Election in South Africa a referendum on African National Congress, IU historian says

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Turnout, margin of victory seen as key outcomes


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- South Africans will go to the polls May 7 in the fifth democratic election since the end of apartheid. According to Indiana University historian Alex Lichtenstein, no observers doubt the African National Congress will win, as Nelson Mandela’s party of liberation has in every national election since Mandela was elected president in 1994. But the question is, by how much less of a majority than the usual two-thirds?

"Twenty years after Mandela and the ANC ushered in democracy, this election is seen by many as a referendum on the party’s performance in power," Lichtenstein said. "While many people remain loyal to the ANC and its liberation credentials, out of habit if not persuasion, growing numbers of South Africans -- of all races, classes, political persuasions and ages -- have expressed deep disillusion with the governance of the ANC and the country’s current president, Jacob Zuma.

"Persistent poverty and unemployment, lack of local services, corruption and cronyism -- some of it associated directly with Zuma himself -- and the 2012 murder of 34 striking platinum miners by South African police at Marikana, have all taken their toll on the public’s faith in Zuma and the ruling party."

Yet there are few credible alternatives to the ANC as Zuma seeks a second term, Lichtenstein said. Former ANC youth league firebrand Julius Malema has captured the imagination of black township youth, many of whom sport the red berets of his Economic Freedom Fighters. But as a new party, with as of now a narrow base of appeal, the EFF is unlikely to break 10 percent of the vote, if that.

"The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, despite growing numbers of black faces in its leadership, still remains associated with liberal whites whose opposition to apartheid was lukewarm at best," he said. "The DA commands only about 26 percent of the vote, a figure that will probably not increase by much, though the party claims it may be able to win the country’s main province, Gauteng, where Johannesburg is located, especially if the EFF drains off ANC votes.  

"While a large segment of the trade union movement, led by the metalworkers union, has determined not to campaign for the ANC this time, the launching of an independent labor party awaits a future election. And some former ANC heavyweights, most notably one-time intelligence director and communist Ronnie Kasrils, have called for voters to spoil their ballots, to register their growing disgust with the ANC’s abandonment of its heroic legacy. "

Lichtenstein said the most likely outcome is a steep drop in voter turnout, as many South Africans -- no longer able to vote in good conscience for the ANC -- will simply not bother to go to the polls. It appears certain that the ANC’s share of the vote will decline from the 66 percent it won in 2009.

"My own guess is that the ANC will secure between 60 and 61 percent of the vote," he said. "But with a low turnout, the percentage of the total voting age population that gives the liberation party its support will be well below 50 percent. Nevertheless, despite all the problems besetting the country, South Africa’s young democracy remains vibrant, and civil society is alive and well."

Lichtenstein is an associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. His research areas include labor history and racial justice in societies shaped by white supremacy, particularly South Africa and the U.S. South. He curated the exhibit "Photos in Black and White: Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid in South Africa," currently at the Michaelis Galleries at the University of Cape Town. He can be reached at 812-855-7504 or lichtens@indiana.edu.

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