By Barry Moody
Local elections in South Africa this month have inflicted a stinging blow on the long dominant ANC party of Nelson Mandela, punishing it for economic mismanagement and corruption.
But the result is a lot less surprising than how long it took to happen.
I covered several elections in South Africa, living for a while in Johannesburg, and was repeatedly astonished at the way in which the African National Congress appeared electorally immune to its failure to deliver the post-apartheid promise of equality and prosperity.
Since Mandela withdrew from politics in 1999 after his extraordinary success in ushering in a peaceful transition from white to majority rule, his presidential successors have sadly fallen short of his legendary status and rectitude.
While a black middle class has grown and senior figures have become extremely rich, some of them through huge corruption, much of the 80 percent black population continues to wallow in poverty and disadvantage.
Unemployment is more than 26 percent and around 50 percent among young people. The average income of the minority white population is about six times higher than that of blacks — a fact glaringly apparent in the luxury restaurants of Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Despite this, the ANC had remained dominant for two decades, with the black population stubbornly loyal to its historic savior and to the party that liberated it from the brutality of apartheid under Mandela in 1994. This is what changed in the August 3 elections.
It is a mark of the ANC’s dominance that any vote of less than 60 percent — the dream of ruling parties in many parts of the world — was seen both within and without the party as a turning point. Significantly then, the ANC polled 54 percent in last week’s local elections, compared to 62 percent in the 2014 general election and nearly 70 percent in 2004 national elections.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance, long shackled by its image as a party for affluent whites, took 27 percent of the vote in the municipal elections, with signs that it is finally making inroads among urban black voters, no doubt helped by its young, charismatic black leader Mmusi Maimane, who said the “tide was turning”.
The ANC lost control of the capital Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay, the area around Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. In Johannesburg, it hung on but will have to rule in coalition. In the DA’s Cape Town stronghold, it got less than a quarter of the vote.
The result should not be exaggerated. The ANC remains by far the biggest party and in the rural areas appears to be as popular as ever. But if the DA succeeds in replicating its successes in improving services in Cape Town, which it has ruled for a decade and where it won 67 percent of the vote, in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, then it could set itself up for a viable challenge for the presidency, if not for the next election in 2019 then by 2024.
Can the ANC stop the rot?
The ANC’s ability to stop a dangerous decline may depend on removing President Jacob Zuma, who has become a symbol of corruption and incompetence. A former anti-apartheid fighter in power since 2009, Zuma has been dogged by sexual and graft scandals throughout his career.
South Africa’s top cartoonist, Zapiro, habitually draws him with a shower protruding from his bald head, a reference to his assertion that taking a shower after sex with an HIV positive woman had protected him from infection. He escaped impeachment earlier this year in the latest scandal to tarnish his reputation, involving the spending of close to $20 million of public funds on upgrades to his private home.
Whatever the implications of this month’s vote, it is seen optimistically as a sign of maturing democracy in South Africa and its transition to a multi-party system.
That would be unlike many developing countries, including neighboring Zimbabwe, where a liberation party clings to power long past its sell-by date.
Barry Moody was Africa Editor for Reuters for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He worked on every continent as one of the agency’s most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. His postings included Italy, Asia, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.