Only two parties can really look back on the 2009 elections with any real satisfaction. The ANC, while shedding a few percentage points for the first time since 1994 and dropping slightly below the 2/3rds threshold, did an impressive job of damage control, largely offsetting the Cope breakaway. As for the DA, it now enjoys the support of one in six South Africans and is unrecognisable from the demoralised little band that was so hopelessly out-manoeuvred and sidelined in the country’s inaugural democratic elections fifteen years ago. The DA is today the only party that can claim to have consistently increased its support over four general elections.
As the results came in, I viewed with dismay how the ACDP was losing ground so badly and superstitiously half-wondered if I’d given it the kiss of death by championing it so stridently. I gradually realised, however, that all the minnow parties were getting a hammering, from the Africanist (PAC, Azapo), to the superfluous (ID, UDM) to the waste-of-spacers (eg KISS — don’t they realise that the joke wasn’t all that funny even first time round?).
As anticipated, the ANC was able to largely offset its losses to Cope at the expense mainly of the perennially crumbling IFP, fast becoming irrelevant even in its KZN stronghold. Contrary to what much of the media said, I believe Cope performed at least adequately, easily securing third place overall and becoming the official opposition in three provinces. The party’s real challenge is to forge some kind of distinctive persona for itself, beyond that of a loose alliance of disgruntled ex-ANCniks. Should they fail, they’ll go the same way as the UDM, which also began as an ANC breakaway. My prediction is that they won’t succeed, but who knows?
The biggest surprise for me was the DA’s strong showing. I had assumed that the party had more or less peaked in 2004, when it polled just under 13% of the vote, since it no longer had the disintegrating carcass of the wretched New National Party to feed off and also because the white minority on whose support it depended was itself no more than about 12% of the population, and shrinking. Increasing its support by nearly four percentage points to just under 17% was a significant achievement. It will be interesting to see whether the DA can now go on to make real progress in its, to date, Sisyphus-like efforts to make inroads into the black vote.
What the election results really showed at the end of the day was that the ANC, despite a real groundswell of dissatisfaction over its performance in recent years, remains unchallenged as the party of choice of two out of three South Africans. It seems that when it comes to retaining party loyalties, South Africans are extremely conservative (unlike, for example, in Israel, which also has a proportional representation system but where the voting patterns are considerably more volatile).
The reality is that the vast constituency that supports the ANC will probably only start deserting the party in significant numbers in the event of a major deterioration of the country at all levels, by which time it might well be too late to remedy the situation.
The examples of neighbouring Zimbabwe and Namibia, with their similar histories of liberation from white minority rule, suggest that this will be the case. In Zimbabwe, it took the de facto collapse of their society for Zanu-PF voters to finally start turning against the party. As we know, this happened far too late, not just because the Mugabe regime had by that stage determined to remain in power regardless of what the electorate said but because the country’s economy and infrastructure had already been ruined.
A similar situation seems to be unfolding in Namibia, where Swapo (another party with a powerful liberation mystique) can count on the consistent support of an even larger majority than the ANC despite the increasing ineptitude of those in office.
If the support for the ANC proves over time to be of a similarly uncritical, long-suffering nature, it suggests that should the ruling party ever start losing significant ground in national elections, this will be indicative not of a robustly competitive society but of a country in grave, possibly irremediable, crisis. The depressing conclusion might just be, therefore, that all South Africans, no matter which party they back, should secretly hope that the ANC retain its high support levels going into the future.