Interpreting South Africa’s elections

Walid M. Abdelnasser
Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

The poor results of the African National Congress in the recent South African elections are an opportunity for it to review its policies and future course.


The results of the recent parliamentary elections in South Africa revealed the loss of the majority held in the country’s parliament by the African National Congress (ANC) Party. The ANC has had a majority since South Africa was declared a democratic, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural republic after the end of the former Apartheid regime in the 1990s.

Its first post-Apartheid presidential and parliamentary elections were held exactly 30 years ago.

In the recent elections, the ANC won 159 out of the 400 seats in the parliament. However, it is expected to find allies among the smaller parties that will enable it to have a 50 per cent + 1 majority that will allow it to lead a coalition government in accordance with the South African constitution.

Nevertheless, the results are significant, and they call for a serious analysis of their underlying causes, whether these are related to domestic, regional, or global considerations.

At the outset, we need to recall that the ANC has led the struggle of the South African people to build a democratic society based on equal citizenship and equal rights and duties irrespective of colour, ethnicity, race, or sex since its establishment in 1912.

Although it was only to be expected that the vast majority of the members of the ANC have come from South Africa’s ethnic African population, who represent more than 80 per cent of the country’s population and who were deprived of their basic rights in their own country for centuries, the party has also managed to enjoy support among broad sectors of South Africa’s Coloured and Indian populations.

It has also enjoyed support from some progressive and liberal circles amongst the white sector of the population, whether Afrikaners (of Dutch origin) or English-speaking.

Up until the early 1960s, the struggle of the ANC was of a peaceful character, but the party had to turn to both clandestine and military action due to its banning by the white-dominated regime in Pretoria in 1960 in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre 12 years after the official adoption of the Apartheid doctrine by that regime.

The struggle of the ANC, together with other anti-Apartheid political forces, culminated in victory, starting with the release of political prisoners, particularly the late ANC leader Nelson Mandela from the Robben Island prison in 1990, and continuing with the talks between Mandela and the then leader of the Apartheid government, F W de Klerk, that issued in the official dismantling of the Apartheid regime in 1991 and the subsequent organisation of the country’s first multi-ethnic presidential and parliamentary elections in April 1994.

These led to landslide victories for Mandela as the first president of the new South Africa and for the ANC, which gained a comfortable majority in parliament.

Since then, the ANC has remained the representative of both the sufferings and the dreams of the South African people in the eyes of the majority of the South African population, despite some incidents which some observers expected could negatively affect its strength, popularity, and coherence. Among these was the divorce of Mandela and his former wife Winnie, also an important figure in the ANC, in 1996.

While Mandela had not made a formal declaration about his intention to step down after one term, he was already 76 years old when he became president in 1994. He was followed by another historical leader of the ANC, Thabo Mbeki, who was followed by an acting president.

In 2009, Jacob Zuma, the ANC candidate, was elected president. He came from South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal Province, which during the apartheid era had some nationalist tendencies for ethnic and tribal reasons having historical roots.

The period of Zuma’s rule witnessed the rise of forces opposed to his leadership and to his policies within the ANC as well as outside it. Opponents accused him and his family of corruption as well as of being responsible for its spread in the country. He was also accused of having dictatorial tendencies, in contradiction to the long-prevailing democratic traditions of the ANC, even during the time of clandestine and military action during the Apartheid period.

As a result, the dramatic end of Zuma’s rule did not come as a surprise. It started with the ANC forcing him to resign from the presidency and from the leadership of the party in 2018. This was followed by his trial and sentencing to three years in prison. He was released three months later, ostensibly on health grounds but in fact due to the violent protests that had met his imprisonment in the Kwazulu-Natal Province.

The most recent measure against Zuma came in January this year when the ANC’s Executive Committee suspended his membership of the party as a result of his support for the newly established Umkhonto we Sizwe Party. Zuma then led this party, named after the military wing of the ANC established by Mandela in 1960. It managed to win a third of the seats in the 2024 parliamentary elections.

The domestic implications of the results of the elections cannot be seen in isolation from the negative impacts of the legacy of the leadership of the country and the ANC by former president Zuma on the popularity of the ANC due to his actions while in power as well as his departure from the popular bases of the party and its traditions.

They also relate to the increasing role of the private business sector, whether local or foreign, in the political equation in South Africa during Zuma’s rule, bearing in mind that this sector traditionally stood in a different camp from that of the ANC. Zuma’s practices while in power resulted in a number of trials in the aftermath of his resignation that addressed major corruption cases during his rule. These cases not only damaged Zuma’s reputation but were also attributed by some South Africans to the ANC as the then ruling party.

On the regional level, the ANC government in the period immediately preceding the elections moved towards tightened its immigration policy and moving back from a relatively open-door policy towards immigration into South Africa from other African countries, particularly neighbouring ones, and focused on promoting skilled labor migration. 

These were justified in the light of the need to save resources and employment opportunities and a minimum quality of services for South African citizens. However, large numbers of people who were originally immigrants from neighbouring countries into South Africa have themselves become South African citizens with voting rights as a result of their long residency in the country.

Such policies partially affected the ANC’s popularity among these sectors of the population. They also had an impact on South Africa’s relations with some of its neighbours.

On the international level, South Africa under current President Cyril Ramaphosa has managed to enhance its global standing and confirm its independence with regard to global crises and conflicts. Its positions have resulted from a mixture of national interests, abiding by moral and legal criteria, and historical roots, including the adoption of positions in favour of historical allies who supported the South African people in their long struggle to dismantle the former Apartheid regime.

South Africa has continued to enhance its commitment to the BRICS group of countries, as well as to pursue its efforts to add new member states from the Global South to it, including Egypt. South Africa has also adopted a very special and progressive stand towards the Israeli war on Gaza, in the light of the historically close relationship between the ANC and the Palestinian National Liberation Movement.

South Africa has accused the Israeli Defence Forces (IOF) of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza, whether in declarations and statements or in international forums such as the UN, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The latest stand of the South African government in its case against Israel at the ICJ brought criticism not only from the Israeli government and senior Israeli politicians, but also from senior US officials and members of Congress, in addition to other Western political figures that have adopted stands close to those of the Israeli government. This led some observers to conclude that some Western circles, particularly American and Israeli ones, would rather that the ANC did not win a comfortable majority in the parliamentary elections.

In any case, the results of the elections provide the ANC with the opportunity to undertake the necessary comprehensive review in order to understand the reasons for its setback in them. The party still maintains a lot of credibility with the majority of the South African population and still has a number of leaders, such as President Ramaphosa, who played a historical role in the anti-Apartheid struggle.

The review that the party now undertakes should be particularly directed at looking at its socio-economic policies at a time when the rates of poverty and unemployment in the country have been rising. Such a task is a significant one, as the ANC has been the champion of the struggle for social justice and democracy in South Africa.

There is no doubt that the ANC contains leaders that are capable of undertaking such a task, while observing its long-standing values and traditions of democracy and collective work.

The objective would be to undertake any needed corrective actions aimed at returning the ANC to the position it deserves as the party with the largest and most important role in the historical struggle of the South African people in the 20th and 21st centuries to build a democratic, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic state and society that combines scientific and technological advancement with economic progress and social justice.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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