“If you have a country where everyone is complaining, you’ve got a democracy; if you have one where no-one is complaining, you’ve got a problem” (not bad, huh? — © Saks, D — all rights reserved etc … ).

Related to the above is the paradox that huge victory margins in elections are indicative not of a healthy democracy but quite the opposite. One could come up with many examples of supposedly democratic elections in which dictatorial regimes emerge as winners by margins as ridiculous as 98%. Without such basic liberties as freedom of expression in the media, academia, civil society and the political realm, and when arbitrary arrests, detention and judicial murder face anyone bold enough to challenge the ruling order, elections become a sham. The Zimbabwean experience immediately comes to mind. Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party won the country’s inaugural post-independence elections fairly enough in 1980, but thereafter, state terror and intimidation served to progressively emasculate any potential opposition.

Mugabe’s victory margins grew ever wider, even as his regime became more repressive. It took the wholesale collapse of the country’s economy from the mid-1990s onwards to finally drive a desperate populace to start voting for the opposition, and by then, of course, any chance of affecting change via the ballot box had long gone. The Mugabeites have no intention of yielding up power, and by a combination of violence and intimidation, voting fraud on a massive scale and a ruthless exclusion of dissenting viewpoints from the state-controlled media ensured that they remained firmly in control. Last year, Zanu-PF “won” the elections by a landslide, but few democratic countries (South Africa excluded, unfortunately) regard the result as in any way representing the will of the by now thoroughly cowed Zimbabwean populace.

My fear back in 1994 was that the ANC would likewise morph into an all-powerful African super party, unchallenged and unchallengeable, through exploiting the unquestioning loyalty of the mainly black voting population — who, like the hapless Zimbabweans, would be blinded by the party’s liberation mystique until it was too late — and by systematically neutering any political grouping that arose to oppose its hegemony in the name of the will of “the people”. Subsequent elections seemed only to confirm this Afro-pessimistic prognosis. In 1999, the ANC increased its share of the vote by 4%, to fall a whisker short of a two-thirds majority. By contrast its main opposition, the New National Party (NNP), lost two-thirds of its support, having miserably failed to come up with a coherent programme in opposition after leaving the National Unity government. The ANC’s other challenger, the Inkatha Freedom Party, had also begun its long decline, barely holding on to its control of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2004, the ANC gained just under 70%, while the IFP declined further and the wretched NNP dropped below 2%, less than one-tenth of its 1994 total. Within a year, it had squeaked its last wretched squeak, and been absorbed by the ruling party.

One small consolation amid all of this carnage was the unexpected resilience of the Democratic Alliance (as the Democratic Party had renamed itself). In 1994, despite its record of having, in all its previous incarnations, opposed apartheid since the founding of the Progressive Party in 1959, it had received a pitiful 1.7% of the vote. Some predicted that the party would disband, but instead, with a mere seven seats, it fought back to emerge as the real de facto opposition to the ANC. The electorate responded accordingly. In 1999, mainly at expense of the NNP, it received just over 9% of the vote, and became the official opposition. It grew a further 3% in 2004 and to just under 17% in 2009. This year, it rose to over 22%, with no more than a third of this support coming from the diminishing white minority. The DA’s gains in the local-government elections have been equally striking — indeed, it has tended to poll even better at that level than at national and provincial level.

Steven Friedman is probably right when he says the DA by itself will never get into office, although it may one day do so through entering into coalitions. The ANC still enjoys massive support in the largely rural provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West and Free State, while in KZN it continues to grow at the expense of what is left of the IFP. Thanks to the ignominious implosion of Cope, it was able to largely offset losses to the DA and EFF in those areas. Moreover, I doubt whether the EFF will succeed in building on its reasonably good start once it’s faced with the nitty-gritty realities of policy-making in a real-world setting.

In 2014, not only did the DA receive the highest share of the vote of any opposition party since 1994, but the ANC won with its smallest majority since that date. It has dropped eight percentage points in 10 years, in addition to losing significant support during the last local-government elections. The party remains firmly in control, of course, and will almost certainly remain so for the foreseeable future. However, a culture of opposition has been able to take root over the past 20 years, with the result that the spectre of a de facto one-party state has largely receded. Maybe I’m being overly bullish about the results of the elections, but I feel considerably more comfortable about the future of the country than I did 20 years ago.


  • 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.


David Saks

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...

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