Much Ado About Nothing: South Africa’s 2024 Elections
3 Jun 2024

South Africans love their country. They are a resilient people, having overcome a lot of historical injustices, and economic, social, and political challenges. Having effectively been abandoned by their government for over a decade – with even the basic and rudimentary functions of government completely lacking (electricity, water, law and order, coherent international policy) – they put on a brave face, strap themselves in, take the hits on the chin and somehow make do despite. They bear the myriad inadequacies of their government with a kind of resigned acceptance and work around it. It is an admirable trait.

The problem is they think that loving their country makes them unique. There are a lot of countries in the world, and every local thinks his own is pretty special.

South Africans also seem to expect people outside their borders to simply accept – with the same long-suffering accommodating tolerance – the failings of their government.

The truth is that we don’t have to.

There is absolutely nothing, resource wise or feature wise, that makes that country so unique it absolutely has to be traded with, included, or considered. It is a competitive world and competitive advantage is not a nice to have. It is crucial. Once lost it is hard to regain, and the opportunity costs mount with compound interest. It is very easy for a country to get to a point where it’s backlog – developmentally, economically – becomes an insurmountable barrier that can never be caught up.

SA had a lot going for it. Its colonial past – something suffered by most countries worldwide at some time or another – was overcome, and left it with the most developed infrastructure on the continent. It triumphed over the darkness of Apartheid – transitioning to democracy in what was viewed by many as a miracle – there was no concentrated military bloodshed. It had cheap, reliable electricity. Fairly good intellectual capital. And the world celebrated the miracle, swept up in the sheer enthusiasm of it all.

In 1994 – the first ever democratic election – the ANC came to power. The world opened its markets to the South Africans, and there was an influx of money, and an exponential expansion of opportunity, and hope.

Some work has been done – some successes had. All of it depended on the right palms being greased – corruption is inherent in every aspect of the civil service. And while some small improvements have been made to thunderous PR applause, and other Potemkin promises are dangled like carrots in front of a desperate population… the real story is one of slow, steady, comparative decline.

For the next three decades, all of the advantages have been squandered.  

The country has been grey-listed financially and is considered sub-investment grade. The workforce is not only one of the least productive and most inefficient in the world, but is also notoriously aggressive. The alliance between the ANC, its trade union partner COSATU, and the Communist Party (one of the world’s three most extreme surviving communist parties) is fraught with infighting, leading to an inertia that leave civilians to their own devices. Corruption, economic crime, and violent crime is out of control. There are frequent electricity outages, and now also water problems. The country’s universities are in a far worse state than is currently apparent.

While the country often touts itself as some sort of moral example to others, and its constitution is said to be wonderfully progressive, on the international arena South Africa has very consistently sided with undemocratic countries and regressive policies. From gay rights to human rights to accountability for Darfur – South Africa is demonstrably not on the side of justice, peace, or progress whenever it is voting at the UN or in the company of its closest friends, which include HAMAS, Cuba, Iran, Russia, and China.

This, often, we are told, reflects the government but not the people. This may be accurate in some sense – but it has to be understood that there is no national identity. People live in tribes. White South Africans in particular live in a parallel world to their surrounding reality. Whether they have imagined themselves semi-grated by moving to a rebel province where the opposition is in charge, or they merely follow the new lifestyle: live in your gated residential estate, to be taken to your gated office park, to do your shopping in a gated shopping mall, and to go for some gated recreation on a golf course. You can’t really blame them – people literally being safer on the streets of Ukraine, Syria, or Gaza right now – body count wise – than the average SA city. But it means viewpoints, like the people, are insular. What one part of the population views as a travesty or a bug… the other considers a gotcha feature. The place is willing to cripple itself provided the other guy’s tribe doesn’t get one up on ‘’ours’’. The only place this is not true is in speeches and attempts at motivation or rationalization. The reality on the ground is exactly thus.

With the last election behind us – what was touted as a make-or-break election for the country – I am somewhat dumbstruck by what seem to be the headlines around the world.

From the UK, to the US, to South Africa itself – everyone seems to be enamoured with the idea that the “ANC LOST ITS MAJORITY.” This seems to be the takeout, universally.

This is incredibly lazy and irresponsible journalism. The numbers are simply stated without any analysis of what the numbers actually mean.

By first, simplistic glance, South Africa has now punished the ANC for its flaws, and has now entered a new era of coalition governments.

This is an infantile understanding of what took place.

In the election of 1994, the ANC received 62.65% of the vote. This was followed by the National Party (which ruled during Apartheid, but set the country on its path to democracy with a referendum, unbanning the ANC and agreeing to democratic elections) – which received 20.39% of the vote. This was followed by the IFP, which received 10.54% of the vote; the Freedom Front with garnered 2.17% and the then Democratic Party with 1.73% of the vote.

While great pageantry and reams of ‘’analyses’’ accompany local politics – the parties were heavily split then along tribal lines. The ANC was the Big Tent liberation movement and the tribal party of the majority Xhosa people. The NP represented the former government, but also many white South Africans at the time – despite the aberration of Apartheid considered ‘mainstream white.’ The IFP was the Zulu party. The Freedom Front represented whites to the right of the National Party, and the Democratic Party represented whites to the left of the National Party.

