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15 May 2024 Photo Supplied
Prof Theo Neethling
Prof Theo Neethling is from the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Prof Theo Neethling, Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of the Free State.

As South Africa approaches the monumental occasion of the 2024 national and provincial elections, it stands at the nexus of its democratic journey, marking three decades since the inception of its democratic dispensation. This pivotal moment in the nation's history encapsulates a confluence of factors that could redefine its trajectory. The emergence of new political entities, the inclusion of independent candidates, a weaker incumbent party, pervasive uncertainty, and a clamour for change and economic revitalisation underscore the significance of the forthcoming 29 May elections. Delving into the fabric of South Africa's political landscape unveils the following ten variables of profound importance, each wielding relevance to the potential reshaping of the country's future:

Depth of democracy

Whereas the ANC obtained close to 70% of the votes in 2004, its support dwindled to just over 57% in 2019, and expectations are broadly that the ANC will obtain support of between 40% and 50% in the upcoming elections. All indications are that a coalition will have to be formed at national level, but also in provinces such as Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. Gone are the days when the ANC had no serious political contender at the polls. Furthermore, several new parties are entering the elections, such as Rise Mzansi and Action SA, competing with more established opposition parties such as the DA and the EFF – all suggesting changes in the political landscape of the country.

Staleness of incumbency and leadership succession

Where long-term one-party dominance occurs, arrogance, corruption, and confusion of party and state interests often prevail. This is certainly of relevance to South Africa, where many South Africans have increasingly experienced a staleness of incumbency after about ten years into our democratic dispensation. Few South Africans would not concur that the capacity of the government and public service is now severely lacking and needs urgent attention. Otherwise, the ANC is battling with internal strife and even President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the division within the governing party on several occasions over the past years. As far as leadership succession is concerned, there is no clarity on who might succeed Ramaphosa or even on his remaining period in the presidential office.

Legitimacy of government

The post-1994 government increasingly started to face significant legitimacy problems at all levels of government, but especially at municipal level with protests and even violent incidents demonstrating dissatisfaction with service delivery. Research conducted by several researchers in recent years indicates a significant decline in confidence in South Africa’s parliament and similar patterns for the national, provincial, and local governments. Voting behaviour also shows considerable apathy. Only about 66% of registered voters turned out to vote in the 2019 elections, which compares badly with the turnout of just more than 89% registered voters in 1999 and a more than 73% turnout in 2014.

Socio-economic conditions

Since 1994, South Africa has experienced several serious structural problems in its political economy, such as a lack of trained human capital and a poor educational system. This had a serious impact on economic growth and socio-economic conditions in the country. Two of the most important markers of socio-economic conditions in the country are, firstly, the wealth differential between rich and poor (notable imbalance in income distribution) in South Africa, and secondly, a high official unemployment figure of more than 30%. Youth unemployment is even much higher. Whereas the potential for societal instability has decreased dramatically since democratisation in 1994, there is currently a high risk of spontaneous riotous behaviour against the state and the plundering of properties by a frustrated unemployed population.

Racial, ethnic, language, and religious cleavages

Before and since 1994, South Africa experienced colour, racial, and ethnic divisions in society. These divisions are deep and exclusionist and always a potential source of societal tension. South Africa remains a societal landscape that is racially conscious, and race and ethnic groupings tend to support specific political parties. Positively speaking, however, researchers from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation also indicate that about three quarters (75%) of South Africans – a majority across all race groups – agree that a united South Africa is desirable.

Safety and security

Few South Africans do not view safety and security as among the most challenging political issues in the country. In the past two decades, crime levels have frequently ranked among the highest in the world, ranging from ordinary theft to sophisticated networks of cartels and syndicates. The seriousness of this issue is reflected in the fact that there are more than 2,7 million registered private security officers in the country. This makes the South African security industry one of the largest in the world in a country where there are fewer than 150 000 police officers for the country's population of 62 million. Interestingly, the number of security businesses in South Africa has grown by 43% in the past decade, while the number of registered security officers has increased by 44%.

Macro political-economic circumstances

Macro-economic indicators, specifically relating to the monetary and fiscal policies (managed by the South African Reserve Bank and the Ministry of Finance respectively), still reveal sound policies. However, South Africa has been unsuccessful in attracting major inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) in recent decades. One of the problems is that despite the efforts of President Cyril Ramaphosa to personally promote FDI, certain elements in the political domain – and the ruling party – are decidedly anti-business. The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World report also indicated that South Africa appears considerably lower on the list of economic freedom to do business without government prescriptions than during the Mandela/Mbeki era.

Administrative competence in government

There can be little doubt that poor performance of government and a governance crisis, especially at local government level, is of high concern to most South Africans and will play a role in voting behaviour. This issue is largely rooted in the lack of appropriate skills and capacity, and unethical conduct in increasing incidents of corruption and maladministration in both government departments and state-owned companies, including Eskom. In July 2021, South Africa was hit by a wave of devastating violence that left more than 350 people dead and coincided with massive economic damage. Different people have used different terms to describe what happened: civil unrest, looting, food riots, uprising, rebellion. In a subsequent report it was stated that by and large, the events could be attributed to the pervasiveness of weak state institutions that failed at implementation, and ineffective security institutions that failed to uphold the law.

The security of private property

Land reform in South Africa remains an emotive and politically fraught subject. Successful land reform can help forge a more cohesive society if a properly managed redistribution programme is implemented. However, since 1994 land reform remains a challenge, although some communities and individuals have indeed had their land restored. For some parties, radical land reform is a priority and/or key issue in their manifestos, while others emphasise food security. Land reform is not always high on the political agenda, but usually rears its head as we move closer to elections.

The regional foreign policy landscape

Since 1994, South Africa has had no immediate regional enemies. The most significant regional issue is the unknown but large numbers of illegal immigrants settling in South Africa. There is a perception among some South Africans that immigrants are overwhelming the resources of the country and that jobs are taken from South Africans. In 2019, the country experienced widespread incidents of looting and violent xenophobic protests in various parts of Gauteng, resulting in the burning of public and private property. Currently, xenophobia is a simmering political issue and some politicians have recently fuelled xenophobic sentiments in their political campaigns.

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