South Africa: Elections demonstrate disillusionment and anger of workers

The 2019 general elections will be seen, in time, as the most important one since the advent of democracy. For the first time since 1994, on 8 May this year, less than half the voting age population (49.8%) actually voted. Of the 35.8 million eligible voters only 26.8 million registered. Only 65.9% voted – the lowest since 1994. A full 18m did not go to vote and 250,000 ballots were spoilt.

The vote for the ruling African National Congress, in power since the dawn of democracy in South Africa, declined from 62% in 2014 to 57.6%, its lowest since 1994. The Democratic Alliance (a merger in 2000 between the white liberal opposition Democratic Party and the white Nationalist Party architects of apartheid) declined for the first time since 1994 to 20% from 22% – its 2014 high. The radical nationalist populist Economic Freedom Fighters, formed in 2013 and led by the expelled former president of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, nearly doubled its vote from 6% in 2014 to nearly 11%.

These results, however, are overshadowed by the lowest general election turnout since 1994. Of the main parties, the ANC has been reduced to the active electoral support of only 28% of the voting-age population, the DA 10% and the EFF 5%. This represents, if not a resounding rejection of the entire political establishment, then at least profound disillusionment.


There is cold comfort for the ANC in its nearest rival, the DA, being a massive 37% behind. The direction the arrow is pointing for both is the key question. The ANC lost 1.4-million votes from its 11 million in 2014 and 19 parliamentary seats from 249.

The ANC retained control of Gauteng, the country’s economic hub and most populous province, by the skin of its teeth – getting a mere 50.1%. The loss of the province carrying the greatest political specific weight, would have felt like a defeat. It would have pointed to the likelihood of the ANC’s national vote falling below 50% in the next local government election in 2021 and almost certainly in the 2024 general election in 2024,

In stark contrast to the feigned triumphalism of 2014, arguing that worldwide 62% is a landslide, this self-delusion was strikingly absent this time. “Ramaphosa arrived at the election results ceremony on May 11 looking like his dog had died rather than the person who had just rescued his party from having to share power in order to govern”, Johannesburg Sunday Times (19/05/19).

ANC Head of Elections, Fikile Mbalula expressed the entire leadership’s sigh of relief stating that, without Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential candidature, the ANC would have fallen to as low as 40%. Throughout the election campaign, Ramaphosa had polled consistently higher than his own party. This is what probably accounts for one of many significant features of these elections: the splitting of votes.

In general elections in SA votes are for both national and provincial governments with separate ballots. ANC voters split their ballots. Although it retained controlled in 8 out of the 9, the ANC vote declined in every single province. Voters punished the ANC provincially but voted for it nationally. In this sense it was a virtual presidential poll. Far more popular as an individual leader than his own party, Ramaphosa was able to act as locomotive, enabling the ANC to form a government on its own, possibly for the last time.  

These results confirmed the trend, evident since 2009, but underlined especially by the ANC’s electoral decline in the 2016 local elections, when its extrapolated national tally fell to 54%. Most dramatically, it lost control of the commercial capital Johannesburg, the symbolically significant Nelson Mandela Bay and the political capital Tshwane, leaving it out of power in four (including the DA-controlled Cape Town) out of the country’s eight metropolitan areas.

Ramaphosa’s accession to the country’s presidency was made possible by his presidential victory at the ANC’s 54th elective conference in 2018 by the razor-thin margin of 179 votes after a vicious factional war against former president Zuma’s preferred candidate, his former wife – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ). The ANC would have faced almost certain defeat if NDZ had been the presidential face of the campaign. The ANC did not so much win these elections as survive them. Its results show that its political capital as the party of liberation is close to exhaustion.

The Democratic Alliance

The DA remains the official opposition. But as our party – the Workers’ and Socialist Party (WASP) -pointed out, the DA’s 2014 results represented an electoral ceiling. On the strength of its control of the three metros, giving it control, alongside Cape Town, of half of the country’s metros, it set itself the target of controlling the Gauteng province. It retained control only of the Western Cape with a lower vote.

