedom Front Plus (FF+) scored some surprising victories in rural areas in 2019, the DA brought back party heavyweight Helen Zille to right the ship. This process led to some Black leaders leaving the party: Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba, Phumzile Van Damme. Others like Lindiwe Mazibuko had already left the party. This gave the perception that the DA only caters to white voters. It did not help that Helen Zille had referred to Black South Africans who relocated from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape as “refugees”. The DA’s advert depicting people burning the South African flag is only going to alienate people even more.

Some of the former Black leadership of the DA have since formed their own parties. Herman Mashaba started his ActionSA and Mmusi Maimane has created Build One South Africa (BOSA) which promises “one job in every household” if elected. The general problem with the DA, BOSA, and ActionSA is that they have liberal manifestos that all want to do away with the minimum wage and make significant cuts to the social security grants, and this of course plays into the hands of the centre-left ANC. The DA’s problems are compounded by the Patriotic Alliance, whose campaign highlights the fact that the DA’s message of Western Cape exceptionalism does not include the Black and Coloured areas of the Province.[1]

The Patriotic Alliance, ActionSA, and the newly formed Operation Dudula party form the second cohort of key challengers to watch. Operation Dudula started as a pressure group with the messaging of “dudula”, i.e. pushing out foreigners. All three parties have been messaging heavily on pushing out foreigners from South Africa as a solution to creating more jobs for South Africans.

The largest chunk of the voter base is reliably ANC and it will be hard to prise them away.

Then there are the Black majority centrist parties. These include the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the Inkatha Freedom Party, and Songezo Zibi’s Rise Mzansi party. The EFF has a charismatic leader, Julius Malema, the former ANC Youth League President now turned opposition figure. The EFF is expected to either stagnate or lose some ground due to its steadfast refusal to join in the anti-foreigner messaging that has seduced some of its support base.

Currently, the EFF’s key messages are dismantling white monopoly capital, the nationalization of some key banks and institutions, as well as actualizing the Freedom Charter’s priority of land for Black South Africans. Interestingly, it has not been as vocal about land to the tiller as it was in the build-up to the 2019 general elections. Rise Mzansi seeks to draw from the growing Black middle class, those that former President Jacob Zuma once scornfully referred to as ungrateful “clever Blacks”, those “who walk their dogs” in the suburbs.

Lastly, there are also parties with regional strongholds. These include the FF+ and former President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe party. These parties are set to benefit from the hollowing out of the National Freedom Party, which was founded by the late Zanele kaMagwaza Msibi. The Inkatha Freedom Party and uMkhonto we Sizwe can capture KwaZulu-Natal province, but they will struggle elsewhere. There has been a lot of consternation in the ANC following former President Jacob Zuma’s decision to start a new party and challenge his former liberation comrades. The speculation is that Jacob Zuma is looking to get more protection by joining parliament, positioning his children in politics, and get leverage to extract more ANC support for his legal battles.

There is a final cohort of parties that are more localized, operating on the district level. Their priority is taking over local municipalities or regional districts, as Themba Godi’s African People’s Convention has done for years. The success of the Al Jama-ah party in the Johannesburg metropolitan council, with their representatives twice being elected mayor, has shown how small parties can punch above their weight within coalitions.

Likely Election Outcomes

There has been an initiative to create a united opposition front. However, the differences between heavyweights like the EFF and the DA mean that the opposition remains decidedly divided. To be sure, many voters in urban areas are going to abandon the ANC due to corruption, and issues around service delivery and electricity supply. However, the preponderance of options means that a divided opposition will cannibalize each other and help the ANC’s cause. In all likelihood, the ANC may dip below 50 percent of the vote and usher in coalition politics at a national level.

However, despite some commentators’ claims, this is not set in stone. Electricity supply has improved significantly, lifting the general mood. The trains are also running again in communities where service was discontinued a few years ago. Some ANC premiers like Panyaza Lesufi and Zamani Saul have also created thousands of job opportunities for young people. There were zero days of load shedding in April and very few in March.

Things need to change and the ANC has to prioritize a number of things if it wants to rehabilitate its image.

Opposition parties had hoped that blackouts would continue and aid their cause. However, renewable energy supply and help from open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) are helping to keep the lights on, causing some disappointed parties to say that this is just temporary, that load shedding will be back with a vengeance right after the elections.

To circle back to our initial argument, the largest chunk of the voter base is reliably ANC and it will be hard to prise them away. IPSOS polls do not capture the views of rural voters as much as they do those in urban centres. There is also the fact that rural voters, who form the biggest voter base, are not affected by the same issues that afflict voters in urban areas. Their daily lives are not interrupted as much by issues like potholes and power cuts. One woman made the case to President Ramaphosa on a campaign stop: “Our children are graduating, but they are not getting jobs.” In her case, her children had been able to access higher education thanks to grants from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) — an ANC policy.

If the ANC does dip below a 50 percent vote share, as there is little chance that they will go below 40 percent, they will look for safer coalition bets with smaller regional parties headed by former ANC members.

