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The ANC had better keep on winning

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.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


  1. Dave Harris Dave Harris 28 April 2009

    David, I’ll admit that Cope’s performance was disappointing but I’m curious as to why you believe that they will fail? The DA is still white dominated (NP-Lite) after 15 years while Cope, ONLY 3 MONTHS OLD has garnered approx 8% of the vote with a fraction of the DA’s campaign budget. Furthermore, Cope has racial diversity and broader geographic coverage that the DA cannot seem to achieve. Unfortunately, the DA leadership still cannot relate to the aspirations of the majority. Notice that even Zille has major difficulties connecting or communicating with Zuma.

  2. Themba Themba 28 April 2009

    Why do u think Cope performed adequately well? We were told it’s gonna take the Eas Cape, match or beat ANC in Freestate, etc. They told us they are ready and about to govern. Now u guys are shifting the goalposts. Hypocrites!! If I tell you that your beloved Cope (real/genuine beloved being DA)will soon be history like UDM, Inkatha, etc. u will say we are wrong cause we are not intellectual analysts/experts. Keep on dreaming as you get demolished!!

  3. ex-Zimbabwe ex-Zimbabwe 28 April 2009

    By 2000 – after 20 years of nationalist rule – Zimbabweans turned against ZANU-PF, denying Mugabe any new Constitutional powers. That provoked blatant, massive election rigging and thuggery. A popular party doesn’t need Green Bombers and food aid to “motivate” supporters.

    Smaller parties: the dregs of Floor Crossing? I voted ID last time, and they let me down, so badly. They went into coalition with the ANC…if I wanted that, I’d have voted for the Green ‘n Gold in the first place. A lot of NNP voters here in the Cape felt the same way.

    This time, I stuck with the DA in both ballots, and I clearly wasn’t alone. Helen Zille’s a big factor; I didn’t want to vote for Leon before but now I would even vote Chihuahua, because the smaller parties don’t or won’t deliver. I’ll always support Patricia de Lille – the best and bravest of political leaders – and I still admire the ACDP, but a vote for them is ineffectual.

    And some parties, just make you cringe. Like the “Cape Party” who put posters along our road: “Die Kaap vir die Kapenaars”? Jeepers creepers. Whatever happened to “losing your deposit” in an election? Make those deposits substantial and easy to lose..

    Politicians got carried away, thinking that their seat in Parliament, or Province, or local Council gave them the right to spit on voters by floor crossing or starting their own party. Well, South Africa had news for them!

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 28 April 2009


    Do you realise that the ANC won 1 million less votes than in 1994, and the population has increased by 8 million since then?

    Cope is no one man band like the UDM either. And the UDM lost it when they went into coalition with the ANC in KwaZulu Natal. As the ID, a one woman band, lost it by supporting the ANC mayoral choice in Cape Town originally. People who vote opposition want opposition, not coalitions with the ANC.

  5. Jon Jon 28 April 2009

    Great article. It’s clear that South Africa is headed towards a two-party system with the DA and ANC the two central protagonists. Cope’s performance is disappointing. Its 7% is significantly less than what it would have polled had the elections taken place in December (the only-x-days-old argument doesn’t work when you’re losing support with every passing day). Its central problem is it has no base, in that it isn’t dominant in any market segment. That means it’s going to get squeezed by the ANC among black voters and by the DA among white, coloured and indian voters – not a happy situation to be in.

  6. Peter Win Peter Win 28 April 2009

    You and Dave totally miss the importance of the results.

    On the one hand, we have a majority election.

    On the other, we have the Western Cape now managed totally by the DA.

    What do you think will happen when the service levels rise in the Western Cape (as I believe they will) and fall in the rest of SA ?

  7. Mkabayi Mkabayi 29 April 2009

    The reality is that most of the support for the DA came from the white people. The increase in the number of votes since 1994 came mainly from the
    (white) NNP supporters.The fact that half of all votes received by the DA came from the Western Cape is very revealing.

    South Africans still vote along racial lines; and this country is very far from being “united”. there is still a lot of mistrust among races unfortunately. The majority of blacks still see the ANC as their home while whites only have the DA as their political home. Unfortunately some of the contemptupus attitudes of some whites towards blacks does not help. As long as such complexes exist it will take a loooooong time, if ever for us to come together as a nation. maybe in another 200 years, if we are lucky.

