Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

South Africa: ANC returned to power in election landslide

Reading Time: 6 minutes

But Zuma government unable to address basic needs of the working class
On 22 APRIL, in a record turnout that reversed falls in voter registration and polling in the two previous elections, 17.9 million voters – the highest number since the first democratic elections in 1994 – returned the African National Congress to power in a landslide, falling short of a two-thirds majority by a fraction of a percentage.

By Weizmann Hamilton, Democratic Socialist Movement, South Africa

The Democratic Alliance (DA), a predominantly white, right-wing capitalist party, came a distant second with a little over 16%, followed by the ANC breakaway, Congress of the People (Cope), with just under 7.5%.

Predictably the ANC leadership attributes victory to the confidence of the masses in its policies, its effective election campaign, history and loyalty to the party of liberation, and explaining its policies to the masses who “understood what we were saying.”

Leaders relieved

The triumphalism of the leadership is understandable, but it is also tinged with relief. For the last four years the ANC has been torn apart by the deepest divisions since its founding in 1912.

Thabo Mbeki’s resignation after being recalled from the presidency – the culmination of a rebellion by the party rank-and file that began after his dismissal of Jacob Zuma as the country’s deputy president in 2005 – detonated the split that gave birth to Cope and with it, a genuine fear within the ANC leadership that the party would suffer a crippling decline in electoral support.

Following Cope’s launch entire branches defected to it from the ANC. Cope’s membership exploded to a claimed 500,000.

The election results appear to confirm the ANC as the unquestioned party of the masses that will rule, in Zuma’s controversial words, “until Jesus comes”. However, the real significance of these elections lies in their confirmation of the ANC’s continued decline.

ANC support falls

Despite the fact that Cope’s performance did not match the hype, its emergence has changed the political landscape. With 1.3 million votes it is represented in the national parliament and in every provincial legislature.

That its membership could grow to half a million within weeks of its formation last October, is an indication of the desire for an alternative which initially swept not just the middle class but also workers and youth into its ranks.

With the class character of the leadership and its programme now clearer, workers can leave just as quickly as they joined. Workers are more interested in jobs, education, housing – rather than abstract issues like the ‘rule of law’ which the Cope leadership was preoccupied with. The membership is now in all likelihood much smaller and mainly middle class. Nevertheless, much more significant than its size is the fact that it came out of the ANC, and cannot easily be dismissed.

The ANC remains the dominant party by far in percentage terms, although its majority has been reduced from 69.2% to 65.9% nationally, losing 33 seats. The fact that the ANC vote has fallen below two-thirds shows that its aura of invincibility has been dented.

In the provincial elections held simultaneously, its support declined in eight of the nine provinces – by more than 10% in four of them. In the Western Cape, for the first time the DA inflicted a decisive defeat on the ANC, coming very close to obtaining an outright majority.

The ANC’s convincing 62% victory in Kwa Zulu Natal had much more to do with the historic demise of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – a party that collaborated with the apartheid regime. Zuma also unashamedly flaunted his Zulu origins.

The ANC’s 11.6 million votes constitute only 34.8% of the 30 million eligible voters thus continuing the descent revealed in 2004 when its 10.8 million votes translated into 38% of the eligible voting population.

As in the previous election, in 2009 the number of people who did not vote – 12.4 million – was greater than the number who voted ANC. In percentage terms as well as relative to the eligible voting population, the ANC’s vote was lower than at any time since the defeat of apartheid in 1994 despite the R200 million it spent in the most expensive election campaign ever.

Social polarisation

The material basis for the split in the ANC is the class polarisation in society accelerated by the ANC’s neo-liberal capitalist policies, of which the conflict between the Mbeki and Zuma factions is an indirect expression.

The spectacular profits of the still predominant white capitalist class and the enrichment of their apprentices – the mafikizolo black capitalists – whilst millions of working class people have to make do with welfare grants to stave off absolute poverty, have sharpened class antagonisms.

