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Why This Year’s Elections Are South Africa’s Most Salient Elections Ever

The elections are taking place on the backdrop of a worsening economic and energy situation, high unemployment and crime rates, and deteriorating relationship with Western powers.

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Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta, during a press briefing by Heads of Mission in Johannesburg, offering crucial insights and recommendations for South Africa's electoral process as head of the African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM)

By Williams Steve

As South Africans hit the polls, one thing was clear, the beginning of the end of ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, was nigh. True to the predictions, ANC lost the majority for the first time since 1994 when the Apartheid rule in South Africa ended. With 75% of voting districts counted, the ANC leads with 42%, followed by the Democratic Alliance (DA) at 22%. Former President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK Party) achieved 13% of the vote, with the Economic Freedom Fighters of the boisterous Julius Malema receiving approximately 9%. The results are not expected to divest much with the final tally expected over the weekend.

South Africa is a parliamentary democracy where the voters elect their preferred party candidates and then the elected leaders elect the president and form the government if their party gets the majority of seats. If they don’t crack the majority, they have to form coalitions with other parties in order to reach the majority which would allow them to form the government. Kenya is a Presidential republic where the President is elected by popular vote.

Load shedding is a staple among South African online cliches. On X (formerly Twitter), you would find South African users talking about terms such as “base load”, “inverters”, and “power banks”. This comes as a result of the beleaguered power company, Eskom, turning off power between six to twelve hours per day to ease electric supply and pressure on the ailing national power grid which has been hit with corruption, non-maintenance, debt, brain drain, and copper wire theft. The South African national energy provider Eskom was created in 1923 with a grid system that has since failed to match generation capacity.

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The electricity shortage has been accumulating for years, owing to factors such as delays in the construction of new coal-fired power plants and looser regulations to allow renewable energy providers to bring projects online quickly. The load-shedding debacle has been a source of ridicule and pain for the ordinary South African. Several companies have folded and left South Africa due to the incessant load shedding woes which has further worsened the unemployment crisis. Every decent-sized business and private homes have their own generators as a backup and fallback because trusting Eskom to act right is very hard.

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In the 1990s, the country was brimming with enthusiasm and hope for a new beginning with Mandela in charge as the apartheid regime collapsed. The country was leading in various metrics like gold production, industrialization, and progressive legislation. That sentiment has now turned into a sour and bitter feeling. People are filled with profound disappointment at the turn of events. China overtook South Africa as the top gold producer in the world in 2007 and South Africa never recovered. Nigeria overtook it in 2014 as the largest economy in Africa. While South Africa reclaimed that title in 2023, South Africa’s economy is deeply underperforming and struggling despite the human capital and resources it has.

ANC has been hit with scandal after scandal and voters were simply tired of its rudderless leadership. Jacob Zuma, the former leader and president was jailed for refusing to appear before an inquiry for corruption and was given 15 months in prison. Cyril Ramaphosa, the current president and party leader was himself caught up in a scandal dubbed “Farmgate” but he was later cleared in preliminary reports.

The race itself has been dubbed a four-horse race which includes Cyril Ramaphosa, the incumbent ANC leader and President. A former mine boss and union leader, was one of the earliest possible successors of Nelson Mandela. Next, we have John Steenhuisen, who is the current opposition leader and DA party leader. The DA party which John leads has been accused of championing white people’s interests alone and was criticized for having an all-white leadership when its first black leader Mmusi Maimane quit. Another familiar face is Jacob Zuma. Many remember him from 2010 when South Africa hosted the first-ever World Cup on African soil. Mr Zuma was jailed last year for contempt of court and is also facing 16 charges of corruption stemming from a multibillion-dollar arms sale, in a case that has dragged on for years as the former president opposes the prosecution’s attempts to put him on trial. Last we have the exuberant and radical Julius Sello Malema who is known for his animated debates and controversial takes including the infamous “Shoot A Boer” chant. A darling among Pan Africans, Malema was expelled from ANC in 2012 and he went on to form the signature red EFF party which performed very well in the 2019 elections garnering an impressive 11% of the total votes. He has also been convicted for hate speech twice.

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In the diplomatic world, South Africa has ruffled several feathers and angered several Western powers and allies. In Early 2023, the US Ambassador to South Africa accused them of supplying Russia with weapons as a US-sanctioned ship, Lady R docked in South Africa despite its professed neutrality against the war in Ukraine. The accusation caused a lot of friction with the US and a later report alleged there was no evidence of weapons being shipped to Russia.

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In late 2023, South Africa once again ruffled the feathers of the US and its allies after instituting proceedings against Israel at the ICJ alleging that Israel was committing “genocide” against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip due to Israel’s military action against the militant group Hamas which had launched attacks in Israel on Oct 7th, 2023. The US and its allies accused South Africa of playing politics with the Court and labeled the case as “without merit”. Israel also rejected the claim as unfounded and accused South Africa of providing Hamas with legal cover and preventing Israel from achieving its military objectives against the militant group which came into power after ousting Fatah from the Strip. Fatah is the world-recognized representative of the Palestinians in the international arena. US lawmakers threatened to review US cooperation with South Africa in response to the move.

South Africa is also part of BRICS, a group that is presenting itself as the alternative to the Western-led world order. The group which originally consisted of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa has expanded and added members such as Ethiopia, UAE, and Iran among others. Argentina was invited to join but later decided not to after the libertarian president Javier Milei won power. Several countries have also applied to join the group. While the group doesn’t pose any significant threat to the West due to internal wrangles, South Africa’s bromance with Russia has been a bone of contention and Western countries fear Russia and China may influence South Africa to steer it away from them.

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Whatever happens to ANC’s impending loss of power and monopoly in South African politics is definitely pretty dire. Political experts and pundits predict that ANC will be a former shell of itself and may not even be in a position to form the government by the next election. South African politics is about to become extremely competitive and to woo voters, ANC politicians should better start fixing the dilapidated schools, rotting infrastructure, energy needs, and the ailing railway if they want to win. The old era is gone and patronage isn’t enough to win votes.


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