South African elections: from liberation movement politics to genuine political diversity

by Eve Robert // Published April 24, 2009
South Africans went to the polls yesterday, for their forth general election since the end of the apartheid 15 years ago. Under the party-list proportional system used at both national and provincial levels used since the nation's first all-race elections in 1994, MPs are not directly voted for by the electorate and drawn instead from candidates lists selected by their parties. Each party gets a proportion of the seats according to the proportion of votes cast for their party in the election -- earning just 1/400th of the vote earns one seat.

As most observers predicted, the African National Congress (ANC), the party that led the liberation from apartheid and has governed the country since then, got nearly two-thirds of the votes. This crushing victory has enabled the party to install its new controversial but popular leader, Jacob Zuma, as president. The electoral process was deemed free and fair by domestic and international observers.

While many commentators and political actors worry that South African might be becoming a virtual one-party state, a staggering prospect for a nation regarded as the democratic anchor of the continent, new forces of opposition have actually made the election the most contested since the end of Apartheid. It has also been the most exciting: it drove the biggest number of voters ever – more than 23 million- to register to vote.

Now established in the nation's constitution as a principle (with specifics able to be changed by statute), proportional representation has historically played a big role in South Africa, in allowing a peaceful transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy. It has helped create an atmosphere of inclusiveness and reconciliation, allowed for the respect of minority voices, and provided parties with incentives to be moderate rather than divisive. It keeps on delivering the same crucial benefits today. Indeed, PR has played a major role in these elections, in avoiding the establishment of a much-feared one-party state despite of the huge popularity of the ANC (still worshiped by many for being the driving force behind the end of the apartheid). By allowing third parties to be represented in Parliament and local institutions, Proportional Representation has played a major role in this election in allowing small parties to survive and, even, in the case of the CORE, to rise.

Indeed, South Africa's democracy seems to be getting more competitive. The ANC is down at least 4 points from its nearly 70% share five years ago, and the strong showing of the two main opposition parties is changing the scene of politics in South Africa. The Democratic Alliance (DA), with approximately 16% of the vote, is likely to win the Western Cape, formerly an ANC stronghold. Many analysts highlighted the racial makeover behind these results, since DA voters are largely white or mixed race, while ANC's Zuma, a Zulu, scored heavily in the tribe's traditional heartland of KwaZulu-Natal and among the black and the poor. Providing a fair and accurate representation to both racial minorities and majorities is indeed an essential feature of proportional voting systems.

In addition, the relatively weak showing (about 8%) of the new breakaway party, the Congress of the People (COPE, which rallied former ANC supporters frustrated with poverty, crime and corruption) should not be misinterpreted. COPE is an extremely recent party, created a mere 120 days ago, and has chosen a virtual unknown, a pastor named Mvume Dandala, as its presidential candidate and recently suffered infighting between its members. In this context, its rise as the second more successful opposition party – and the only truly national one- is actually quite impressive.

According to candidate Graham MacIntosh's piece in PoliticsWeb, South Africa is actually increasingly breaking free from the liberation movement's paradigms and getting to a new era of normalized democracy and political plurality. It may not be time yet for the end of the ANC's reign, but the proportional voting system used at all levels of elections makes it a realistic prospect. With numerous local opposition getting good results at a regional level, opposition-parties coalitions could, in the near future, finally allow a democratic alternation.