By John Campbell, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: John Campbell is the Ralph Bunch Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. The views expressed are his own.
South Africa and the world have, since his death on December 5, been in the grip of a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy. Yet the country will be moving quickly on, with the nitty gritty of national elections in March 2014. This process, and the formation of the resulting government, will dominate the first half of the year. Mandela was the public face of the governing African National Congress (ANC), which has always benefited from his halo effect. President Jacob Zuma no doubt hopes that will continue.
The ANC is the dominant element in a ruling coalition with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). SACP and COSATU contest elections under the mantle of the ANC, not as separate political parties. Throughout his life, Mandela was an unstinting ANC party man. In the aftermath of his death, some mourning events have had the coloring of a party rally. The party and President Zuma are doing all they can to maintain an association between Mandela and the ANC. But Mandela’s death also highlights the gulf between his ideals and current South African reality. When he appeared on the screens during the memorial service, Zuma was booed.
The odds remain favorable that the ANC will coast to electoral victory on Mandela’s coattails, one more time. But the margin of victory is likely to shrink. If the coalition’s seats in parliament fall below sixty percent, and if the opposition is able to capture an additional provincial government, South African politics could undergo a sea change.
Up to now, South Africa’s free, fair, and credible elections have been essentially a racial census. The ANC-led coalition has received the overwhelming majority of black votes – blacks make up about 80 percent of the population. That has regularly ensured the coalition controls about two-thirds of the seats in parliament. The association of Nelson Mandela with the ANC is a driver of this support, with whites and “coloreds” traditionally voting for the primary opposition party, now the Democratic Alliance (DA). There have also been a handful of other small, mostly black, political parties that have disproportionate influence in parliament because of South Africa’s system of proportional representation. This paradigm may be breaking down, and Mandela’s death, depriving the ANC of its primary icon, could accelerate that process.
Meanwhile, the ANC is increasingly tarred with crony corruption, poor service delivery in the townships, and is blamed (perhaps unfairly) for slow economic growth, and an educational system that is failing to prepare the black majority for participation in the modern economy. Township riots over poor service delivery are increasing, and in August 2012, the police attacked strikers at the Marikana platinum mine in an eerie recall of police action during apartheid days. Many intellectuals see the party as straying from its democratic roots. Zuma is remembered for a sensational rape trial, multiple wives, and ongoing legal issues associated with corruption. Many South Africans perceive Zuma’s administration as disproportionately dominated by Zulus. There are also internal divisions within SACP and COSATU.
The DA is attempting to attract black support, especially the emerging urban middle class. There has been some speculation that its white party leader, Helen Zille, might step down soon in favor of a black candidate. The party already controls the provincial government of the Western Cape (Cape Town) and has its eyes set on Gauteng (Johannesburg). These are the two most dynamic and advanced parts of South Africa. Mamphela Ramphele has launched a new political party, AgangSA. She is the mother of the children of Steve Biko – the martyred icon of the Black Consciousness Movement – a medical doctor, a former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and a businesswoman. It is focused on better governance and protection of the constitution, which probably has the world’s most sweeping protection of human rights.
For international observers and many South Africans, Zille and Ramphele are head and shoulders above Zuma in charisma and ability. The DA and AgangSA are similar in their policies; the difference is that the former is mostly white while the latter aims for black support. They could cooperate closely in parliament. Julius Malema, former ANC Youth League leader and the “bad boy” of South African politics is reportedly trying to organize a radical, left-wing party calling for expropriation without compensation of white-owned land and businesses. He could potentially draw township votes from the ANC.
But Zuma and the ANC remain formidable. The ANC lock on the townships may be difficult to break – the party is credited with a massive house-building campaign and the institution of relief payments to some 15 million South Africans (out of a population of about 50 million). COSATU is highly experienced in getting out the vote. And there is the Mandela factor, now of unpredictable significance. In addition, ANC one-party government since 1994 has resulted in myriad constituencies that ensure the party will have no shortage of campaign funds or media access.
So, in 2014, the ANC is likely to lose a small percentage of its electoral support, but won’t drop below sixty percent of parliamentary seats. However, if the DA gains seats and, above all, if it is able to capture the Gauteng provincial government, it will be the core of a powerful ANC opposition with the potential of blocking ANC government initiatives in parliament if joined by a few ANC dissidents. If AgangSA is able to capture perhaps five percent of the vote, it will have established itself as a credible black liberal political alternative to the ANC. As for Malema, there are few signs that his movement is resonating among the townships. That could change.
The likely 2014 outlook is that Zuma and the ANC will hang on to power in this first post-Mandela election. But the stage is being set for more dramatic changes in the elections of 2019.