From Protest to Power

Sean Jacobs

South Africa goes to the polls in a general election tomorrow. On 10 May, the Democratic Alliance (DA), the second largest party in the national parliament and in charge in the Western Cape, released a campaign video.

The ad features the South African flag engulfed in flames as a black narrator declares: ‘This election, for the first time in thirty years, the ANC will lose its majority.’ He then accuses the ANC of being willing to do anything to stay in power, including agreeing to a coalition government with ‘the violent EFF and the Zuma faction’. ‘This election is about survival. Unite to rescue South Africa.’ The video then reverses, restoring the flag and ending with the message: ‘Vote DA.’

On the face of it, the commentary sounded reasonable, with references to corruption (or state capture) and the ANC’s slide into factionalism, which impede its ability to govern effectively. The DA’s celebration was short-lived, however, as criticisms poured in over the decision to depict the burning flag.

The DA had managed to offend the entire nation. On social media, the ad was condemned as racist, particularly by the South African equivalent of ‘Black Twitter’, although a considerable number of white users also expressed disapproval. Around 90 per cent of callers to a local news station who intended to vote for the DA said they were either ‘appalled’ or ‘disappointed’ by the ad. The president, Cyril Ramaphosa, called it ‘treacherous’. The public broadcaster balked at airing it, arguing that it went against ‘national unity’ and ‘nation building’, though in the end the broadcasting regulator ordered the SABC to show it.

Most citizens once viewed the flag with ambivalence (it was designed by the state herald of the apartheid regime and agreed on by a political compromise between the National Party and the ANC), but it has since become a symbol of unity and positivity, associated with various – often very different – achievements. Supporters of the country’s sports teams, like the very successful rugby Springboks, associate the flag with success on the field. For progressives, meanwhile, South Africa’s flag is linked with the Palestinian cause and a new Global South politics.

The DA tried to explain its intentions, but this only fuelled further debate: if you have to explain yourself, some argued, you’ve already lost. One of the DA leaders trotted out to offer rationalisations was Helen Zille, who is infamous for suggesting, among other things, that there were benefits to colonialism, and for describing children from the Eastern Cape who went to school in the Western Cape as ‘education refugees’.

The repercussions of the flag-burning blunder remain uncertain, but it underscores a broader issue for opposition parties in South Africa, which have struggled to capitalise on the ANC’s decline.

Apart from corruption, the ANC’s reputation has been tarnished by the country’s infrastructural deficiencies, persistent racial inequality and police brutality. Ramaphosa, once hailed as a conciliatory figure, is now perceived as weak and indecisive. It is widely predicted – as the DA said in its ad – that the ANC’s vote share will dip below 50 per cent for the first time. The ANC’s campaigning has been low-key, perhaps in the hope that people will forget the last decade and vote on the basis of sentiment.

The DA has the whitest leadership of any party in South Africa. It has struggled to retain black officeholders. Most DA voters are white or coloured. Some white DA voters flirt with the Freedom Front Plus, which once campaigned for a white homeland and rails against racial redress and affirmative action. The DA also placates movements (mostly white) that agitate for the Western Cape to secede.

Outwardly, the party has tried to minimise these connections, presenting itself as a bastion of technocratic competence. Yet the Western Cape has some of the worst racial and class inequalities in the country. Beyond Cape Town’s white suburbs, black and coloured residents contend with overcrowded housing conditions, high unemployment, gangsterism and the worst murder rate in the country. Coloured nationalist parties, once marginal, are now challenging the DA’s hegemony among these voters.

In August 2023, seven opposition parties signed a pact – the ‘Moonshot Alliance’ – to govern together should the ANC not get a majority. The DA is the nominal leader, though not all parties are happy about the arrangement. There have been coalitions at a local level and in some provinces – most notably the Western Cape and Kwazulu Natal – but they have been characterised mainly by instability, infighting and paralysis. (Of the Moonshot parties, Inkatha, the Zulu nationalist movement, which fought a proxy war for apartheid against the ANC and its allies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has been the most reluctant to state whether they’d support a DA president; there are rumours that it will be the ANC’s preferred coalition partner if needed.)

