Who to vote for? Examining the top contenders in South Africa’s 2019 elections

By Tertius Mynhardt Jacobs

Analysis in brief: With 19 of Africa’s 55 countries hosting national elections, 2019 promises to be an interesting year filled with hope and change. Among these elections, there are a few that stand out. South Africa’s election, in particular, is of great significance to the Southern African region and the continent more broadly. By relating the proposed policies of major political contenders to key challenges confronting South African democracy, this analysis seeks to inform readers of dominant voting options and the content of dominant parties’ manifestos.

This paper does not intend to specify which political party is the overall ‘best party’. Instead, it has drawn from the manifestos of each party to gauge the stance of South Africa’s top 12, assessing how they differ and how well prepared they are to tackle the issues that are dividing South Africans. With this in mind, the reader is urged to explore the manifestos in which they express interest to truly understand who their preferred party is and how they intend to remedy South Africa’s array of challenges. Only then can one make an informed decision come election day.

Democracy on the rise in Africa

The path to stable and sustainable democracy is rather long and complicated. In both Europe and North America, democracy formed in the shadow of industrialisation and revolution, involving a significant amount of social and political turmoil. Similarly, post-colonial Africa, with its inherited legacy of fragile quasi-states and authoritarian regimes alongside stubbornly entrenched poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment, exhibits power-seeking challenges similar to those of early Europe, albeit with distinctly African features.

Despite periods of social and economic decline, especially in cases of rapid political transitions, an increasing number of African countries have been turning toward democracy. Since the 1990’s, non-democratic incumbents have steadily declined in number, with electoral democracies emerging in countries such as Benin, Botswana and Senegal. According to Freedom House, in 1976, sub-Saharan Africa included 3 ‘Free’ countries, 16 ‘Partly Free’ and 25 ‘Not Free’. However, in 2019 this has changed to 9 ‘Free’, 21 ‘Partly Free’ and 19 ‘Not Free’. Bar a small change in the number of countries deemed ‘Free’, these statistics indicate that Africa is gradually moving towards increased political freedom, civil liberty, and ultimately, democracy. However, as the graph below indicates, this transition towards democracy and political freedom is not always smooth and stable, but may include periods of regression.

Political freedom in SADC, 1990-2017
Data courtesy: Freedom House, 2019

In 2019, Africa continues to show signs of democratic transition, with 19 of its 55 countries scheduled to hold elections within the year. Of these 19, seven fall within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which South Africa constitutes the most regionally and continentally significant. As one of the strongest political and economic role players in SADC with roots running deep across the African continent, South Africa’s general election on May 8 is of particular relevance for ongoing democratisation in Africa.

African countries holding elections in 2019
Data courtesy: African Union, 2019

Key challenges facing the country and its leadership

Though South Africa has come a long way since apartheid, the immediate post-apartheid years proved a tough climate for economic development and the integration of millions of South Africans into the workforce. In addition, tackling social issues of decades-long segregation was also not an easy task. The inability to adequately address these issues, along with more recent corruption scandals at the highest level, have left the ruling African National Congress (ANC) with waning public support and an increasingly negative rating. Recently, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DoJCD) identified a number of key ‘fault lines’ tearing at the fabric of South African society, spurring major conflict between various groups within the population.

Among these fault lines, the following stand out as particularly significant, and will form the focus of our analysis:

  • Land
  • Poverty, inequality and unemployment
  • Education
  • Job creation
  • Housing

With the above in mind, South African voters (particularly those feeling uncertain about who to vote for) are likely to consider parties whom they believe are most capable of addressing these issues, alongside the plethora of scandals that have plagued South Africa over the past 25 years. The purpose of this analysis is to help inform readers about the stance of the top-12 contenders on these key themes.

SA elections 2019 main contenders, ranked by % of national voting intention
Data courtesy: IRR, February 2019

Assessing the stance of main contenders

The five fault lines mentioned earlier will serve as checkpoints for assessing each party.

#1 – Land

Land is an extremely emotive issue, as it entails ties to heritage, economic opportunity, equality and the redress of past injustices. Although most of the political parties claim unique solutions to the issue of land redistribution, the main concern for voters is parties’ stance on expropriation without compensation. In the first instance, the DA, IFP, FF+, ACDP and GM oppose the constitutional amendment for expropriation without compensation. Their general argument revolves around property rights, the potential influence of expropriation on agriculture and the risks of corruption that accompany such an amendment.