The reality is that their “control” was in fact a coalition of losers with the EFF. The DA has paid a heavy price for trading its “anti-corruption clean government” claims for the trappings of office. The EFF, a party with a corrupt leadership, installed DA mayors for access to lucrative municipal tenders.

The DA’s hypocrisy stridently denounced the policy of expropriation of land without compensation (EWC) that its coalition partner, the EFF, had forced on the ANC as official government policy. Yet it campaigned with the slogan: “Vote DA to stop the EFF and the ANC”! This drove its voters to seek shelter from the white nationalist right wing Freedom Front and its promises to defend their land.

This result has dealt a body blow to the DA’s ambitions to be an electoral alternative to the ANC as the main party of capital. Its electoral decline has plunged the party into a leadership crisis. This occurred under its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane. A vacuous individual unable to shake off the impression that he is a black puppet of a white controlled party, Maimane’s installation as leader failed to attract black voters, its tally increasing by a miserable 0.4%.

The EFF         

The EFF is of course triumphant. Its 1.8m votes have resulted in a near doubling from 6% in 2014 to close to 11%. It is now the official opposition in three ANC dominated provinces – the North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

However this does not translate into momentum. It is up from 2016 by only 2%. Even in those provinces where it is now the official opposition, it cannot form a ruling coalition. ANC voters continued, as in 2014 and 2016, to vote for opposition parties not out of conviction but to punish the ANC.

Portrayed as the party of the youth, it has failed to enthuse the youth to register or vote. 6 million voters under the age of 30 did not vote. Eligible voters aged 18-19 total 1.8 million. But just 341,186 — 19% – registered. The impact of its leadership’s astounding levels of corruption revealed in the run up to the elections, have yet to be felt. The prosecutions that will follow under Ramaphosa’s clean-up campaign will erode the EFF’s votes in the future. Its election manifesto revealed a marked shift in an increasingly pro-capitalist direction. Its willingness to enter into coalitions with the major parties will come back to haunt it in the future.

The 2019 elections have confirmed the simultaneous crisis of political representation for both the ruling class as well as the working class. The ANC’s factional civil war is poised to intensify in the ANC government’s 6th term. Ramaphosa, who benefitted from unprecedented levels of capitalist media support, both in the country and internationally, can continue his anti-corruption crusade only by further inflaming factional tensions that hardly abated during the election campaign. At stake for the Zuma faction is imprisonment for corruption. Zuma defiantly insists he has done nothing wrong as he faces reinstated corruption charges shows; his faction will not resign themselves to their fate without a fight.

The ANC’s 57% vote is probably just enough to enable Ramaphosa to be portrayed as the first leader to reverse its fifteen year electoral decline. His pre-election dismissal of corrupt ministers, appointment of untainted individuals in key state institutions, establishment of multiple commissions of inquiry into corruption that enjoyed wall-to-wall live media coverage, has given him the upper hand in the factional struggle… for now.

But the more this “lawfare” succeeds, the more it will inflame factional divisions. Although the Zuma faction’s hands are stayed at present, rumours persist of a plan to recall him at the ANC’s National General Council next year, or at its next conference in 2022. Should this succeed, it would probably split the ANC. Ramaphosa’s security of presidential tenure thus depends on both factions’ fear of a mutually assured destruction of the ANC that would follow.

It is for this reason that the more far-sighted strategists, fearing a possible implosion of the ANC, are raising the idea now of a future government of national unity of the ANC and DA to save capitalism.    


These elections have confirmed at the same time the enormous crisis of leadership for the working class. This was accentuated by the dismal performance of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party led by the secretary general of the National Union of Metal Workers of SA (Numsa), Ivin Jim. Ignoring the election campaign of WASP in 2014, it claimed it was the first genuine ”revolutionary socialist” party to contest elections. Supported by small left forces and individuals, they swallowed their own propaganda about its base in the 300,000+ Numsa members.

