The Rise of Populist Parties in South Africa and End of the ANC’s Parliamentary Majority

A poster of a political party in Cape Town, South Africa, on January 18, 2024, for the 2024 elections. Photo: Remo Peer.

In the recent national elections in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time, indicating widespread discontent with its governance. While the ANC remains the ruling party, its ongoing failure to address the nation’s economic woes, violent crime problem, and racial inequalities has made South Africa fertile ground for charismatic populist leaders, like Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, who make grand promises to solve these issues.

By Nicholas Morieson

This commentary briefly examines the decline of the African National Congress (ANC) and the concomitant rise of populist parties in South Africa, focusing on the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In the recent national elections, the ANC lost its parliamentary majority for the first time, receiving less than 50% of the vote, indicating widespread discontent with its governance. The success of the new populist movements stems not only from their leaders’ charisma but also from their ability to exploit the ANC’s failures. While the rise of populism may invigorate political competition, it also poses significant risks given these new parties’ often radical and exclusionary rhetoric.

The Decline of the Ruling African National Congress

The African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid, lost its parliamentary majority for the first time following national elections this week. In an unprecedented turn of events, the party is estimated to have won less than 50% of all votes, forcing it to find a coalition partner in order to govern. The result suggests that a majority of South Africans now believe that the ANC is incapable of solving the country’s problems. Despite its long rule, the party has not been able to create enough employment, particularly for its young people, 40% of whom do not have a job. Nor has it found the funds to construct an adequate electricity grid and supply power to its cities twenty-four hours a day, or decrease the astonishing number of violent crimes and robberies committed each year, and which places South Africa among the world’s most dangerous nations. 

The decline of the ANC has not come due to a dramatic rise in support for their traditional rival, the Democratic Alliance, which won around 23% of all votes and is most widely supported by white and Asian South Africans. Rather, an increasing number of black voters have turned away from the ANC and now vote for populist parties such as former ANC leader Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (commonly abbreviated to MK), which has been estimated to win around 15% of votes contesting its first election, and the Julius Malema led Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which won more than 9% of votes. Both Malema and Zuma are products of the ANC, and in a way their success might be understood as a breaking apart of the ANC into three parties, representing the interests of different groups in South African society, rather than the rise of entirely new political movements. However, what is new is the intrinsically populist nature of the new parties. Thus while many reports on South Africa’s elections will focus on the decline of the ANC, the rise of populist parties is an equally important story and the primary cause of the ANC’s loss of its cherished parliamentary majority. 

Although different, MK and the EFF share important characteristics. First, both present themselves as the voice of the authentic black people of South Africa. Second, both promise to solve South Africa’s problems by removing the corrupt ANC elite and installing a wise leader who knows the will of the people and will govern in their interests. Third, both parties blame many of the nation’s economic and social difficulties on foreigners and – in the case of the EFF – on white South Africans. 

MK 

uMkhonto weSizwe, meaning ‘spear of the nation,’ is a populist movement based around the personality of Jacob Zuma, South African president from 2009-2018, who founded the party in 2023 after leaving the ANC. Zuma’s presidency was marred by numerous allegations of corruption, eventually leading to a criminal case against him and a subsequent conviction for contempt of court. Despite this, Zuma remains a popular figure, and is considered by his supporters a man of the people who fights for the interests of the authentic Zulu people of South Africa. Such is Zuma’s popularity, particularly among Zulus, that his conviction led to the worst violence in post-Apartheid South Africa, which saw more than 350 killed in mass riots.  

It is difficult to discern a particular ideology behind MK’s political statements and positions. The party is so closely tied to the personality and charisma of Zuma, and his peculiar combining of Zulu traditional culture (including support for polygamy – Zuma himself has several wives), social conservatism on issues such as same sex marriage, and left-wing economic policies, that it is difficult to imagine the party existing without its leader. Zuma launched MK by declaring that he would not betray the South African people by campaigning for incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa, and that the return of the ANC would “lead our people to more misery, poverty, racism, unemployment, deepening load-shedding (power cuts) and a government led by sellouts and apartheid collaborators”.

In contrast, Zuma promised his new party would bring South Africans “total liberation” from the nation’s corrupt elite and a better future.  

Although Zuma was banned by a South African court from running for parliament, his name still appeared on ballot papers, where he was listed as MK leader, a bizarre situation that demonstrates flaws in South Africa’s electoral processes.  

His immediate electoral success came almost exclusively at the ANC’s expense, especially in KwaZulu-Natal province where MK has won the largest share of votes, and the party must now decide whether MK and Zuma can be relied upon as a coalition partner in the government they attempt to form. 

The Economic Freedom Fighters

The EFF, founded in 2013, is most often categorised as a communist and populist party. However, the party is perhaps best understood as a ethnonationalist populist movement that blames South Africa’s lack of development on both the corrupt ANC elite and – most importantly – white South Africans. The latter are portrayed by the EFF and its leader, expelled ANC member Julius Malema, as possessing a monolithic identity as the enemy of ‘the people’, i.e. black South Africans. The party is thus in certain respects not left-wing at all, but rather a nativist, exclusivist, and racist group that far from abhorring violence makes its anthem the old anti-white rule song ‘Kill the Boer,’ and which tells followers to not “be afraid to kill” and that “killing is a revolutionary act”. Malema is also famous for refusing to rule out the mass killing of white South Africans, although he did suggest that this event, should it take place, would occur in the future, and that he was not at present calling for any killings to occur. 

The EFF’s key policies in 2024 reflect its populist nativism, especially its call for land reform without compensation to white farmers who lose their land, plan to nationalise the country’s most important industries including banks and mines, it’s aim to end efforts at reconciliation between black and white people and move towards giving black people ‘justice’, and what it calls “massive protected industrial development” intended to give create jobs for all Africans and to end income inequality between racial groups. 

The EFF’s platform appeals to educated and young black South Africans who often struggle to find jobs despite holding a degree, and who are tired of watching on as ANC policies failed to address the country’s persistent economic and racial inequalities, which they believe will not be resolved until the ANC is removed from power and land is redistributed from whites to the black people from whom it was taken.

Although the party appears to have failed to substantially increase its share of the vote from previous elections in 2019, the EFF remains an influential political movement, and together with MK will play a major role in deciding who governs South Africa. 

Conclusion

The growth of populism in South Africa in the form of MK and the EFF has come at the expense of the once unassailable ANC. Significantly, both Zuma and Malema are former ANC men who turned against the party, and now present themselves as saviours of the true people of South Africa and authentic Africans who fight against ANC corruption and white oppression. 

Now lost, it is unlikely the ANC will win back its parliamentary majority, and therefore South Africa enters a new period of its politics in which populist movements promising liberation from corrupt elites and, in the case of the EFF, revenge against whites, now play vital roles in deciding which parties will govern in coalition with the ANC, and may even themselves win important roles in government. 

The ANC remains the ruling party of South Africa, but its continuing failure to solve or even improve the nation’s economic woes, violent crime problem, and racial inequalities make South Africa fertile ground for charismatic populist leaders who make big promises to solve the nation’s problems. And although the ANC’s decline fuels the rise of new parties, and in this way may reinvigorate South African democracy or force the ANC to improve its governance, populists such as Malema or Zuma are unlikely to deliver the South African people from the poor and corrupt governance they have experienced for two decades. 

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