With attention focused on the ANC succession ahead of the party’s national conference in December 2017, as well as the slow drip of allegations emerging from the leaked Gupta emails, it is easy to forget that the next national elections in 2019 are less than two years away. The ANC’s electoral dominance since the end of apartheid has, until recently, provided a veneer of stability to the political environment. However, with widening divisions in the ANC and unmet expectations among the electorate, opposition parties are increasingly optimistic that they could oust the ANC from power in 2019. Is this realistic?
The current state of play
The ANC’s electoral fortunes seem to have peaked in the 2004 election, when it netted 69.69% of the votes and won control of all nine provinces. In 2009, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) won control of the Western Cape while the ANC’s national vote dropped to 65.9%. A further drop in ANC support was seen in 2014 when the ANC won 62.15% of the votes. In 2014, the total number of votes for the ANC fell from 11.65mn to 11.4mn, while the DA’s grew from 2.9mn to 4.1mn. Even the newly established Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) managed to win almost 1.2mn, or 6.35% of the votes, in 2014.
However, the 2016 local elections particularly excited opposition parties. Although these results cannot be directly compared to national elections, the ANC’s 53.9% share of the vote suggests that the party is vulnerable. In 2016 the ANC also lost, for the first time, three major metropolitan areas to opposition coalitions: Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. This suggests that the ANC’s middle class support has started to look for political alternatives.
The potential for the ANC to lose in 2019 depends on a number of factors, including internal party dynamics and the ability of the opposition to capitalize on ANC weaknesses. The ANC succession will be a major issue, which is why it deserves such focused attention in the coming months. If President Jacob Zuma’s favored candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, becomes ANC president, there is a strong likelihood that supporters of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa will lead a breakaway party. This could be supported by a group of senior leaders, known as the “ANC stalwarts,” who have been campaigning for reforms within the party. Although any new political party will suffer teething problems, a splinter group could represent a major threat to the ANC, especially if Dlamini-Zuma is seen as a proxy for Zuma – representing the continuation, or even worsening, of patronage and mismanagement.
A win for Dlamini-Zuma would also place greater strain on the ANC’s alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The SACP leadership has been increasingly critical of President Zuma, while Cosatu has endorsed Ramaphosa for ANC president. The SACP’s threat to contest elections under its own banner would not overly concern the ANC, but would be symbolic ahead of a major election. Cosatu’s support is more important, as the ANC has relied on the unions’ organizational abilities and support to mobilize its base at election time.
While the ANC’s 2019 prospects look better if Ramaphosa succeeds Zuma as party president, there is no guarantee that the ANC will be able to overcome the damage it has suffered under Zuma’s leadership. Ramaphosa, for example, is unlikely to be able to bridge the divisions that the December 2017 ANC conference will expose. If Ramaphosa wins, he would likely face a backlash from the Zuma camp, unless he is decisive in pushing the ANC’s newly elected National Executive Committee (NEC) to recall the president in early 2018. If Ramaphosa takes over as ANC president but Zuma remains in office until the 2019 election, the ANC will struggle to manage these “two centers of power,” and the party will struggle to present itself favorably in the electoral campaign. Zuma will also be in a better position to undermine efforts to hold him to account, which will play negatively for the ANC. Notably, on 15 September, the Supreme Court of Appeal is due to hear an appeal against a High Court ruling that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)’s decision to set aside 783 charges of corruption, fraud and money laundering against Zuma was irrational.
The possibility of the ANC losing power in 2019 also depends on the fortunes and discipline of the opposition. Although the DA has started coalition talks with other opposition parties, including the EFF, wide policy differences will make pre-election coalition agreements difficult to reach. DA internal polls have reportedly forecast that the party could increase its share of the vote from 22% in 2014 to 30% in 2019. This growth would require the DA to attract voters away from the ANC, which would be more difficult if Ramaphosa wins and Zuma is removed. However, if 30% represents a natural upper threshold for the DA, it would require support from all other opposition parties to secure control of the national government.
Although support for the EFF grew between the 2014 national election and the 2016 local elections, the increase fell far short of expectations generated by the party’s media presence. The EFF is likely to see further growth in 2019, but its share of the vote will likely be around 10% unless the party is able to improve its internal structures and convert its apparent popular support into actual votes.
There are numerous possible outcomes to the 2019 election given the current political uncertainty. In addition to dynamics within the various parties, voter turnout will play an important role. This has tended to benefit the DA, especially during local elections. If the DA is able to maintain its presence in key constituencies where ANC support is weakening, such as those in the suburban areas around Pretoria and Johannesburg, it might be able to wrest control of another province, such as Gauteng, away from the ANC.
Although there are various scenarios under which the ANC’s share of the vote could fall below 50%, they depend on a number of uncertain events occurring. The ANC will launch a major campaign ahead of 2019 no matter who wins control of the party. Rural voters will be targeted with food parcels and threats that benefits such as social welfare grants will be withdrawn under the opposition. Although the credibility of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) remains intact, there are also concerns that the ANC might ultimately look to undermine its independence. A 2017 by-election, for example, had to be delayed over illegal registrations on the voters’ roll. The 2019 elections represent a major threat for the ANC, but optimism that the party will lose control of the national government is unlikely to be realized.