After a campaign funded by American Caribbean billionaire, Roy Singham (also a funder of one of India’s “Communist” parties) the dismal 24,000 votes were a humiliation. Far more importantly, it was an outright rejection by the union’s members of a party that campaigned in the name of Numsa. This is an emphatic statement that this is not the workers’ party their 2013 Special National Congress resolved to establish.

Predictably, the leadership has blamed the working class for not being “ready” and also made laughable claims of vote-rigging. WASP called for a critical vote for the SRWP not out of any illusions in this neo-Stalinist party, but to diminish the vote of the capitalist parties. By failing to launch a workers’ party in 2013 and launching an SACP Mark II in 2018 – the Numsa grouping has allowed the vacuum on the left to be filled by the EFF. It must abandon sectarianism and take its place alongside other left formations in the new South African Federation of Trade Unions’ ‘Working Class Summit’.

Ramaphosa prepares offensive again the working class

The once mighty, but now thoroughly emasculated, Congress of SA Trade Unions, to its eternal shame, alongside the SA Communist Party, is supporting this billionaire butcher of Marikana, Cyril Ramaphosa. Cosatu denounced the general strike that Saftu called for 25th April last year to oppose legislation aimed at crippling the right to strike.

Ramaphosa’s ascendancy represents the fulfilment of the childhood dream. But his presidency will turn into a nightmare. He comes to power against the background of the worst economic crisis in the post-apartheid period. An unreconstructed neo-liberal capitalist and darling of big business in South Africa and internationally, he is poised to intensify the class war against the working class.

After years of prevarication, the ANC has now decided to bite the bullet of privatisation of Eskom (the biggest electricity entity in the world) and, in the words of capitalist analysts baying for the blood of the “bloated public sector” , to “slay the dragon” of the public sector wage bill with 30,000 planned retrenchments. A number of unions, including Numsa, are facing increasing hostile Department of Labour scrutiny. The Association of Mining and Construction Unions came to prominence after the mass exodus of mineworkers from the National Union of Mineworkers in the wake of the Marikana massacre but is now facing threats of deregistration.  

Cyril Ramaphosa, the Apartheid-era mineworkers’ leader, ascends to the presidency of the country at a time when strikes are at the highest level since Department of Labour records began. Service delivery protests have made SA the “protest capital of the world”. Protests continued throughout the election campaign, escalating as polling day approached, including on Election Day itself.

The economy will have barely avoided a recession in the first half of 2019 and faces growth prospects of between 0.8% and 1% this year, the same level as 2018. The National Development Plan Commission that Ramaphosa chaired, calculated that a 5.4% annual growth is required for ten years consecutively merely to eradicate extreme poverty. This is a pipe dream. The savage austerity that the rating agencies are demanding will only aggravate an already dire situation. Unemployment is edging towards 10 million (40%) in what the World Bank has officially designated as the most unequal society on the planet.

Towards a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme

The present wave of strikes and protests reflects the combative mood of the masses. It is now a year since the labour movement took potentially its most important stride forward post-apartheid with the Working Class Summit (WCS) convened by the SA Federation of Trade Unions in May 2018. Over a thousand delegates representing 147 community organisations, trade union affiliates and student groupings adopted a resolution to establish a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. WASP played an important role in making this possible and will throw its energy into remedying its organisational, ideological and political weaknesses.

These elections reflect the urgent need for such a party to unify the working class around a common platform and programme of action across all the main theatres of struggle – in the workplace, communities and educational institutions. The Saftu-led WCS must immediately plan a counter-offensive against Ramaphosa’s class war plans. It must be a party of mass action which all left formations can support, building a federal mass workers’ party in struggle, putting their ideas before the masses to evaluate and test them in action.

This will be the best tribute to the immortal martyrs of Marikana who paid in blood to lay the foundations for the reclamation of the proletariat’s class and political independence – the creation of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.       

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May 2019