Could South Africa's elections finally see the ANC ousted from office?

The ANC, party of former President Nelson Mandela, has held office in South Africa since 1994. Now, it is preparing itself for a watershed election. Knowledge Mwonzora outlines the prospects for the ANC's ousting from government as a result of the challenge from former President Jacob Zuma

South Africa readies itself for a general election

South Africans head to the polls on 29 May. But will the results reinforce or erode South African democracy? South Africa's neighbours have long admired its democratic credentials in a region where democracy is in short supply. But the country faces enormous challenges. Emerging from a history of apartheid, successive administrations have struggled to establish South Africa as a non-racial, egalitarian, Rainbow nation.

ANC hegemony and a tight electoral contest

Polls predict the governing African National Congress will record a steep decline in votes, and lose its majority. This vote could thus be the most significant since South Africa’s founding elections of 1994, since which the ANC has enjoyed uninterrupted rule. The absence of a vibrant opposition party with national credentials has long helped bolster ANC dominance. Indeed, challenger parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have emerged only in recent years.

The ANC has enjoyed uninterrupted rule since South Africa’s founding elections in 1994

Today, however, the uMkhonto we Sizwe / Spear of the Nation (MK) party, led by former President Jacob Zuma, is threatening to overturn the ANC's majority. This would likely force the ANC into some form of political coalition.

Zuma is a former ANC member, but his relationship with the party has deteriorated considerably, and he has now gone on the offensive. The MK is currently enjoying a significant boost in support across many regions, especially Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, a key battleground.

Zuma’s challenge is likely to affect not just on the election outcome, but South Africa’s democratic credentials more widely. Already, factionalism and unresolved power struggles have spawned offshoot parties COPE and EFF from within ANC ranks, stripping a significant chunk of the ANC's support base. The recent challenge from splinter party MK, too, may weaken it yet further.

In several other African countries, a single party has held power far too long. Examples include ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, FRELIMO in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia, and Chama Cha Mapinduzi in Tanzania. The rise of MK in South Africa may signal the decline of formidable African liberation movements such as these, which have long been monolithic electoral party machines. This decline could spark the creation of breakaway factions such as those currently emerging in South Africa.

Electoral integrity and political trust

South Africa has a history of clean, credible elections, in a region where this is far from the norm. But many observers fear that the country's democratic credentials may be slowly eroding. South African opposition parties, and the general public, continue to voice concerns over the impartiality of the country's Independent Electoral Commission.

South Africa's election management bodies (EMBs) stand accused of lacking impartiality, autonomy and independence. This can breed disenchantment among the electorate, and result in voter apathy. There is evidence that EMBs are deliberately generating fake news, spreading disinformation and misinformation aimed at undermining the democratic process, and influencing the vote.

There is evidence that EMBs are spreading misinformation aimed at undermining the democratic process and influencing the vote

Faced with such criticism, President Cyril Ramaphosa has moved to shore up electoral integrity. He recently spoke out to defend EMBs against accusations of compromise and meddling:

Rumours of electoral malpractice are easy to disseminate in a region where the ANC has enjoyed long incumbency through any means. The ANC maintain these rumours are unjustified, because South Africa has in the past enjoyed robust electoral democracy.

The current election campaign has attracted huge crowds at rallies for many of South Africa's bigger parties. Yet attendance at rallies doesn't necessarily translate into support at the ballot box. Some citizens, particularly in rally-intensive countries such as Tanzania, turn up only for the entertainment or the free merchandise.

Attendance at rallies doesn't necessarily translate into support at the ballot box

Personalities over policies

Amid the ANC's waning electoral fortunes, challenger parties are resorting to personality politics. The EFF, for example, is glorifying its populist leader Julius Malema. Indeed, in much of Africa, political campaigns are driven less by policy, and more by populist ideas and personalities.

Some South African parties, including Democratic Alliance and Inkatha Freedom Party still offer policy solutions on substantive issues including race, colour, land dis/(re)possession, poor service delivery, discrimination, unemployment, crime, insecurity, ever expanding inequality, and poverty. This election will reveal whether policy or ideology resonates more with voters.

The ANC's fate hangs in the balance. Will the ruling party emerge unscathed or broken? If the latter, what will the election results mean for South African democracy?

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Knowledge Mwonzora
Knowledge Mwonzora
Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for Security, Peace and Conflict Resolution / Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy, Nelson Mandela University

Knowledge is an emerging scholar, and an advocate for human rights, social justice and peace.

He holds an MA in development studies, majoring in human rights, gender, conflict studies and social justice, from the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, and a diploma in sustainable development and human rights law from the University of Antwerp.

He also holds a diploma in federalism, decentralisation and conflict resolution from the University of Fribourg.

He earned his PhD in political studies from North-West University, South Africa, in December 2021.

Knowledge’s research focuses on transitional justice and reconciliation in Zimbabwe, with a specific focus on the role of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission.

He is interested in cross-cutting issues concerning transitional justice, reconciliation, civil resistance, nonviolence, elections, critical security studies, conflict resolution, democracy, climate change, human-wildlife conflict, self-determination, human rights, and peace.

He has worked for organisations including the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers union of Zimbabwe, and for humanitarian NGOs.

Knowledge also served as a Rapporteur for the Constitution Select Committee during the constitution-making process in Zimbabwe.

He has researched and published on transitional justice, electoral violence, and human-wildlife conflict in Zimbabwe.


Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram