South African elections 30 years after the end of apartheid

A voter casts her ballot in a polling station in Edendale Township in Pietermaritz. 1/Apr/1994. UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger.

South Africans go to the polls on May 29, three decades after the country’s first one-person one-vote elections and the end of apartheid era. Jeremy Cronin on the huge advances under ANC rule, its failures and the multiple challenges that remain to address a triple crisis of unemployment, poverty and yawning inequality

South Africans go to the polls on May 29 three decades after the country’s first one-person one-vote elections. The historic breakthrough of April 1994 was captured iconically by news photographs of thousands-strong, voter queues that snaked far out into the surrounding veld. The mood was celebratory. The ensuing landslide ANC victory marked the formal end of white minority rule.

This year the popular mood is more restrained. Voter participation is likely to show a continued downward trend. The ANC and its alliance partners, the SACP and trade union federation COSATU, acknowledge this is the most challenging election of the post-apartheid era. While opinion polls show the ANC still leading other parties by a large margin, the ANC may well dip below the 50 percent mark in the national vote for the first time.

There is no mystery about these trends. On the one hand, the ANC continues deservedly to enjoy large support against the background of important gains over three decades. With a colonial and apartheid history in which the majority were treated as sub-human, not to be underestimated is the enshrining of equal rights for all, embodied in one of the most progressive constitutions internationally. These constitutional rights extend beyond individual rights to include collective social and environmental rights.

Of course, legal rights on paper do not necessarily translate into actual advances on the ground. But, here too, there have been major interventions. In 1994, after a century of household electrification, only five million (almost exclusively white) households had been electrified. In a mere ten years after 1994 six million new households received electricity. There has also been a major rollout of household water and sanitation. The state has built nearly three million free houses in townships and there has been a significant expansion of social grants.

Yet despite these and many other advances, South Africa remains enmeshed in a triple crisis of unemployment, poverty and yawning inequality. Unemployment is an unsustainable 41,2 percent. Youth unemployment is even higher. Income and especially wealth inequality are among the highest in the world. Class, race, and gender remain key determinants of an individual’s life prospects. Multi-generational, long-term structural unemployment further contributes to eroding social cohesiveness with the attendant challenges of psychological distress, substance abuse, and inter-personal violence.

What has gone wrong? Opposition political parties and the commercial media blame ANC mismanagement and corruption. Many in the ANC partly accept this diagnosis but deflect the accusation on to the “nine wasted years” (2009-2018) of the Zuma presidency when levels of corruption, particularly the plundering of key state-owned enterprises escalated. Since Zuma’s forced stepping down important if insufficient progress has been made in tackling corruption.

Corruption has certainly seriously impacted on the prospects of effective transformation. The struggle to root it out remains a key priority. But corruption is more a symptom of deeper structural problems than the unique cause of South Africa’s socio-economic challenges. Singling out Zuma’s “nine wasted years” too easily obscures what came before.

The global and domestic context in which the 1994 South African democratic transition occurred was complex. The ANC and its alliance partners had led a sustained semi-insurrectionary struggle for nearly two decades that greatly weakened the regime. But the capacity to dislodge it through force of arms remained out of reach. For its part the apartheid regime was increasingly isolated globally with a range of UN-imposed arms, oil, financial and other sanctions. The cost of waging regional wars and internal repression weighed heavily on the domestic capitalist class. Sanctions forced the big mining corporations to diversify into a wide range of local sectors – retail, property, agriculture, manufacturing. This inward investment into unwieldy conglomerates proved to be less profitable and had the paradoxical effect of greatly strengthening the leverage of an emerging militant trade union movement. Into this mix came the impact of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. For the imperialist West an embarrassing, overtly racist southern African regional gendarme was now dispensable.

This was the overall context in which the prospect opened for meaningful negotiations towards democratisation. There were, of course, competing strategic agendas at play.  

A flood of Western consultants arrived advising the regime and its backers on “how to manage change”, counseling an “elite pact” between moderates while isolating “extremists” on the left and right. Well aware of this strategy, the ANC and particularly the SACP and COSATU, in the midst of formal negotiations, sustained high levels of popular mobilisation and thousands of local community and work-place negotiating forums. This frustrated attempts to turn the process into a remote, elite-pacted affair intended to compromise the prospects for substantive democratic majority rule.

But the resulting success in terms of major constitutional change was not matched by significant transformation of embedded socio-economic realities. The early 1990s were not an auspicious moment globally for any serious left project. This had a subjective impact on parts of the ANC. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, the retreat of social democracy into Third Way’ism, and the rolling back of national liberation gains in nearby Mozambique and Zimbabwe, under the impact of IMF structural adjustment programs all contributed to a certain pessimism dressed up as realism in some ANC circles. Leading ANC voices began to argue there were no alternatives to a self-imposed structural adjustment program. In 1996 the new ANC government imposed a problematic macro-economic framework which remains largely in place despite ongoing opposition from the SACP and COSATU.

Contributing to this drift was the role of South African monopoly capital. White minority rule was effectively defeated in the early 1990s, but monopoly capital was not. From the mid-1980s, leading business circles had tentatively supported the unbanning of the ANC and negotiations. But their agenda was to secure the lifting of sanctions and to remove tight capital controls enforced by a besieged apartheid regime. In particular, domestic business felt shut out of the wave of globalisation which their foreign competitors were now pursuing.

Even before the ANC entered government, business actively lobbied leading ANC personalities. Leveraged share-deals were struck with chosen ANC figures. This set off a process of primitive accumulation by an emergent, ANC-connected elite. It has been the major vector for the proliferation of corrupt practice.

In short, there have been three decades of significant pro-poor redistributive endeavour, but into a neoliberal head-wind. The ill-considered lifting of exchange controls, for instance, designed to attract investors has instead seen massive legal and illicit capital outflows averaging 9,4 percent of GDP per year between 1994 and 2000. The consequences are dire – de-industrialisation, mass unemployment and a weakened trade union movement.

Three decades into the post-apartheid era we have a thoroughly mixed picture. The ANC continues to enjoy wide support and there is little popular or labour appetite for an electoral left alternative. The main opposition party, the centre-right DA with around 20 percent of the vote seeks to roll back worker rights and preserve historic white privilege. In this context, the ANC’s historic allies, the SACP and COSATU are actively campaigning for an ANC electoral victory, while, in a struggle within the struggle, mobilising against neoliberal austerity.

Jeremy Cronin a veteran South African Communist Party Central Committee and Politburo member, former SACP deputy general secretary, a former government deputy minister and former political prisoner. He is also a poet

Photo: A voter casts her ballot in a polling station in Edendale Township in Pietermaritz. 1/Apr/1994 in the first post Apartheid elections. UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger.

This article first appeared in Liberation journal

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