Polls have just opened in South Africa for elections to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures.
This will be the sixth election since democratisation. The African National Congress (broadly centre-left) has won the previous five with support ranging from 62.1% (2014) to 69.7% (2004). It is not seriously doubted that its vote will again be somewhere near the 60% mark.
The National Assembly is elected by largest-remainder proportional representation across both provincial and national lists (200 seats of each), with no minimum threshold. So it’s relatively easy for parties to get a foot in the door – 13 of them won seats last time, and a record number of 48 are registered to contest this year.
But apart from the ANC, only two other parties have significant support: the Democratic Alliance (liberal-centrist), which in 2014 won 22.2% of the vote and 89 seats, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (far left), which had 6.4% and 25 seats.
Opinion polling this year has been sporadic, but what there is suggests that the Democratic Alliance vote is reasonably steady and that EFF has made gains at the expense of the ANC. One poll has the ANC vote down to 54%, which would not threaten its national majority but suggests it could lose control of some provinces. (It currently governs in eight of the nine, with the Democratic Alliance having a majority in Western Cape.)
There are plenty of countries where a single party is as dominant as the ANC is in South Africa. But most of them, whether as cause or effect, are authoritarian regimes, at best semi-democratic. South Africa has so far avoided that trap: the ANC wins not because it has the system rigged in its favor, but because people keep voting for it.
That’s not to say that there is no political change in South Africa, but it happens mostly within parties rather than at elections. Since the last election, Cyril Ramaphosa has taken over as ANC leader and president, replacing the controversial Jacob Zuma after narrowly defeating Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in a party ballot.
(Despite the elevated title, a South African president is really the equivalent of prime minister – the system is parliamentary, not presidential, with the president removable by a vote of no confidence in parliament.)
The Democratic Alliance has also changed leaders, with the retirement of Helen Zille and her replacement by Mmusi Maimane, the party’s first black leader. It subsequently did well in local elections in 2016, winning several key municipalities.
Ramaphosa will get the mandate that he wants this time, but the ANC is on notice that it cannot expect to govern in perpetuity. A stronger opposition can only run to the benefit of South Africa’s political development.
Check out the electoral commission website for results tomorrow morning, Australian time.