Monday 27 April 2009

South African Elections: The Zuma Era

The South African election results were never in doubt. It was simply a case of how much the ANC’s populist leader, Jacob Zuma, would win by. Crucially, he fell tantalisingly short (0.7%) of the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution.

Here are the results, as show in yesterday‘s Observer:-

  • ANC 65.9%
  • Democratic Alliance 16.6%
  • Congress of the People 7.4%
  • Others 10%

Such an imbalance inevitably puts a strain on democracy, particularly a relatively new multi-racial democracy in a country with so many scars. However, for the all-powerful ANC the only real threat seems to be an internal one. The Congress of the People (COPE) are a recent break-away splinter movement (about half a year old), whose polling may only be 7.4% but this is more than enough to deny the ANC their coveted two-thirds majority.

The ANC are split by politics of personality and have been ever since Nelson Mandela stepped down. The former president, Thabo Mbeki, has fought bitter internal and public battles with the fiery and controversial Jacob Zuma. COPE are comprised of disillusioned former ANC supporters of Mbeki, and so we do not know as yet if they will be a long-term party or one of short-term protest against an individual. Africa has long suffered from the politics of the Big Man, and the danger is that South Africa will eventually turn against democracy for the easy ‘solution’ of such a saviour.

As an outsider, I can see some general similarities between politics in South Africa and Eastern Europe. Both South Africa and Eastern European states experienced a momentous political and social upheaval twenty to fifteen years ago, and politics and society are inevitably still in the shadow of this event. For most ordinary people nothing can match the brief period when they thought their lives would be transformed for the better, only to find the reality just presents a new set of problems.

A significant note of optimism for South Africa is that people are still voting in huge numbers. According to The Observer, there was a 77.3% turnout. This figure suggests people still have faith that their vote will improve their day to day lives, unlike in many parts of Eastern Europe where turnout has dramatically fallen to below 50%.

Let us hope that Zuma can live up to the faith of the South African people, and can get this country back on the right tracks. In order to do this he must resist the temptation to undermine the very democratic rights that gave him power in the first place.

n.b. On Wednesday I am going to a BBC World Service parliamentary briefing and I hope to report back for Next Left. Please give me your thoughts on the South African elections.

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