  8. Jon Jon 29 April 2009

    Dave Harris — the NP officially joined not the DA, but the ANC. The last NP leader is now the ANC’s minister of tourism and sits around the cabinet table. That’s where the NP are now located.

    And the DA has substantially more black and coloured members than white ones.

    Try dealing in facts, not myths or wishes, and you’ll boost your credibility enormously.

  9. ian ian 29 April 2009

    Eish Themba,
    Just because the person is writing about Cope and the DA doesn’t mean he necessarily supports them, i.e. it is not his beloved Cope or beloved DA.
    For a party that was formed a few months before the election and with no real budget then most people (blinkered fools aside) would probably concur that they have in fact done adequately well.
    This doesn’t make the people supporters of Cope though, just makes them people capable of a logical thought process.

  10. Frank Nnete Frank Nnete 29 April 2009

    I don’t agree, but good analysis…

  11. Jonathan Haze Jonathan Haze 29 April 2009

    We all agree that, despite the DA, racial unity is a good thing and South Africa leads the world in this. A fine example of racial unity is the friendship between Mr Brian Hlongwa, the minister of health, and Mr Richard Payne.

    Mr Hlongwa has extensive business interests and has told you he does not need his substantial official salary to live on. He heads the health department out of a deep sense of moral duty. I hope you are grateful for this, especially now that they have run out of medecines and so forth.

    Mr Hlongwa is fully capable of distinguishing between private- and public funds, so that, when the time came to re-decorate his office, the R1 million required for this came from the taxpayer.

    Mr Richard Payne is a fine example (some would say classic example) of a white South African who refused to join the chicken run. He stayed behind to help build the country, and his company 3P is supplying R582 million worth of services to Mr Hlongwane’s department. Mr Hlongwane makes the decisions on the requirements and Mr Payne supplies, whether its a beach soccer- or volleyball tournament or whatever.

    Now that is real unity.

  12. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 29 April 2009

    An unsafe argument, David.

    Zim eliminated other parties early on. When there is no tolerance of dissent and no meachanism for peaceful change things can only end in despotism .. or revolution.

    The trick in SA is to bring opposition politics along. This does not happen easily or rapidly, and needs time and great commitment from leaders.

    No democratic advance is irreversible. Let us hope the 2009 election turns out to be the start it could be.

  13. Havelock Vetinari Havelock Vetinari 29 April 2009

    I cannot understand why so many, who were so vehemently and vocally critical of the ANC’s policies and track record, decided they would vote for COPE. What is COPE but the old second-string ANC rehashed? Their experience in government, based on their track record, is just one of many points against them. The reasoning skills of the man in the street (to be politic) need practice.

    Thank [deity of your choice] I’m a tyrant!

  14. Sipho Sipho 29 April 2009

    South Africa has seen 4 presidents in 15 years. Which other country in Southern Africa or the world can claim the same? When we compare South Africa with other countries, we should always try to go beyond our fears. As for the comparison with Israel I don’t understand its relevance. Israel has its challenges so does South Africa. The Israeli template might be a complete flop in South Africa.
    Which other party besides the ANC had recalled a sitting president?

  15. Dave F Dave F 29 April 2009

    Nice point. Comparisons are actually difficult, because the emergance of Cope, and the threat of Zuma (who has not managed to reassure many of the white, coloured and indian electorate, in my opinion) energised the ANC (and the DA to a lesser extent) into dealing with some voter apathy, bringing 2 million or so more voters to the polls than in 2004. If you run the maths to correct for the different turnout and that almost all of that extra was ANC and a little DA, you will find that the ANC 2004 voters lost roughly Cope’s share + what they gained from IFP… and about 1.5%. So the ANC has lost support which has either given up voting or voted for someone other than Cope (ANC-lite). So actually, they’ve already started losing voters. Given that voter apathy is likely to return, and the ANC is unlikely to be able to mobilise the apathetic again (I’m not picking on the ANC – the same could be applied to american Democrats or British Conservatives. Electorates bestir themselves every 15-20 years. Not twice in a row unless they are democratically cheated) that following the same trend put them at somewhere around 58-62% next time, markedly down. The big difference would be, of course, if the ANC actually markedly improved the crime, corruption, healthcare situation and other problem areas. Let’s hope they do. Not holding my breath, though!