What Needs to Change after the Elections

Finally, this is what the May 2024 elections are really about: it is the Last Chance Saloon and the 2024 elections certainly have many people in the ANC rattled. Things need to change and the ANC has to prioritize a number of things if it wants to rehabilitate its image. Many of the fixes should be applied in rural areas where the majority of Black people live.

The first one is providing rural municipalities with appropriate resources and powers so that they start delivering the kind of services that people need. The predominantly rural municipalities face chronic challenges such as severe fiscal constraints.

The main source of revenue is government grants through the Local Government Equitable Share (LGES). For some of these municipalities, as much as 73 percent of their revenue comes from this grant. The Municipal Infrastructure Investment Framework (MIIF) classifies predominantly rural municipalities as B4 municipalities, last on the scale. Small-town municipalities are third with a B3 classification, larger towns are B2, and metropolitan municipalities are B1. Unlike urban-based municipalities, the B4 municipalities have lower revenue from property taxes, an extremely limited tax base with very few people earning a taxable income, high consumer debt, and are often sparsely populated, thus having fewer customers and limited commerce in their areas. Critically, there is also very little industrial activity in these municipalities.

Their problems are compounded by skills shortages hampering their capacity to generate internal revenue from rates and taxes. This results in the mismanagement of property rates, such as incorrect water and electricity tariff charges, errors in valuing properties, the inability to execute licensing fees, and fines. Rural municipalities are struggling to manage their customer accounts due to a lack of expertise in their revenue and customer management department. The Auditor General, Tsakani Maluleke in her 2021/2022 Local Government Audit found that municipalities were extremely reliant on external consultants, such that since 2019, over 5 billion rand (251 million euro) had been spent on consultants. That is a staggering figure! She found that they relied on consultants even for their most basic functions, such as preparing financial statements and asset management.

Municipalities have been used to provide easy employment for politically connected individuals who in several cases have no qualification for the posts they hold. That has to change. The incoming government must urgently work on turning this dire situation around. Capacity for revenue building must be improved as a matter of urgency, so that predominantly rural municipalities can improve their billing systems, tax collection, the execution of fines, and proper licensing systems.

This must be accompanied through proper fiscal management to ensure that municipalities comply with the fiscal regulations of the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA) and that there is proper monitoring and evaluation. This work requires the professionalization and reskilling of local government. Unfortunately, the system of political appointments (known as “cadre deployment”, which potentially leads to cronyism) has hurt these efforts.

Building internal capacities and efficient systems is just the first step. The seventh administration government must ensure that it invests in small rural businesses such as small-scale farmers and fishers as well as the cooperatives under which they organize. Unfortunately, the neoliberal posture of the current government has worsened structural inequality, creating a situation where investments are targeted at large-scale exporting businesses and leaving small-scale businesses without access to much-needed capital.

Rural schools still struggle with chronic staff shortages and essential vacancies are not being funded by the national government.

Creating access to markets and capital for rural businesses will require investments in infrastructure such as transportation networks and market linkages, for example linking small-scale farmers to informal traders. Investment in rural economies must be centred on rural development, and on the improvement of people’s lives rather than the capitalist drive to extract surplus value from rural workers.

Microcredit schemes are inherently anti-developmental. Microcredit in South Africa has been driven by the neoliberal path that the state took, abandoning the initial Reconstruction and Development Programme and adopting the World-Bank backed Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) programme which prioritized loans over grants, as well as privatization and indigenizing the neoliberal market-driven path. The incoming administration must learn from the failures of microcredit schemes for rural entrepreneurs.

Already, South Africans are facing a debt crisis. A study conducted by Nedbank in 2023 found that South Africans are spending more than their income and many are locked in a debt trap, needing loans to service existing debts. In this situation, debt-based rural finance would be a disaster. The parties seeking to unseat the ANC must understand this. Microfinance must go beyond loans — it must be centred on training, capacity building, and skill development. There must be other accompanying financial instruments so as to reduce the risk of failure for small businesses and cooperatives. Lessons can be drawn from the Micro Agricultural Financial Institutions of South Africa (MAFISA) programme, launched in 2004 but which has now been silenced.

MAFISA was not just a market-driven financial instrument that dished out loans. Instead, it was a microfinance model that prioritized the creation of a developmental ecosystem. It provided training for entrepreneurs with an understanding of the historical realities of how apartheid suppressed Black enterprise. Thus, it was more than an agrarian micro-lending instrument — MAFISA emphasized land reform, the formation of cooperatives, access to markets, enterprise insurance, and dealing with collusion and anti-competitive practices by agro-corporations which were stifling any threats to their established modus operandi.

In 2008, the government launched the Ilima-Letsema programme which was aimed at increasing small-scale and subsistence food production. Over 3 billion rand has been spent on this programme, with little to no results. Instead, the programme has been found to privilege educated and well-resourced farmers, thus widening inequality between farmers. It failed to enable small-scale farmers’ access to markets and did not prioritize training. The programme has also been marred by corruption, prompting President Cyril Ramaphosa to sign Proclamation R114 of 2023 for the Special Investigating Unit to investigate associated fraud and corruption allegations.

