South Africa Election 2024 - What's At Stake?

The ruling ANC is projected to lose its majority in the May 29 elections. For many voters, the polls offer another shot at restoring hope in South Africa's democracy.

It's been thirty years of democracy in South Africa, and for the first time, the stakes are significantly high in the general election scheduled for May 29.

Several polls suggest that President Cyril Ramaphosa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) could lose its majority after three decades in power.

However, Steven Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, believes the ANC can still secure a slim majority.

"My personal feeling is that somehow the ANC is going to get just over 50%, even though it is deeply unpopular," Gruzd told DW.

According to Gruzd, the electorate could punish the ANC due to its poor performance in power over the years.

Democracy at stake

But for Tessa Dooms, a South African political and social analyst, it is not just the ANC's future that is at stake in the election but the entire democratic experiment in the country.

"The stakes for the elections in South Africa this year are high, but they are high in the sense that very many people are disillusioned with democracy at this point," she said.

According to Dooms, with elections not delivering the change people want, many have now lost hope in the role of democracy in the development of a society.

"People are exiting from election as a democratic institution and other democratic institutions are being abandoned by the general populous," Dooms stressed, adding that there is a general feeling that democracy is not functioning and delivering as it should.

Voters' disappointment

For Dooms, with high levels of disappointment among voters, many of them on May 29 would hope to see if they can regain their trust in the election system.

"The stakes for this election is, can the electorate regain its trust, that democratic processes can actually produce change and results, and outcomes that are not in favor of a few?" she said.

At the core of the dysfunctional democracy is the impact on the living conditions of ordinary citizens.

South Africa is the continent's leading economy but millions of citizens still face deep socio-economic problems.

President Ramaphosa said in February in his State of the Nation Address that poverty in the country fell from 71% in 1993 to 55% in 2020.

The World Bank figures point to a flatlined poverty rate of around 62-63% since 2008.

Seeking improved living conditions

Gruzd said the state of the economy will be at the top of voters' minds as they seek improvement in their livelihoods.

"Big issues in the country [are] energy, corruption, lack of jobs, inequalities, [and] post service delivery."

Dooms agrees and further explains that most of these issues affect young people harder, and many of them will be looking for a shift in their living conditions.

"Whether it is water, or electricity or housing, there hasn't been a plan for service delivery. There have been issues around corruption."

The unemployment rate was 32.4% in 2023, and young people account for more than half of that.

"Getting more people active, growing an exclusive economy, not only a larger economy in terms of GDP, would be crucial in the election and even after," Dooms said.

"In this election, young people are a major voting bloc; 42% of registered voters are below the age of 40, that's 11 million votes," Doom explained.

But for Dooms, many young people who could potentially decide the election outcome are undecided. She blames a lack of voter education and some young voters' indifferent stance as they seek solutions to their daily needs.

"Young people feel that politics is still the old person's game, even though young people are in the majority," she said.

South Africa's legal case against Israel

According to Gruzd South Africa's legal campaign against Israel in the ongoing conflict in Gaza could also play a major role in the election.

In December 2023, South Africa filed a case against Israel, accusing it of violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention.

The application sought provisional measures to safeguard Palestinian rights under the Convention and ensure Israel's compliance.

Egypt has also announced its backing for the case and plans to file a declaration of intervention in South Africa's case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

"South Africa's strong stance on the international court of justice and the genocide case that it has brought against Israel, some have said is a desperate attempt to try and win the Muslim vote, which is quite crucial in the Western Cape," Gruzd said.

The Jacob Zuma factor

The ANC's chances of winning big at the poll have also been worsened by the decision of former president Jacob Zuma to depart from the party to launch a new party.

"It is a major factor in how this election would go," Dooms pointed out, stressing that "this [Zuma's candidacy] rattles the ANC."

Gruzd, however, doesn't think the Zuma factor would deny the ANC from winning the election except that it would need a coalition with another party to form a government.

"It [ANC] remains very popular in the rural areas. Sometimes we judge things from the city," he said. "My feeling is that the ANC has gradually been declining and it is continuing that decline, [but] it is not going to relinquish power easily."

The chances of a future coalition

Grudz also anticipates tough coalition negotiations should the ANC not be able to form a government independently.

"If the polls are right and I am wrong, it [ANC] almost certainly needs to find coalition partners," he said, adding that many would dread a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) -- a party led by outspoken politician Julius Malema.

"For many people, the doomsday scenario is an ANC-EFF [coalition] government that would push the ANC even further to the left and make it more radical. I think markets would react very badly to that," Grudz said.

He also doubts there could be an effective coalition between the ANC and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

Dooms said that, whichever way the outcome of the elections goes, ordinary citizens look forward to a change that delivers the promise of economic development and safety and addresses the vast inequalities in South Africa.

"So getting people included in the economy is going to be important. Crime and safety, and people thinking they can be taken care of in society and not experience harm, would be key for voters."

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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