Three parties have not directly addressed these concerns, namely, the PAC, NFP and ASA.

Save for the EFF, parties supporting constitutional amendment and expropriation without compensation provide substantiation of their positions through differing approaches. The EFF’s view differs from all other parties as it intends to bring all land “under the custodianship of the state, for equal redistribution to all,” thus transferring primary ownership to the state. The ANC and UDM adopt a more diplomatic position, arguing that such an amendment should be done in a way that promotes economic development, agricultural production and food security. COPE, on the other hand, supports expropriation without compensation only on the condition that it involves unoccupied or idle land, undeveloped land and badly degraded or polluted land. The latter is echoed by the ANC, DA, IFP, ACDP, GM, ASA and NFP who claim that a major step in their plan of action would be to swiftly allocate state-owned land that is lying idle.

#2 – Poverty, inequality and unemployment

Poverty, inequality and unemployment are a triad of challenges that go hand in hand, influencing about half of South Africa’s population. All parties emphasise the importance of economic growth and development alongside private enterprise as a means to combat poverty. While there tends to be some diversity in approaches to poverty alleviation, there is one predominant theme: social welfare grants.

The role of social grants is, at the very least, acknowledged by most parties, with the PAC, ACDP and ASA being the exceptions. While the EFF aims to double social grants to reduce poverty, the DA promises an elaborate social grant plan that aims to assist malnourished children, students, the disabled and more. Similar to the EFF’s approach, the GM party states that social grants will serve to alleviate extreme poverty and should, at least, be inflation-related. Showing signs similar to the DA, EFF and GM, COPE also emphasises the role of social grants to soften the blow of extreme poverty and proposes a social grant program of its own.

In contrast, the FF+ has criticised overdependency on social grants and instead proposes an approach that aims to wean South Africa off social welfare. It is also stated that the FF+ will seek to provide a Youth Wage Subsidy to address the issue of youth poverty and unemployment.

#3 – Education

Education underlines one of the key areas that has been stressed by parties as an avenue to help remedy the issues of poverty and unemployment and drive the country forward. However, turning focus to how parties intend on addressing this problem, important themes emerge.

With Early Child Development (ECD) growing in significance, most parties acknowledge the benefits this phase holds for successful integration into formal education. The UDM, PAC, NFP and ASA, however, fail to address this topic of discussion. In this instance, the IFP, ACDP, GM and COPE only mention ECD in brief accompanied by acknowledgement of its importance and that it should be granted the same attention as Basic and Higher Education. A more structured approach to the topic is posed by the ANC, DA, EFF and FF+, all of which suggest a formal curriculum for such development. Despite this general agreement, the FF+ argues that this should be a function solely of the Department of Education and not of Social Development, as opposed to the ANC and DA, who both agree that there should be a bridge between the two.

In terms of Basic and Higher Education and Training, the ANC, EFF, IFP, UDM, PAC, NFP and ASA support fee-free education. However, the DA, FF+ and COPE propose alternatives to grant-based education for the structurally disadvantaged. Furthermore, adequate support materials and technological integration appear to be recurring themes throughout party manifestos, save for the PAC and NFP, which fail to take note of technological integration.

#4 – Job creation

Job creation has become a promise that the unemployed are yet to see fulfilled. To gauge parties’ position on employment, the question should not be if parties will create jobs. Instead, the question should be how they plan on doing so.

The ANC vows to aim for youth internships, including a prescribed percentage in public works coupled with new programmes that expand ECD sites, primary health care services and increasing police visibility in communities. In addition, the ANC claims that it will remove work experience as a requirement for youth employment, especially in the public sector. As part of creating employment, the ANC will also implement a National Minimum Wage to cover workers in domestic work, farming and forestry, as well as other vulnerable sectors.

In line with the latter, the EFF also advocate for minimum wages as part of their emphasis on jobs. At the forefront of the EFF’s job creation goals is their vow to ensure state-led “massive and protected sustainable industrial development and diversification.” At the same time, the EFF also hints at the fact that it will attract foreign investors and provide certain economic zones and incentives to attract private employers, however, does not provide much clarity on the specifics of how this will be achieved.

