South Africa: Political Turmoil, Criticism Grip South African Parties Ahead of Elections

IEC Electoral Commission logo.
21 May 2024

From contentious campaign ads to allegations of threats and external influences, the nation's political arena is experiencing a turbulent period ahead of the upcoming elections.

As South Africa's national elections is just days away, political parties and their campaigns sparked major controversies and backlash from the public online. According to a new report from the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), the online election conversation received over 350,000 mentions between May 1 and 14, with many high-traction posts criticizing parties for desperate tactics and lacking substantive plans.

DA's Burning Flag Ad Sparks Outrage

The Democratic Alliance (DA) became embroiled in a firestorm of controversy after releasing its provocative campaign advertisement on May 5. The ad, which featured burning the South African flag, sparked widespread condemnation and confusion among South African citizens and officials alike. The DA's controversial ad depicted a South African flag being burned while labeling the ANC, MK Party, and EFF as a "corrupt coalition." It declared that "this election is about survival" and urged viewers to support the DA as the flag was symbolically reconstituted. The ad drew widespread condemnation from government officials and public figures, who deemed it unpatriotic and unacceptable.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) initially refused to flight the ad unless it was amended, citing concerns over its content. However, DA Leader John Steenhuisen staunchly defended it, saying the SABC's decision is an "attack on democracy"  and freedom of expression. The ban prompted a joint statement from civil society organizations, expressing "deep concern".

The controversy around the ad intensified as Minister of Arts, Sports, and Culture, Zizi Kodwa, announced government plans to take action against the DA, with President Cyril Ramaphosa also denouncing the advert.

The controversy has also bred disinformation, with the CABC reporting that a photoshopped image spreading online falsely depicts DA leader John Steenhuisen burning the South African flag himself.

ANC Faces Criticism Over Campaign Tactics

The African National Congress (ANC) also came under fire for inviting Zimbabwe's ruling political party, the ZANU-PF, to observe its campaigning efforts, sparking fears from opposition parties. CABC reports that opposition parties and politicians from the Democratic Alliance, Build One South Africa and the African Transformation Movement criticized the invitation, citing the history of controversial elections and concerns around the extent of democratic freedom in Zimbabwe.

While the ANC said it is "tradition" to invite fellow liberation movements, South Africa's IEC confirmed that the ZANU-PF doesn't have official observer credentials.

Threats and Intrigue Surrounding Former President Zuma

Internal party conflicts added to the controversies, with the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Party's intelligence report alleging a plot to poison former president Jacob Zuma. His daughter and an investigative journalist also claimed death threats against Zuma, who has faced similar allegations in the past. While some voiced support for Zuma online, others dismissed it as a publicity stunt amid his power struggle with MK Party founder Jabulani Khumalo over the leadership of the party.

The power struggle within the MK Party took a turn as an Insight Factor investigative journalist reported that Jabulani Khumalo, who disputes Jacob Zuma's leadership of the party, allegedly put out a R500,000 hit on the former president's life. "Allegations of threats to the former president's life are not new occurrences, having been allegedly treated in Moscow for a prior attempt on his life through poisoning," the report said.

The CABC reported: "Reactions to the report seemed largely in support of the former president, with many noting that these attempts to delegitimize, discredit, or assassinate him will continue to fail. Further, there seems to be a growing sentiment that there is an active attempt by ANC and other established politicians to reign Zuma in."

"However, critics dismissed it as "another PR stunt for sympathy" and "another instance of corruption and propaganda from the former President".

Amid the controversy, the CABC reported that Khumalo wrote to the IEC requesting Zuma's removal as MK Party president, but the commission reiterated "its non-involvement in the internal affairs of political parties and that it can only take instruction from the party's registered leader, Zuma".

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