Mbeki’s Monopoly

With no serious opposition party, South Africa’s democracy remains a work in progress.


South Africa is looking forward to another five years under the leadership of President Thabo Mbeki and his African National Congress. The ANC won about 70 percent of the vote, 270 out of 400 National Assembly seats, and seven out of nine provincial assemblies in last week’s general election, the third since the end of apartheid in 1994. The white-led opposition Democratic Alliance picked up 50 Assembly seats, and the New National Party, heir to the party that ruled South Africa in the apartheid years, straggled in with just seven seats.

After the results came in, Mbeki claimed a renewed mandate:

“It is quite clear that the ANC has got the overwhelming support and of the people of South Africa. It also, I think, poses a challenge to the ANC not to disappoint the expectations of the millions of people who voted.”

The ANC has been in power since the end of apartheid and is projected to stay there for another 20 years, raising fears that South Africa may be heading toward one-party rule.

Turnout, at 70 percent, was healthy by the standards of mature democracies, but was much less than the 89 percent figure seen five years ago. The vast majority of black South Africans, who make up 75 percent of the population, are supporters of the ANC.

Despite their popularity, Mbeki and the ANC face big challenges.
Two million jobs have been lost in the last ten years, and unemployment has risen sharply since 1994 to between 40 and 50 percent. Crime remains a huge problem. And Mbeki, says Agence France Presse, “is widely seen as having failed to deliver in the battle against AIDS.” HIV is estimated to affect more than 1 in 9 South African adults. Mbeki appalled the world when he claimed that HIV is not the precursor of AIDS.

As The Australian notes,

“Until recently he was in denial about the AIDS crisis in his country. An avid late-night Internet surfer, Mbeki became captured by the lunatic fringe of medical science that argues HIV does not cause AIDS. But late last year, with more than 600 South Africans dying from AIDS each day, he withdrew from the debate and promised to begin a program to deliver free AIDS drugs.”

With opposition parties pushing the issue, just a few weeks before the election the ANC offered free anti-retroviral drugs to poor blacks, many of whom have friends, relatives, and neighbors who have died due to lack of treatment.

The standard of living has decline sharply in South Africa, according to National Public Radio’s Jason Beaubien. “The country has gone backwards on the United Nations Human Development Index,” Beaubien reported. “And whites, who were driven from power, continue on the whole to earn nine times as much as blacks.”

Although opposition parties — and not a few South Africans — worry about an ANC lock on power, it’s almost certain the party will maintain its monopoly far into the future. As the Los Angeles Times writes, this is partly because:

To many blacks, voting for anyone but the ANC would be unthinkable.

ANC supporters such as Brown Makelo, 34, of Tokoza in eastern South Africa plans to vote for the ANC all his life and expects his children to do the same because the party ended apartheid. Tokoza was one of the violent “no go” area in the early 1990’s, where hundreds died in ethnic clashes.

‘I’ll vote ANC until I die. I don’t even want to see those oppostion parties, “ Makelo said. “I think it’s a good idea to have one party always in government, ANC. I don’t think the ANC could lose touch with the people.’

Many black South Africans interviewed by the press admit to having concerns about the ANC’s policies, but they remain patient or conclude that they should remain loyal to the ANC since it was the party that brought them out of apartheid.

Many blacks are utterly indifferent about their current leadership. One reason could be that the ANC has not provided employment for the country’s poor blacks, who make up 75 percent of the population. Although the richest quarter of blacks have become better off, the “bottom 45 percent of blacks are some 10 percent poorer than they were 10 years ago,” says the International Herald Tribune.

The sagging job market could be explained in part by the ANC’s pro-market policies, which have emphasized slashing foreign debt in an effort to stabilize the economy, though that has helped the economy, which has been growing at a rate of 2.8 percent per year, notes the Economist.

On the bright side, notes the IHT, South Africa does possess some of the fundamentals of an up-and-coming democracy: “a critical press, vociferous single-issue campaigners such as those who recently shamed the government into distributing anti-AIDS drugs, and an impartial judiciary whose rulings are obeyed.”

Indeed, politically, South Africa is so stable that “Western countries no longer bother to send monitors to assess its elections,” IHT reported. With Mbeki finally tackling the AIDS crisis and making efforts to help the unemployed and underprivileged, there are reasons for optimism. Still, until there emerges a serious, viable opposition, South Africa’s democracy will remain a work in progress.