A lot has changed since then. And some things haven’t.

Once a fascist dictatorship, the country now has a spectrum ranging from ultra left to extreme far left.  

For all pretence to the contrary, South Africans still vote according to tribal lines. I vote for a party not because I have read its manifesto and agree with its ideology – I vote for them because they are ‘my’ tribe as opposed to ‘yours.’ Over the years – as democracy took hold and Apartheid was forever banished – one would often be hard pressed to describe the ideological differences between, say, the DA and the ANC, as the talk would all be the same. Freedom, rule of law, good economy, lots of jobs, safety… the same promises were made by different folks.

I recall one election in which I pointed out that one political party had a stated policy of being neutral when it came to gay rights. A Member of Parliament argued with me that this was not the case. I merely posted the link to the part of the manifesto where the party position was spelled out clearly and was, in fact, neutral. This was weeks before the election, mind you, and in the not-too-distant past. It was amateur hour. Like taking a crayon to a CAD fight.

The National Party is no more. It vanished into the mists of history, with some of its most comical latter-day members making a doomed effort at respectability by crossing the floor to the ANC.

The Democratic Party has grown up into the Democratic Alliance – itself desperately trying to shake its image as the home of white liberals and transforming into a multi-racial big tent of its own… ideologically identical to the ANC with a few important policy differences… now essentially a haven for left-off-centre social democrats of all colours.

The IFP, still a base for Zulus, actually offers a more ‘free market’, traditionally liberal manifesto – but in SA politics the tribalism beats the philosophy, and so the IFP isn’t perceived as traditionally liberal but rather as the traditional Zulu party.

The Freedom Front is still there… now right-off centre where the centre is saner than it used to be… but it is a white party.

There is a smorgasbord of smaller parties – A Muslim one and a Christian one, one that represents the mixed-race tribe but also pretends to distinguish itself on policy grounds instead, a handful of one-issue or tongue in cheek parties, and a few assorted fly by nights and flashes in the pan.

Which brings us to the ANC. The Big Tent. Since taking power, infighting has led to two splits – and the big tent is now really three tents. First, the ANC’s Youth League head, and agitator for more aggressive Marxist-Leninist policies, Julius Malema, formed the Economic Freedom Fighters. And more recently, the former State President and Head of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, formed the MK Party.

In the last elections, one has to understand that the two splits in reality represent controlled opposition, originally a way for the ruling party to manipulate the Overton Window of acceptable discourse, making it seem more ‘reasonable’ and ‘calm’ than the aggressive and energized young rabble rousers of the EFF – and differing from the Zuma Faction’s MLK Party on the basis of an Identity Cult alone and disagreements over whose chance it is to steal.

If there was hope for the country in the long term, the ANC would have been punished – for missed opportunities, for rampant crime, for utter and total failure at service delivery, for dubious international actions.

There would have been a diminishment of support.

In the last election results, we find, instead, the following.

The IFP had its vote diminished to 4.10% – losing a lot of it to Zuma’s MK Party because Zuma is a Zulu, and the IFP has been declining steadily anyway.

The DA is now the second biggest party, having grown substantially and with a great deal of investment, effort, change and disruptions – with 1.4% more than the National Party had in 1994.

The ANC now has 39.76%, the MK Party 14.36% and the EFF with 9.67% – meaning that the big tent of the ANC, playing as three tents instead, gained 1.14% of the vote.

After all the broken promises, the spectacular fuck ups, the continual policy mistakes, the failure to maintain any competitive advantages for the country whatsoever, the breakdown in the rule of law, the pathological spread of corruption through the institutions of the country…

After all the talk of make or break…

After all the heartbreak, and the diminished tax base, and the outflow of capital, and the embarrassments…

After all the fighting talk, the desperate optimism, the deluded hope, the false idea that a truly national identity might emerge…

After all the hopeful reports from rich white Sandtonites that felt inspired by the fact that their maids were also tired of the ANC…

And after everything else that has happened to the country and that its citizens have been put through…

There is – as of right now – no direction, policy or trajectory change for South Africa as it currently stands… in fact, the status quo is 1.14% stronger than it was before. And while the people of a place and the government of a place is not the same thing, the two are necessarily joined when viewed from outside; ultimately democracies deserve the governments they have; and elections have real world consequences for states and subjects of those states on the international scene.

The people have spoken, and we must respect their decisions by accepting them and not pretending they are otherwise than the outcomes make clear.

For me personally, as someone who was born in South Africa and lived there for a large part of my life, I have long moved on, or perhaps this would have been a period of tremendous heartbreak for me. 

What does the future hold?

Nothing different. Continuing slow decline; punctuated by sudden, massive value destruction as the low hanging fruits for thievery need to be replenished with novel sources; and the domino effect of collapsing functions or institutions, each successive failure gradually accepted by the population and compensated for by the dwindling middle class for as long as they survive. The minorities and West will be blamed for any failings. A few pockets of brilliance will keep the place on life support, injecting bits of hope or achievement into the anaemic, self-sabotaging, terminal fugue of a promising place picked clean of potential by vultures and rogues.