Moving On Up!? Opposition Parties and Political Change in South Africa

EFF leaders during the party's media conference regarding coalitions following the 2016 local government elections.
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EFF leaders during the party's media conference regarding coalitions following the 2016 local government elections.

South Africa started 2018 on a wave of “Ramaphoria” following Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory at the national elective conference of the African National Congress (ANC) in December 2017 and his election as president of the Republic in February 2018. With “Bogeyman Zuma” out of power, political commentators have been quick to pronounce the death of opposition politics. The two main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), built their political brands on the numerous scandals that plagued Jacob Zuma’s presidency. With a year to go before the 2019 general election, the question is whether the growth in opposition politics in South Africa can be sustained post-Zuma.

The past decade has seen a revival of opposition politics in South Africa, driven primarily by the ANC’s declining electoral support. In the 2016 local government elections, the ANC lost control of three metropolitan municipalities. The City of Johannesburg, the country’s economic hub, the City of Tshwane, the capital city, and Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, in the ANC’s traditional heartland of the Eastern Cape, are now governed by opposition party coalitions led by the DA. While the EFF rejected taking part in the DA-led coalitions, it provided critical voting support to enable the DA to form governments in each metro. The result is that South Africa appears to be developing from a one-party dominant system into a competitive democracy. What is driving this change in the South African political landscape? Have ordinary citizens benefited from the increased electoral competition? What are the prospects for opposition politics and governance in the next decade of South African democracy?

In the first fifteen years after 1994, South Africa was characterised as a “dominant party regime”. In party systems theory, dominant party regimes are democracies in which one party dominates in elections for a prolonged period and has sustained control over the government. Such parties face no prospect of defeat at the ballot box, despite the existence of a nominally competitive multiparty system. Dominant parties are also hegemonic, in that they come to define the popular will and set the agenda for politics in a country. They are often characterised as “a broad church”, representing a range of societal interests. This internalises political contestation within the party, making multiparty electoral competition redundant. Conservative political observers saw the ANC’s dominance as a danger to South Africa’s democracy. They predicted the degeneration of South African politics into an authoritarian one-party state like many others in post-liberation Africa. Progressive political scholars rightly criticised the Afro-pessimism underlying these apocalyptic visions. They argued that, in a country as fractious and unequal as South Africa, the ANC’s electoral domain provided the stability and room for consensus necessary for development. The idealism of proponents of this line of thought ignored the faultlines within the ANC’s body politic and the risks these posed for political stability in South Africa. In any event, both pessimistic and idealist perspectives have been challenged by real-life events.

The first notable challenge to the ANC’s dominance was the formation of the Congress of the People (COPE) in 2008 after the recall and resignation of Thabo Mbeki, following an acrimonious battle for the ANC leadership between him and his successor, Jacob Zuma. This split divided the party and society by demonstrating that black South Africans could have a democratic choice outside of the ANC. It raised the idea that the ANC could be challenged electorally and precipitated the decline of the party’s hegemony. COPE went on to implode through its own internal leadership battles. In the 2014 elections, it garnered only 0.67 percent of the votes, from a peak of 7.42 percent in 2009 when the ANC suffered its first electoral decline.

The DA, formed from the merger of the liberal Democratic Party (DP) and the conservative National Party (NP), attracted Afrikaner and coloured supporters of the NP into its ranks, enabling it to win control of the Western Cape province in 2009. The DA thrived under the first Zuma administration, which was scandal-prone from the beginning. The DA turned Zuma’s weak leadership, unresolved corruption charges and dodgy sexual conduct into political capital to consolidate its support base of white, coloured and Indian minorities. Through the recruitment of talented young black politicians like Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA began to chip away at its “white” image and increase its appeal to a younger generation of black voters. Mazibuko’s election as DA parliamentary leader made her the most senior non-ANC politician in parliament, which again demonstrated that black people could have a political home outside of the ANC. However, she was pushed out of the party after falling out with then leader and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille. Despite progress in the 2009 national and 2011 municipal elections, the DA struggled to attract support from the black South African electorate, which tended to stay away from the polls in protest against the ANC’s failures instead of switching allegiance to another party.