  16. African African 29 April 2009

    Peter Win

    ‘What do you think will happen when the service levels rise in the Western Cape (as I believe they will) and fall in the rest of SA ?’

    There goes the racist venom again. Western Cape (white)= efficienacy and increased sevice levels, and the rest of the country black/African = poor service delivery! Dream on!!

    The ANC will rule this country until the second coming of the ‘son of man’. Please get used to this idea or you can go on self imposed exile in some sleepy and snowy town in Western Europe or Australia, you’ll still be able to vote from there once every five years!

  17. mundundu mundundu 29 April 2009

    if you paid attentions, you would see that almost as many people in gauteng voted da as voted in the western cape.

    let’s say that the white and coloured da lot in western cape are less corrupt than the black and coloured people running the anc and there is adequate service delivery. if godzille runs a much tighter, more effective ship less prone to corruption, but you still can’t bring yourself to vote for “the white woman”, well, you deserve to continue living in squalor or whatever sub-standard condition.

    yes, deserve. because no one is standing over your shoulder to tell you how to vote.

    but i’m supposing this is where the parabolic relationship between voting anc and educational attainment comes into play. shame.

    and provided that buthelezi retires, and zuma is *not* the candidate in 2014, the ifp should be able to get its 40% or so back in kzn.

  18. Simon Mathope Simon Mathope 29 April 2009

    The Western Cape needs to change for this country to be racially intergrated .The DA has to change for this country to have a better opposition.We need a country that is blind to race and the DA cannot assist with that, as for COPE they lack direction ’cause they are the results of anger .Our analyst and intelligencia are saying the ANC has lost the western cape and the truth is the ANC has never won the western cape out right. All those who assisted in the ANC running the province have gone back to the laager they voted DA especially after “Stop Zuma – Swart Gevaar”.

    At the point of Stop Zuma the former NP members whose numbers were used to govern the western cape moved to the DA. For me as an African and a member in the Alliance i don’t call it a loss.

    But what i want is for all of us to move beyond racial lines and become a nation. If we don’t get that right we will regret and our children our going to regret it more.

    Mr. De Klerk said he voted for the opposition but the question is who amongst the millions in this country expected him to do differenlty? None – this is what the inteloligencia must say so it become known and that it can be done away with. As long as us being two nations is not mentioned and debated our race problems will never go away.


  19. Onanon Onanon 29 April 2009

    @ Sipho

    Let see… there was Mandela who the whole world agrees should be applauded for his contribution to democracy, and was too old to run a country anyway…

    Since then there has been Mbeki angling to eliminate Zuma and get a puppet in (ala Putin in Russia)or Njoma in Namibia

    Then Zuma removed him as you pointed out… and put a puppet in (you can’t possibly want to claim Motlanthe as an example of a democratically elected president), and now we have Zuma

    So there has only been 1 president who has willingly given up power, and the world has marvelled at him. Why? because it’s not the African way… don’t pretend it is

  20. Onanon Onanon 29 April 2009

    P.S see African’s comment if you’re looking for confirmation of my last sentiment…

  21. Sipho Sipho 29 April 2009

    Judging by the amount of hatred that passes as informed political analysis, I cannot see a situation where an adult non ANC voter would turn and vote ANC one day. These attacks carry a subtle hint that power is in wrong hands.It seems it’s natural that the DA has won the Western Cape – no one is complaining.

  22. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 29 April 2009

    Whites are only 8% of the population.

    To get the number of votes they did the DA had to have got a majority of their votes from non-whites.

    Or can’t ANC supporters do arithmetic?

  23. GUS GUS 29 April 2009


    Why are you afraid of the DA ruling in the Western Cape? You’re basically saying “We, the majority (i.e. blacks) don’t care about how the country is run as long as it’s run by blacks.”

    Why can’t you get rid of your fatal bias and say “Let the country be run by the best?”

    Perhaps that’s were the fundamental problem of racial division in this country lies.

    By the way, irrespective of it’s perceived pink complexion, the DA IS the least racist party in SA. You’ll see, if you take your green, yellow & black blinkers off.

  24. Peter Win Peter Win 29 April 2009

    Dear African,
    Get over your obsession with race !
    I’d be the first to vote for Obama if he was ruler here !

