In political science, a democratic transition is said to have been completed once at least two parties win elections. If that’s the case, the end of Apartheid twenty-five years ago merely marked the replacement of one dominant-party state by another. Since vanquishing the National Party— and white minority rule— in 1994, the African National Congress has won five consecutive elections, and governed alone. On Wednesday, the ANC will make it six in a row, and a full term for South Africa’s new President, Cyril Ramaphosa.
On Valentines Day, 2018, the ANC’s most challenging mandate yet came to a head. Embattled President Jacob Zuma was forced from office, amid several corruption scandals engulfing him and his party. As a result, about two-thirds of citizens have expressed dissatisfaction with the state of their country’s democracy. Less than half are registered to vote. Many abstentionists are younger people— too young to remember their country’s liberation by the ANC.
The economic picture in Africa’s most industrialized economy isn’t much better. Unemployment is 27%, and the gulf between rich and poor is widening. About half of adults live below the poverty line. On the other side, Ramaphosa returned to politics five years ago, after a successful career in the private sector, and a net worth of around $450 million. Violent crime, housing, and immigration are also on voters’ minds.
A reduced ANC majority could create openings for other parties. The main beneficiary is expected to be the center-right Democratic Alliance, at around a quarter of the vote. Their leader, Mmusi Maimane, urged supporters to give “change a chance” Saturday in Soweto. “They were once our liberators but today we need to be liberated from them.” Running to the ANC’s left are the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema. The firebrand populist has run on expropriating white-owned farms without compensation and nationalizing the country’s mines and banks.
Per CNBC, financial markets expect the BRICS and G-20 member to return an ANC majority of around 60%, down from the 62.3% five years ago. A larger-than-expected result could be a double-edged sword for the country. Investors may be bullish in the short term, but Ramaphosa could run in to complacency from party members taking the wrong lessons from the vote. He will be under intensifying pressure, inside and out, to deliver needed reforms and restore faith in democracy. The worst of all outcomes would be more of the same.