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Issue 7: The Protests and Politics of South Africa
Recent elections offer a glimmer into the divide in the young Democracy
Last week, the nation of South Africa was rocked by protests and riots. The events left over 200 people dead and millions in property damage. The riots, which started in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and spread outward, followed the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma. The former President has been arrested for contempt of court after he failed to answer for corruption charges.
Many reasons are cited for the riots; with the countries economic inequality being a major issue. The COVID pandemic has left the nation, already struggling pre-COVID, with a 32% unemployment rate. Meanwhile, economic inequality, heavily influenced by the apartheid policies that only came to an end in the 1990s, have been driving a wedge into the politics of South African for years. Zuma was both a self-described socialist and the first Zulu President (the dominant ethnic group in the KwaZulu-Natal province). The arrest of Zuma appears to have been a match that lit a powder keg the nation has been siting on; with many regarding his arrest as politically motivated.
Race and Land in South Africa
While South Africa has been hailed for moving out of the apartheid system in the 1990s; making Nelson Mandela a worldwide name, the nation still has its struggles. The country is 77% black, 9% white, 9% “coloured” (multi-racial), and 3% Indian/Asian. After Democracy prevailed, many right-wing whites fled the nation (after a failed right-wing insurrection). Despite the peace that eventually emerged, the nation remains heavily racially segregated.
This is a good video summary of the legacy of apartheid and its effects on modern segregation.
The economic inequality that was pushed by the white ruling minority pre-1994 still persists today; namely in the way of land allocation. Thanks to the apartheid system, over 70% of the farming land is still owned by the white population. When Mandela came to power in 1994, he promised to redistribute 30% of the land to the black majority. However, to this day only 10% has been reallocated. Many of the current white landowners regard the property as there’s and claim punishing them for the sins of the ancestors isn’t fair. However, the imbalance of land/people is unsustainable long term; and only grows resentment in the young democracy.
Since 1994, Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, has ruled the nation. The ANC runs on Mandela’s legacy. However, the ANC is not always a unified block, and its internal divisions are part of what sparked these protests and riots.
The 2019 Elections and ANC Divide
Before the 2019 elections, the ANC had already faced internal strife. The tradition has been that the head of the ANC becomes President - with the office of President formally chosen by the General Assembly that the people elect. In the 2009 elections, Jacob Zuma, who hails from the left-wing faction of the ANC, led the party to victory and then became its President.
Zuma remained ANC head through the 2014 elections and was again confirmed as President by the assembly This term, however, was marked by strife. Zuma has long been accused of being corrupt and almost faced ousting multiple times. Things boiled over at the 2017 ANC Party Conference when Cyril Ramaphosa defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the President’s ex-wife, for the position of party leader. Zuma had favored his ex-wife for the job, but Ramaphosa’s election marked a repudiation of Zuma. Ramaphosa also hails from a more moderate faction of the party. ANC leaders asked Zuma to resign as President of the nation, which he refused. Facing a likely no confidence vote in the assembly, Zuma finally agreed to resign. Ramaphosa was quickly elected by the assembly as the new President.
Heading into the 2019 election, the ANC faced electoral threats from the right and left. A left-wing party, known as the Economic Freedom Fighters, formed for the 2014 elections and was continuing to gain in strength. The EFF is led by Julius Malema, who was a major backer of Zuma’s rise to the Presidency. Malema is a very controversial figure in South Africa. He favors violent seizer of land, has made routine anti-Asian and anti-Semitic statements, and was a defender of the Robert Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe. Malema was reprimanded by the ANC multiple times and eventually had a falling out with Zuma himself. Malema formed the EFF to be a left-wing counter to the ANC, with the strongest appeal among younger black voters who are less loyal to the ANC.
While the ANC was being squeezed on its left, it was likely to lose white, Asian and multi-racial votes to the Democratic Alliance Party, which had been based out of the West Cape for multiple election cycles.
Despite these challenges, the ANC, which still retains a tremendous amount of good will with black South Africans due to its legacy fighting apartheid, easily won the assembly elections with 57% of the vote.
The ANC’s 57% (and 230/400 seats in the assembly) was strong in a vacuumed, but was actually the weakest showing for the party since Democracy. The party lost 19 of its seats compared to 2014.
The ANC remains strongest with older black South Africans, strongest in rural communities across the eastern span of the nation.
The DA, which as stated has a base largely in the non-black populations, dominated along the western Cape and also in the capital of Johannesburg. The DA was also strong in the coastal communities of KwaZulu-Natal; where a large number of Indian voters live.
The Inkatha Freedom Party, of IFP, was confined to the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The IFP has been the traditional party of the Zulu people; who have had an uneasy and at time contentious relationship with the ANC and non-Zula black South Africans. The white minority often worked to put the Zulu and South African black populations against each-other. The effects of those efforts can still be felt today.
The Economic Freedom Fighters gained 10% of the vote; drawing strongest from young black voters.
Finally, the Freedom Front Plus, a party that exists to protect the land of white landowners, surged to 2.4% - sparked by fears of land reallocation. This was their best showing since 1994.
The ANC victory was still strong, but pointed to trouble for the party in the future. The party was beginning to lose black support to the EFF, and opposition from the non-black population was holding. Former President Zuma was both a socialist and Zulu. Ramaphosa, much more of a moderate, had the heat on him to curb the inequality gap in the nation. This pressure was felt two years ago, and has not changed since.
South Africa’s Future
Violence has abated in South Africa for the moment. However, this peace does not mean the tensions that led to it are forgotten. After the ANC win in 2019, it was widely predicted the party would need to evolve in order to keep a winning coalition together. The legacy of Mandela and the anti-Apartheid campaign grows less powerful in moving votes with every cycle; and the ANC will need to stand on its policies to fend off the EFF or another party. These protests and riots are being blown off as random violence by some in the ANC. However, too me they are an explosive reaction to the situation that will give the ANC electoral heartburn as time goes on.