There was never any doubt about who would win parliamentary elections held in South Africa last week. The African National Congress (ANC), which has dominated the country’s politics since the apartheid era ended, was certain to prevail. The only question was the ANC’s margin of victory and whether it would retain the two-thirds majority that would allow it to amend the constitution. It did not. A razor-sharp deficit means that the feared leftward lurch of the ANC will not materialize. It is not a bad result.
The ANC has won every election since South Africa embraced democracy in 1994. During these past 15 years, successive ANC governments have governed from the center to maintain stability and stem the flight of white citizens and capital. The economy has grown throughout that period; it expanded on average 5 percent from 2004-2007. About 800,000 whites have left since 1994; more than 4.5 million remain, providing knowhow and skills as well as a much needed signal of confidence in the government.
This year’s election threatened to depart from that path. Mr. Jacob Zuma now leads the ANC, and many in South Africa worry about the policies he will adopt. Mr. Zuma joined the ANC as a teenager and held various positions in the organization. Unlike his predecessor Mr. Thabo Mbeki, or even the revered Mr. Nelson Mandela, Mr. Zuma is down to earth and a man of the people. His populism has endeared him to many voters and encouraged them to overlook periodic controversies, such as allegations of rape and charges of corruption that stem from a relationship with a friend and businessman.
Equally disturbing is Mr. Zuma’s close relationship with South Africa’s labor unions and the far left. There are fears that under Mr. Zuma, the ANC will move to the left and abandon market-friendly policies that drove the economy and reassured whites. Mr. Zuma has denied that any such shift is in place. He understands the need to attract foreign investment if he is to extend the social safety net that he has promised his poorest supporters. Those soothing words are not enough for voters who have also seen a campaign of intimidation toward those who have opposed Mr. Zuma.
Those fears were evident in last week’s election results. The ANC won 65.9 percent of votes cast, giving it 264 seats, three short of two-thirds, and 33 fewer than it had held in the last Parliament. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, claimed 67 seats, a gain of 20 from the last Parliament. And Congress of the People, a group that recently broke away from the ANC and is known as COPE, won 30 seats, an impressive showing for a party that is just seven months old. Ten other parties shared the remaining seats.
Since Parliament selects the president, Mr. Zuma is certain to be inaugurated as president on May 9. While he professes to be happy with the results, he most certainly understands that the vote signals concerns about him. The Democratic Alliance and COPE warned voters against giving the ANC a blank check in the form of a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Those warnings, coupled with the split in the ANC, appeared to have worked. Mr. Zuma has reached out to his rivals, acknowledging disagreements with them while calling on them to work together “to build a better life for all.”
These results could signal the rise of genuine post-apartheid politics in South Africa. Mixed-race voters were treated better once white rule ended, but now they feel increasingly marginalized. They joined whites in voting in large numbers for the Democratic Alliance.
While the ANC won victories in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces, its support dropped in each one. The Democratic Alliance won in Western Cape elections on the back of strong support from mixed race voters, and leader Helen Zille is expected to become the province’s premier. The appeal of the Democratic Alliance is limited, however. The party is seen as dominated by whites in a country that is 80 percent black.
The ANC now faces several serious challenges. The first is reconciling Mr. Zuma’s pledges to spend more money on his constituents with a faltering economy. The IMF now anticipates the economy will contract 0.3 percent in 2009, after shrinking an annualized 1.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Hosting the World Cup next year will provide a boost in both investment and tourism, as will a government stimulus package of 690 billion rand, but retrenchment will follow. Crime continues to be a blight; South Africa has the world’s highest murder rate. And the horrific situation across the border in Zimbabwe threatens to spill over into South Africa.
Each problem will challenge Mr. Zuma’s mettle. Together, they may prove too much even for a man who enjoys such deep affection from a majority of South African voters. Mr. Zuma will need all the help he can get. He is smart enough to know that — and that is the best hope for those who doubt his intentions.
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