The DA’s most significant rival may be a young upstart party, Rise Msanzi, which rejected the Moonshot Alliance (‘Mzansi’ is a colloquial term for South Africa, from the Xhosa umzantzi, or ‘south’). In the weeks leading up to the flag-burning video, headlines were dominated by the DA’s anxiety that Rise Msanzi was encroaching on its electoral territory. It is making inroads among middle-class voters who think of themselves as progressive or are disaffected with the DA. Led by Songezo Zibi, a former journalist, Rise Msanzi resembles Emmanuel Macron’s ‘no-ideology’ politics and claims inspiration from New Labour. It has been criticised for its funding sources (most of the opposition have the same corporate donors) and its equivocation on key issues, including Israel’s war on Gaza.

Rise Msanzi has built an effective communications machine and attracted media attention, but has little traction outside the urban professional class. They seem on track to perform as poorly as other ‘good governance’ parties before them. In the last election, in 2014, Mamphela Ramphele, a former World Bank executive and a Black Consciousness luminary, led Agang to less than 1 per cent of the national vote and two seats in parliament. By 2019, they had lost their seats; they have not been seen since.

Given that the ANC stood in for left politics at the forefront of the struggle (through its alliances with trade unions, student and civic movements, and the Communist Party), a left electoral alternative has struggled to get off the ground. Some breakaway unions ran a socialist party in 2014, with low returns. The Fallist student movement (as in ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Fees Must Fall’) pointed to exciting possibilities, but – as elsewhere – young voters in South Africa don’t turn up at the polls.

Some Fallists support the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), which has a largely working-class base. On paper, the EFF is the closest South Africa has to a left party. It is the only party beside the ANC to have openly condemned Israel’s occupation and side with the Palestinians. Its own corruption scandals, however, along with its brash and unpredictable leader, Julius Malema, and the destructive role it played when it shared power in some local and city councils, have turned off voters.

This is the first election in which independent candidates can stand. The most significant of them is Zackie Achmat, who founded the Aids activist group Treatment Action Campaign, which compelled the ANC to provide anti-retroviral drugs for HIV patients and is the only national post-apartheid social movement to have so far emerged in South Africa.

A dark horse in this election is the MK party, which hijacked the shortened name of the ANC’s military wing. It is led by the former president Jacob Zuma, who stood trial for raping a friend’s daughter (he was acquitted), was kicked out of the ANC, convicted of perjury for refusing to testify in a corruption trial and, most recently, barred from running for parliament. MK’s policies are a mixture of social conservatism and right-wing populism. It has campaigned mostly in Kwazulu-Natal, where Zuma’s brand of Zulu traditionalism rivals that of Inkatha.

Some of MK’s appeal is overstated, but in July 2021, riots broke out after Zuma was jailed on a contempt charge. In the worst violence since apartheid, more than three hundred people were killed and thousands injured as crowds ransacked malls and depots, closed roads and set delivery trucks alight. Some of the people – including two of Zuma’s children – who championed that violence, and are associated with state capture, now hover around MK’s leadership.

The ANC’s declining popularity and loss of legitimacy come just as South Africa has raised its profile on the international stage. Elections here are mostly fought on domestic issues (crime, corruption, services and, for right-wing parties, immigration). The decision to file a complaint against Israel at the International Court of Justice for genocide in Gaza pointed to the potential for a new kind of politics, which could be undermined by a more parochial public sphere, dominated by right-wing parties whose foreign policy lines up with the Western mainstream. But – apart from the EFF – the opposition parties don’t simply veer to the right when it comes to tackling South Africa’s racial and class inequalities; they firmly support Israel, many subscribing to a Christian fundamentalist vision of world politics.

The ANC’s rising clout in the Global South recalls its glory days as a national liberation movement. Its abysmal domestic record, however, indicates a common post-colonial quandary: how to transition successfully from protest to power. Despite South Africans’ flair for exceptionalism, this is not the only place in the world where erstwhile liberators, once they’re tasked with ruling, become as loathed as the former oppressors. The question that will begin to be answered after tomorrow is what might come after national liberation. As support for the ANC diminishes and a political vacuum opens, South Africans hope for something better. But the lesson of India and other places is that it could turn out to be worse.