Foreign investors and employers also resonate with the DA, IFP, GM and NFP’s proposed solutions, which all point toward easing the hurdles of doing business in South Africa, thereby attracting foreign investors and ultimately creating more employment. The DA, however, propose to pass a Jobs Act with an extensive plan on this front. Attracting foreign investment, naturally, also leads to economic growth which, in turn, stimulates development in infrastructure. Development in infrastructure reflects the approach to employment adopted by the UDM, ACDP, GM, NFP and ASA. These parties argue in favour of various routes that lead to employment creation via investment in infrastructure development initiatives.

Diverging from the status quo, the FF+ emphasises the detrimental effects of the BEE system as well as recurring demonstrations that have led to an alleged 100,000 job losses nationwide. In its approach, the FF+ argues for a more balanced and immovable labour law.

Finally, COPE focuses on youth employment and suggests similar approaches to the ANC internships while also emphasising support for first-time job seekers.

#5 – Housing

Housing is the final major fault line in the South African landscape. Those parties that address this issue claim that they will provide more housing in a more dignified way. However, when it comes to sustainable, viable methods to do so, the proposals from each party become rather thin.

One major approach shared by the majority of parties, excluding the FF+, UDM and NFP, is to allocate and direct all viable state-owned land and property not currently in use toward the expansion of housing opportunities. The ANC and ACDP in particular propose public investment, similar to infrastructure investment, and rural development as potential solutions. Another proposition shared by the DA and GM is securing and providing recipients of state subsidised homes with titled deeds to state-owned housing.

Although the DA and other parties also elaborate on further options, the last noteworthy proposition is that of the EFF. As part of a number of claims and promises, the EFF states that it will “legislate for the reduction of 20-to 30-year home loans to a maximum of 10 years” and that a house may not serve as surety for loans. Although little information is provided on the purposes of such legislation, the logical reasoning behind such a move would be that the EFF is aiming to ensure that more house owners emerge without losing said houses to debt. Furthermore, if this is to be executed, such legislation will need to be supported through substantial government subsidies to avoid credit defaults.

On 8 May, South Africans will take part in the country’s sixth general elections since the end of apartheid
Image courtesy: Darryn van der Walt, https://www.flickr.com/photos/calico182/3465337579

Looking ahead to the May 8 election

The manifestos and campaign strategies of the various South African political parties highlight some key differences regarding their aims and objectives in terms of the focus areas in South Africa’s political, social and economic landscapes. While most parties provide a number of well-thought-out plans of action to address the various challenges that the country faces, there are also those whose manifestos provide scant evidence of how equipped they are to address them.

Furthermore, taking the array of propositions and viewpoints into consideration, one should bear in mind that political parties remain a largely subjective, personal preference. That being said, the top three parties – the ANC, DA and EFF – provide comprehensive elaborations on who they are, what they have done and what they vow to do should they be granted political power. To a lesser extent, the FF+, UDM, NFP and COPE also provide targeted discussions on important topics with some elaboration where necessary. While the IFP, ACDP, PAC, GM and ASA provide much more condensed manifestos, a common challenge among them is that they are either limited in terms of coverage or do not sufficiently explain how each party intends to take action in addressing South Africa’s challenges.

Overall, a question that comes to mind while reading most manifestos is ‘How?’. South African parties tend to commit themselves to a plethora of remedies, yet most fail to sufficiently explain how these promises will be realised. The top three parties have done relatively well in most cases, though sometimes leave one questioning their propositions.

In analysing their stance on the five critical problem areas in South Africa, it becomes clearer that there exists both agreement and diversity in terms of approach. Most parties agree on the importance of economic growth, social grants, access to education, the need to cross the bridge from education to employment, as well as the provision of housing to the homeless and underprivileged. However, issues such as land redistribution still leave a great divide in South African politics.

Ultimately, the decision of which party to vote for on 8 May remains (as it should) in the hands of each individual voter. An understanding of the proposed approaches to address critical challenges faced by the country should be central to this decision-making process, as South Africa moves into the next chapter of its young, growing democracy.

Key Points

  • 2019 marks another round of important elections for Africa and, in particular, South Africa.
  • According to a poll by the IRR, there are 12 main contending political parties with the ANC, DA and EFF likely to take the top three positions.
  • There are five main areas of concern that political parties should seek to address in the country, including: Land, Poverty, unemployment and inequality, Education, Job creation, and Housing.
  • The issue of Land appears to divide the main contenders almost in half, while the other 4 areas of concern are similarly focused on and approached across the board.
  • South African parties, for the most part, still fail to provide comprehensive manifestos with sufficient detail to understand their approaches and modus operandi in addressing key issues.