South Africa: A Loss for the ANC, a Win for Democracy

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Early results in South Africa’s local elections suggest gains for the opposition, indicating a gradual but profound shift of power in Africa’s economic and political powerhouse. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party that defeated apartheid in 1990 under Nelson Mandela, will remain the ruling force in South Africa. But a jump in support for the Democratic Alliance (DA) suggests a maturing of South Africa’s democracy into something beyond what, for the best part of two decades, has been a de facto one-party state.

With 63% of the votes counted by noon Thursday, the ANC’s share of the vote had slipped to 62%, down from 65.7% at the last munipal elections in 2006 and 66.5% at national elections in 2009. Figures from the independent election commission, meanwhile, showed the DA’s share of the vote rose from 16.3% in 2006 to 24%.

It would be too early to predict the ANC’s eventual loss of power, not least because South Africa has been here before. In 2000, the year after Mandela’s retirement as President, ANC support dropped to 59.4% while the DA saw its share of the vote rise to 22.1%, only for the ANC to recover in 2006 and the DA’s support to melt away.

But this time around there is other evidence of a rising sophistication in South African politics. This election, more than any previous contest, has been fought on issues rather than race – albeit no thanks to some members of the ANC. Julius Malema, leader of the ANC’s Youth League, used the campaign once again as a chance to bash whites, whom he described as “criminals” for “stealing” black land. Disparaging remarks by ANC spokesman Jimmy Manyi about Cape coloreds – the mixed race and Malay-origin ethnic group that dominates Cape Town – also found him accused of racism by colored members of his own party.

Despite those distractions, however, at the center of this year’s campaign was each party’s respective record of delivering services such as water, electricity, housing, health and education, something millions of South Africans in poor, rural areas still go without. The antithesis of good performance – corruption – is a big issue in South African local government and the ANC, in charge of the vast majority of South Africa’s 283 municipalities, took heavy flak on that score.  But the debate over poor delivery became most heated when it came to the most basic of services: building public toilets in townships with walls around them is not something, it turns out, either the ANC or the DA do well.

As emotive as that argument became, the emergence of a politics focused on success in government today rather than in overthrowing apartheid 21 years ago is encouraging. That phenomenon appeared to be reflected in the DA’s attraction of its biggest support in South Africa’s most affluent urban areas, also its most racially mixed. Despite being led by a white former journalist, Helen Zille, the DA retained control of Western Province around Cape Town with 60% of the vote and scored 31.8% of the vote in Gauteng, home to Johannesburg.

In the run-up to South Africa’s first free election in 1994, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s hailed the emergence of a new post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation.” That has often seemed over-optimistic amid the scores of race riots and hundreds, if not thousands, of race killings that have occurred since. If this year’s elections suggest Tutu was merely premature, there is renewed reason for hope.