A Party Under Pressure


Written by Neil Fourie

A CHOICE FOR STABILITY Amidst much fanfare, politicking and soundbites, South Africans cast
their ballots in the country’s sixth free-and-fair democratic election on the 8th of May. Many anticipated it to be the most hotly contested election in the country’s democratic history. A record 48 parties vied for the national legislature.  And, if nothing else, South Africans again demonstrated their remarkable ability to handle such an occasion with stubborn boringness and maturity.

Coming into the elections, it was hard to imagine conditions that could have been more conducive to populist and extremist parties on both the left and right: inequality, land reform, unemployment, corruption… Yet, in many ways, while these parties did syphon voters from the African National Congress (ANC) and Democratic Alliance (DA), their growth was lower than expected. Centrist parties still enjoy a comfortable two-thirds majority, holding 78% of all seats in the National Assembly. Although the main parties have been rebuked for their past behaviour, political stability was not threatened.

A total of 14 parties will be represented in the national legislature.

The elections were characterised by a notable decline in voter participation, especially among the youth. It  is particularly noteworthy that nine million eligible voters failed to register,  six million of whom were aged 18 to 29. This, however, is not unique. We see voter fatigue across the globe and, given that South Africa is a  young democracy, the 66% voter turnout was in line with the global average. Those not registering or voting did not necessarily change their minds; they don’t show up simply because there was no one they wanted to vote for.

A CRISIS IN LIBERAL DEMOCRACY Our own ideals as a nation, as enshrined in our Constitution, had been
heavily influenced by the characteristics of a liberal democracy: elections between multiple, distinct political parties; a separation of powers into different branches of government; the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society; a market economy with private property; and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for all people. Our 2019 elections, however, took place against the background of a global crisis in liberal democracy.

Until fairly recently, liberal democracy reigned triumphant as a preferred form of government. It was unrivalled by any coherent alternative, and the unparalleled stability and wealth creation of post-war democracies gave it super status. Our first democratic election in 1994 took place at the height of this belief in liberal democracy.

Over the last 20 years, the citizens of nearly every major democracy have become increasingly disillusioned with elected politicians. They have grown restless, angry, even disdainful. Many voters have lost the belief that a government could or would improve their lives.

A sinking attachment to democracy created the perfect breeding ground for authoritarian strongmen all over the world. These populists position themselves as representatives of voters who are fed up with the results of liberal democracy. They mostly have no clue of what it takes to run a country but all share a similar playbook: try to destroy the free media, undermine independent institutions and technocrats, disregard democratic norms, and muscle the opposition. Political extremists are celebrating their biggest successes in the West in more than 50 years.

WHY LIBERAL DEMOCRACY IS LOSING STEAM Watching all of this from a distance, it is clear that liberal democracy – the unique mix of individual rights and popular rule – is losing its global foothold for three reasons:

1 Citizens haven’t experienced the increase in living standards they became accustomed to, and therefore expect. From 1935 to 1960, for example, the income of a typical American household doubled. From 1960 to 1985, it doubled again. Since then, it has been flat. This stagnation in living standards can be attributed partly to lower economic growth. Economic growth in the West dropped from around 4% in the first two postwar decades to an average of under 2% in the last 20 years. 

Furthermore, there has been a huge growth in inequality. Wealth generation ended up in the hands of ‘the few’ – owners of resources – depriving labour of their relative share of gross domestic profit (GDP) they had grown accustomed to. We have also seen how highly routinised, repetitive jobs have been replaced by automation or shipped abroad.

2 Many people in liberal democracies feel threatened by ethnic pluralism. All through the history of democratic stability, one ethnic group has been dominant, over the spectrum of democracies. Many countries did not even formally recognise immigrants as ‘true members of a nation’ (citizens). For several decades, democracy was based on the union of ethnicity, territory and state. 

But decades of mass immigration and social activism have radically transformed these societies. In the UK, for example, the number of people belonging to ethnic minorities in the 1950s stood at around 60 000. Today, that number stands at 8 million. In the late 1960s, about one in twenty people living in the US had been born abroad; today, one in seven has. For several reasons, a vast (xenophobic) rebellion against ethnic and cultural pluralism has gathered speed across the western hemisphere – even in regions and countries with low immigration rates.

3 Social media has made political provocation easy and cheap. Until recently, mass communication was prohibitively costly and remained the exclusive preserve of political and financial elites. This allowed the political establishment to marginalise extreme views. 

The rise of the internet has rapidly shifted the power balance between political insiders and outsiders. The instigators of instability have won an advantage over the forces of ‘orderly news distribution’. And their ideas spread like wildfire through the ‘many- to-many’ communication networks, with very little gatekeeping in place.

A PARTY UNDER PRESSURE    Back to South Africa. We had our own populist experiment over the last 10 years – and we understand the price tag that comes with it. It would be wise for our newly elected leadership to take a leaf from that book, and pay attention to what is happening as a result of the world revolt against democracy. 

We need to ensure that our own economic policy is reformed to temper inequality without breaking the economic engine. A more equitable distribution of economic growth is not just a question of distributive justice: it’s a question of political stability and defending ourselves against another populist appeal. All of this will be easier if we can get the economy to grow sustainably by more than 2%.

We also need to nurture the multi-ethnic nature of our society. It can be one of our competitive edges, because we have come so far along the road of national assimilation. But the work of integration never stops. To build a society in which all members are regarded as true equals, and enjoy the same benefits, is a never-ending project.

The party will face further vote losses in the future if it does not take its own renewal project seriously, and there is little buffer for further losses. This may just be the incentive for our post-2019 leadership to revitalise South Africa and pursue a balanced agenda of economic growth and social justice for the next 10 years.

The ruling party has never been under so much pressure to perform. If the voter turnout of 66% is taken into account, the ANC’s ‘share of the vote’ drops to 35%. And if the registration rate of 74.5% is added, it plummets to a fragile 27.9%. Put differently, the ANC now governs with the active consent of little more than a quarter of the South African electorate.

The ruling party has never been under so much pressure to perform. If the voter turnout of 66% is taken into account, the ANC’s ‘share of the vote’ rate.