It is crucial that the parties seeking to unseat the ANC understand the structural conditions that made these programmes fail. It is quite regrettable that their manifestos read more like a wish list than a strategic plan on how to address the issue of rural transformation. The ruling party is now promoting the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan (AAMP) for rural agro-finance, which is based on the illusion of privatization and an export-oriented rural economy, and which must be critically dealt with after the May election.

The next administration must seriously invest in education in rural areas. In 2007, the government started the “no-fee” schools programme. It was designed to help learners in the poorest 40 percent of schools to study without paying fees: from grade R (reception, for children aged 5–6) up to grade 9. The programme has been extended to grade 12, meaning that it covers the entire basic education system.

The programme itself should be applauded, as it has provided education access to millions of learners from poor households. The programme is accompanied by the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), which now feeds over nine million learners daily. These are transformative programmes but they face other challenges. The truth is that educational challenges cannot be properly addressed with a single focus on one issue. They require systems thinking to understand the myriad of interconnected poles that cause and perpetuate them. Free education and free meals are not enough if the schools themselves are chronically understaffed.

Rural schools still struggle with chronic staff shortages and essential vacancies are not being funded by the national government. For the funded posts, a single teacher will often have to handle twice the number of students as their urban counterpart. Not to mention the difficulties of accessing rural schools. There have been several incentives to try to recruit teachers to rural schools but challenges remain, including infrastructure in the schools, lack of technological equipment, and the safety both of teachers and learners, with several incidents of students falling to their death inside pit toilets. The introduction of a new curriculum without properly preparing teachers must be addressed.

The incoming administration must also deal with the “textbook mafia”, that is organized criminal syndicates who illegally print textbooks, steal textbooks from schools, inflate prices when selling textbooks to schools, and commit other related crimes. The efficient distribution of textbooks is crucial for rural education.

South Africa also needs a deep transformation in the educational zeitgeist. The youth are encouraged to study for the job market, and receive marks for careerism. Teachers focus on marks and reports (“teaching to the test”), while students are passing grades without the ability to read for meaning. This must be addressed.

The land debate must go beyond mere sloganeering.

Deeper questions have to be asked, not just about the pedagogical aspects of education, but the epistemological dynamics; students must study to improve their knowledge, to understand the world and theorize reality and consciousness, to speak the language of mathematics (beyond just solving for x). The current career-oriented educational system is creating an ignorant generation who lack important literacy skills.

The challenges of rural communities are being compounded by the impacts of the climate crisis. The impacts of climate change on subsistence economies in South Africa are well documented. Subsistence food producers in rural areas are quite susceptible to climate change-induced droughts. For example, 2015 saw an average rainfall of 403 mm, the lowest amount recorded since 1904. As of the end of 2015, 45,000 cattle had died in KwaZulu-Natal. In the municipalities of Uthukela and uMzinyathi, 42 percent of cattle and 28 percent of goats perished, while rainfall dropped to 343 mm across the province. South

Africa receives a lower mean annual precipitation (MAP) than the global average of 860 mm. In 2001, South Africa’s MAP was about 496 mm, while in 2010 it decreased further to an average of 450 mm. The distribution of rainfall across the country is uneven, with a significant decline from 1900 mm in the east to less than 50 mm in the west. Additionally, about 21 percent of South Africa receives less than 200 mm of rainfall annually. The climate crisis is rapidly worsening water scarcity, with detrimental impacts in rural households. The seventh administration must urgently develop adaptation plans to deal with this. These must be inclusive plans, developed bottom-up, not technocratic “box-ticking” exercises that ignore people’s lived experiences. The national climate change bill that has just been sent to President Ramaphosa is a good place to start.

The land issue must be addressed decisively. It is an aberration that 30 years after the first elections in the democratic dispensation, land has not been redistributed to Black South Africans. This has to change. There must be opportunities for Black South Africans to have land on which to build either homes or farming endeavours, giving them access to better nutrition and opportunities.

The land debate must go beyond mere sloganeering — such as the EFF’s “expropriation without compensation” — it must be based on transformative approaches to land reform. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the government introduced the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant. It was ZAR 350 (EUR 17.73) per month. This grant went a long way in helping people navigate the economic crunch of high inflation, especially food price inflation, during the height of the pandemic. There have been several calls to scale this up into a basic income grant. The Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC) has done the economic modelling for a fiscally-neutral basic income grant.

These systemic changes must be explored and implemented to save rural South Africa.

[1] Although the term is considered offensive in many English contexts, in South Africa, “communities designated as coloured are primarily descended from the Khoisan people who originally inhabited the western parts of South Africa, from Asian and African slaves brought to the Cape from the earliest years of the colony, from European settlers, and from other Africans”.