    Butfrom your outburst it seems you will vote deliberately on racial grounds irrespective of delivery ?

  25. The Idiot The Idiot 30 April 2009

    Sipho, I know many White people who’d vote for the ANC programme, if the party itself would actually execute the programme.

    Sadly, the PROVEN corruption, the PROVEN incompetence at running National Health (SA is relying on foreign aid to pay for HIV/AIDS, and let’s be honest state health care is not of a high standard, and in some cases deteriorating rapidly), education (incompetent and illiterate teachers cannot be fired – thank you SADTU; a high percentage of learners that are still functionally illiterate after passing matric), and a couple of other key departments, are not inspiring much confidence in the ANC’s ability to get the results the country needs. Let me state the obvious: it is not the Whites and nouveau riche that suffer the consequences of poor government.

    So even without the press “speculating” about the 700something charges against Zuma, the supposed corruption of Selebi, the supposed incompetence of Pikoli, or being “hostile” against Malema, or having doubts about the medical parole of Schabir, it is pretty hard to convince an educated person, that a vote for the best party manifesto, is actually a well-used vote.

    Racialising voting patterns merely serves to deny the obvious problems.
    These criticisms have been proven. Instead of actually doing something about the weak points in government, South Africa pretends the problems do not exist, or are racist constructs. A perception of racism does not kill an HIV-positive person. Lack of access to medication does. Tell that to Mbeki + Manto.

  26. The Idiot The Idiot 30 April 2009

    Lyndall, you are obviously not that good at arithmetic yourself. 8% (it is actually 9%, but, for the sake of argument let’s stick to 8%)of the population may be White, but that does not mean that Whites constitute 8% of the population that is eligible to vote. Nor does it mean that by default the turnout by race is exactly equal.

    If you bother to actually look at demographics, you’ll see that about 20% of the White population is between 0-19 years old. For Blacks that is about 50%. Now do the math anew …

  27. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 30 April 2009

    The idiot

    If you listen to the radio you would know that the 25 to 35 year age group of whites is severely depleted with their kids the 3 – 10 year olds, and that whites have dropped from 10% in 1994 to 8% now. They look like they emigrated.

    You work out the maths.

  28. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 30 April 2009

    The idiot

    Which, of course, explains why the overseas vote was over 70% DA.

  29. Sipho Sipho 30 April 2009

    Peter Win, may I suggest that instead of wishing Obama was here, why not move there and vote for him for a second term. I know “American Blacks are much better than our blacks until they come here and start lecturing us about race relations”

  30. The Idiot The Idiot 1 May 2009


    There is a reason Statistics South Africa exists.
    Just check census data (which some would argue is a bit more reliable than hearsay). Apparently according to hearsay, the category of people in the agegroup 0-17 is supposed to vote too, even though the law is quite explicit on that matter …

    I know, it is easier to ignore the truth than actually accept the truth, if it is not convenient for an argument.

    Fact: Roughly 14% of the population elligible to vote is White. Can you tell me whether 50% of 16.67% is more or less than 14%?

  31. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 1 May 2009

    Havelock Vetinari

    Cope finds support because it is opposition.

    The concept of opposition is poorly understood in SA where ‘democracy’ is generally held to mean rule by the ANC. That is why commentators (and ANC supporters) are always accusing Cope of not having a programme: they do not see, or cannot admit, that opposition is a programme in itself.

    If Cope holds together over the next 5 years, which is a big if, it can be expected to grow as opposition to the ANC grows, perhaps checking further growth of the DA as time passes.

  32. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 1 May 2009

    The Idiot

    I went into Stats SA – but I don’t have a couple of hours to wade through all that. And it was Stats SA who gave the figures I quoted when interviewed on the radio.

  33. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 1 May 2009

    The Idiot

    I tried South African Census – a bit easier to read. They say that whites were 9.6% (4.3 million ) in 2001. The stats guy on the radio said that it is estimated a million at least have emigrated sice then – most informally. These are kids with skills but not money. They don’t need to do the formal SA government papers to get money out of the country. They just buy a ticket, get an agent to do the paperwork for the country they are going to, and go.

  34. Thabani Thabani 18 May 2009


    Have you noticed that you have appointed yourself an ANC Hater-In-Chief!Any justification for this hateful indulgence?

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