The next major turning point in opposition politics was the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) by expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema in 2013. The EFF became the big story of South Africa’s 2014 election. It captured the public imagination and visually transformed the political landscape. The party’s red beret became ubiquitous at political meetings, township funerals and on urban streets across South Africa. Because of the political personality of its leader, the EFF dominated the media and public discourse far more than would normally be expected for a party that had only been in existence for such a short time. The EFF’s populist politics appealed to the historically disadvantaged black majority that continues to be marginalised in the democratic dispensation. In the terms of EFF rhetoric, the black majority is exploited both by the white capitalist class that hasn’t relinquished power since 1994 and by the corrupt black elite that sold out during the negotiated democratic settlement. One of the ways in which the EFF identifies itself with the people is through clothing: its signature red beret, miners’ overalls for men and domestic workers’ uniforms for women are a direct identification with the working class.

In the 2014 elections, the EFF won 6.35 percent of the vote, giving it 25 seats in parliament, and it is the official opposition in Limpopo and North West provinces. Although the ANC received an overwhelming mandate to govern the country, with 62.15 percent of the vote, the party continued its electoral decline. In 2009, it had won with 65.9 percent, which was down from 69.7 percent in 2004. The DA consolidated its position as the official opposition with 22 percent of the vote, a 5 percent increase from 2009. The DA made inroads in Gauteng’s metropolitan municipalities, which laid the ground for it to govern Johannesburg and Tshwane in 2016.

The EFF reinvigorated parliament and turned it into the main site of political theatre for the first time since 1994. It was the party’s activism that kept the issue of security upgrades to Zuma’s Nkandla homestead in the public consciousness long after the ANC had hoped to squash it. The EFF made the greatest noise in highlighting the role of the Gupta family in government decisions, making the term “state capture” a part of the public lexicon. Some of the tactics the party used were disruption and non-cooperation in parliament, leading to frequent clashes with the speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete, and their forced removal from the National Assembly chamber on several occasions. The slogans “Pay back the money!” and “Zupta must fall!” set the political narrative in 2016 and 2017.

Through its disruptive political engagement in parliament and clever use of the courts, the EFF has succeeded in setting the national political agenda and stimulating unprecedented public interest in the country’s political institutions. It was the EFF that directly approached the constitutional court to institute legal action against the president’s ad hoc Nkandla committee, arguing that it violated the public protector’s constitutional powers. In April 2016, a full bench of the court confirmed the powers of the public protector and found that Zuma “had failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land”. This finding was the most significant indictment of Zuma’s leadership since he became president and set the tone for a bruising campaign for the 2016 local government election. More damning constitutional court judgements against Zuma followed in 2017. Smaller parties like the United Democratic Movement (UDM), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and COPE have been able to take advantage of the new political landscape through strategic litigation and timely interventions in parliament to punch above their weight. The EFF’s successes have cast doubt on the old adage that “it is cold outside the ANC”.

The EFF’s success presented a direct challenge to the DA’s growth strategy. The acrimonious exit of Mazibuko and the erratic behaviour of erstwhile party leader Zille have alienated potential black supporters of the party. The current DA party leader, Mmusi Maimane, is now the poster boy of the party’s transformation. However, Zille’s Twitter rants defending colonialism and condemning critics have exposed the limitations of the DA’s transformation narrative. Like US President Donald Trump, Zille has been accused of using Twitter to fight political opponents and using racially charged “dog whistles” to undermine calls for transformation and equality in South Africa. The water crisis in Cape Town has also seen ongoing battles between the party and its mayor, Patricia de Lille, leading to perceptions among black South Africans that the DA is willing to put black faces in leading roles so long as old white men continue to run the engine behind the scenes.