In his first address to the nation as ANC president, Zuma took the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the “longest period of economic growth in SA history”. Ironically, it is this very boom that laid the basis for the split in the ANC forcing the Zuma-led faction to oust Mbeki – the alleged architect of SA’s economic growth.

But claims of economic policy success disregard both the impact of the growth on SA’s economy and its social effects. Namely: neo-colonial dependency of the SA economy on imperialist countries, the deepening poverty of the masses, persistent mass unemployment, homelessness, exclusion from education, lack of access to decent health care, the HIV/Aids pandemic (claiming 1,000 lives a day), a dismal record in the delivery of basic services, rampant corruption, the horrifying escalation in crime and the worst inequalities in the distribution of wealth in the world!

The ANC split came about because of conflicting reactions of the two factions to the growing discontent of the masses and the escalation in the class struggle: the service delivery protests and the increase in strikes in the workplace struggles, most spectacularly in the 2007 public sector strike – the biggest, longest and most highly politicised strike against the ANC government since it came to power.

Buoyed by the support of the trade union confederation Cosatu and the ‘Communist Party’ (SACP), Zuma has portrayed himself as a champion of the poor and the marginalised. Cope, on the other hand, represents the more openly pro-capitalist ANC elite. Cope is the ANC shorn of its revolutionary pretensions – a more honest version of itself.

Zuma government

Zuma has good reason to feel the gods are smiling on him after all his travails. He had been acquitted in a rape trial and just weeks before the elections the corruption charges against him were dropped, this time finally.

But Zuma is taking over as president as the world economy faces its most serious crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The boom that Zuma claimed credit for is over. The SA economy, integrated into and dependent even more on the world economy over the past 15 years, is described by The Economist as the most risky of all emerging markets as it nosedives towards its first recession in 17 years.

Both factions, Mbeki’s and Zuma’s, bear equal political responsibility for neo-liberal policies that have wreaked havoc on the lives of the masses for more than a decade. “The Zuma ANC succeeded through a shrewd election strategy in portraying itself more as an opposition party intent on righting the wrongs of the Mbeki era than as the party in whose name the abuses took place” (Business Day 4/05/09).

The assurances given to big business at home and imperialism abroad that there will be no fundamental changes in economic policy are a recipe for social conflict. The capitalists’ answer to the economic crisis is to make the working class pay.

Zuma will continue to come under enormous pressure from big business to maintain the anti-working class policies of the last 15 years. If it was not possible to address even the most basic needs of the working class majority during a boom, how is it going to be possible to do so in a recession?

The pressure on the Zuma government from the capitalist right will be matched by the working class pressures from the left. The Cosatu leadership in particular, which has invested enormous political energy, political capital and material resources into the Zuma campaign, will be required to show a return on that investment or face the wrath of its members.

Workers’ alternative

The 2009 elections represent a political turning point in post-apartheid SA. The idea that the ANC can be challenged has been legitimised. The overwhelming support it has been given from those who voted for it is not unconditional however.

Many workers voted on the basis that they want to give the party of liberation one more chance. The Zuma government’s honeymoon will be short. If it fails to address workers’ needs, a split within the Tripartite Alliance – SACP, Cosatu, ANC – will be posed.

The Cope split is only a precursor of future splits. Whereas Cope’s exit from the ANC was to the right, there will be future splits to the left. The objective conditions for an alternative on the left are present.

Unfortunately the creation of a mass anti-capitalist alternative is being blocked by the ‘official’ left – the Cosatu and the SACP leadership.

The number of Cosatu members who want the federation to break from the Tripartite Alliance and form a mass workers’ party has grown from 30% (in the September 1998 Naledi survey on workers’ political attitudes) to over 90% in 2008. Standing in the path of the workers is their own leadership determined to reform capitalism instead of mobilising to abolish it.

The DSM campaigns for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. We believe that the social raw material for a mass anti-capitalist movement is already present in working class communities involved in service delivery protests; in the now regular student protests against financial and academic exclusions from tertiary education institutions, in workplace struggles. What is needed is for these tributaries of protest to flow together into one mighty anti-capitalist river.


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