For the longest time, opposition parties in South Africa appeared destined to remain at the level of opposition, unable to attract enough voters from the ANC to break the glass ceiling. This began to change with the local government elections of 2016. The DA won new voters in black townships in the metropolitan areas, enabling it to lead coalition governments in three metros. The EFF has been able to draw some support from ANC voters, but it seems to be attracting mostly young voters between the ages of 18 and 25, and its support base is concentrated in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo provinces. In the North West and Limpopo, it was the second-best performing party after the ANC, which challenges the idea that the ANC lost support only in urban areas. The EFF established its support in the platinum belt of the North West by capitalising on the symbolic importance of Marikana, using the massacre of 34 miners there in 2012 as a rallying point against the ANC.

Nevertheless, disgruntled ANC voters still tend to abstain from voting rather than vote for another party. The trick for opposition parties is to find a way to convince those ANC voters to switch and not just stay home. Urban voters seem most willing to vote for other parties for no other reason than to have an alternative to the ANC. This could significantly reduce the ANC’s share of the vote in 2019.

While many observers are predicting that voters will return to the ANC en masse with Cyril Ramaphosa at the helm, these views assume that Jacob Zuma is the only reason voters have turned away from the ANC and that Ramaphosa has firm control over the party. Neither of these assumptions is correct. Firstly, Zuma was in many ways only a manifestation of the fragmentation and poor governance that has been a problem in the ANC since 1994. Secondly, Ramaphosa won the ANC presidency by a small margin and half of the top leadership is made up of former Zuma loyalists. So it is likely that well-informed urban voters will vote strategically in 2019 to prevent the ANC from winning a large majority. Voters could choose to split their votes, for example, by voting for the ANC at the provincial level but not nationally. This is the kind of voting logic one sees in established democracies and bodes well for the consolidation of South African democracy.

At this stage, the increase in political contestation is felt more at the rhetorical level than it is in the real lives of citizens. The successful court cases on Nkandla, the votes of no confidence against Zuma, and the civil society victory against the Secrecy Bill, which aimed to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information, did have concrete effects in terms of limiting the excesses of the ANC government. At the same time, the jurisdictions that are controlled by the DA or DA-led coalitions have shown mixed results. The Western Cape and City of Cape Town continue to be characterised by stark spatial segregation and an exclusionary economy. Poor and working-class people are facing eviction from their homes to make way for private residential developments in the rapidly gentrifying area of Woodstock. The most violent places in the country are the townships of Cape Town and the majority poor population there feels excluded from the parts of the city that make the pages of international travel magazines. While policing is a national competence, the provincial and city governments have been accused of doing too little to improve security in townships. In Johannesburg, despite heavy criticism by social justice and human rights NGOs, citizens have responded positively to Mayor Herman Mashaba’s campaign to clean up the inner city by targeting “hijacked buildings” and adopting an often-xenophobic stance against migrants in the city. However, it is unclear whether this high profile intervention will have any material impact on people’s wellbeing.

The lesson of the past 24 years is that real change cannot come about only through formal electoral politics. Ordinary citizens need to mobilise and use their civil power to influence governance. During Mbeki’s presidency, it was the activism of the Treatment Action Campaign and others that changed government’s policy on HIV/AIDS, and we now have the largest ARV rollout programme in the world. Zuma’s attempts to turn South Africa into a security state were challenged by Right to Know (R2K), a broad civil-society coalition. His decline was brought about by courageous whistleblowers, NGOs, social movements and an activist media.

The ANC’s decline is a reminder that freedom was won by the people through activism and mobilisation. It is activism and mobilisation that will enable citizens to hold political leaders accountable and create a responsive state. The challenge for South African politics is to weaken the power of political parties and transfer it to citizens. One of the ways to do this is to make the internal workings of political parties more transparent to the general public. Incoming legislation on political party funding creates regulations that make parties more transparent and publicly accountable. This will go some way in empowering citizens. Another initiative is to reopen the debate on electoral system reform as set out in the 2003 report of the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform. Young leaders of the Fees Must Fall student movement and the so-called “service delivery” protests across the country have demonstrated their readiness to engage outside of electoral politics to transform society. The consolidation of South Africa’s democracy depends on harnessing their energy to strengthen democratic institutions and create a genuinely representative government.