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Parties promise unity, but many South Africans may sit out election

An expert discusses racial politics, the potential for election violence, and youth political engagement ahead of May 29 elections.

- May 26, 2024
Young South Africans photographed during #FeesMustFall protest in 2015 (cc) via Wikimedia Commons.

We continue our series on the 2024 South African elections with an interview with expert Carolyn Holmes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the author of The Black and White Rainbow: Reconciliation, Opposition, and Nation-Building in Democratic South Africa (University of Michigan Press, 2020). We discuss South Africa’s racial politics, the potential for election violence, and young South Africans’ political engagement. You can also hear us talk about the elections in this episode of the Ufahamu Africa podcast (skip to 24:00).

Kim Yi Dionne: Your book, The Black and White Rainbow, examines identity, nationalism, and democracy in South Africa. So let’s start with talking about identity in South African politics. How are the ruling and opposition parties framing this election? Are they emphasizing racial differences or racial integration?

Carolyn Holmes: The 2019 national election saw the largest losses in incumbent parties that had flown the banner of multi-racialism, and gains in seats accruing to parties that have historically been more racially and ethnically exclusive. But the partisan landscape in South Africa has changed remarkably since 2019, with volatility in the ranks of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and a host of new opposition parties that have emerged. 

Each of the parties is, in their own way, emphasizing the importance of the election, and putting the idea of saving South Africa front and center. Electioneering slogans from established parties like the Democratic Alliance’s “Rescue SA, Vote DA”, or the Economic Freedom Fighters’ “Our Land and Jobs Now“ focus on the shortcomings of ANC governance. But the DA and EFF have also been criticized as not taking responsibility for their roles as established players in the political scene. Newcomers, like the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), have tried to take on the mantle of the struggle for democracy, billing themselves as a “True Liberation Movement.”

What has been fascinating, however, is the promises by so many parties to frame themselves as unifiers, and saviors of South Africa. Even the ruling ANC’s slogan, “Let’s Do More, Together,“ focuses on the idea of a communal “we.” The difficulty with this strategy is that historically, elections in South Africa have been racially polarized. And persistent partisan, economic, and geographic divides coinciding with race make it likely that the 2024 contest will be the same.

Is it possible that these elections might actually serve to highlight differences between groups, which could lead to intergroup tensions and even conflict? Are there concerns about violence in the upcoming elections?

Close elections are often cause for concerns about violence, and South Africa has experienced intermittent communal violence in elections past. The majority of violence directly related to partisan infighting has come in the form of political assassinations of incumbent and aspirant local politicians, and has been largely limited to the province of KwaZulu-Natal. 

There have been threats of violence from new parties like the MK, and established parties like the EFF, and some physical altercations between party members. However, party leaders have quickly stepped in to urge peace.

Fears of violence stem, in large part, from the riots that erupted in July 2021 following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma. The re-entry of Zuma into partisan politics in the form of his MK party has led some to worry about the possibility of election-related violence in 2024. Historically, however, election-disrupting violence has been rare in South Africa, and many security experts have downplayed the possibility of large-scale violence. 

The IEC has approved more than 160 international and domestic elections monitoring organizations to serve as observers. Election monitoring is primarily about ensuring the free and fair conduct of elections, but it can also be helpful in ensuring credibility and helpful in evaluating any post-hoc claims of tampering or malfeasance. Research shows that monitoring may increase violence in fraudulent electoral contests, but South African elections have been largely free and fair since 1994.

Should we be surprised if there’s low turnout among young and low-income South Africans?

The 2019 election in South Africa was the first time voter turnout had fallen below 50% since the advent of multiracial democracy.

In the 2019 national and 2021 local elections, working and lower-middle class voters became the economic cohort least likely to vote. Economic challenges facing the country have proven persistent, with South Africans experiencing among the highest unemployment rates in the world, slow economic growth, persistent inequality, and poor performance on electricity delivery. More than 47% of South Africans receive social assistance grants in some form, whether because of disability, care for minors, unemployment, or elderly support. Since 2020, this population has become less attached to voting for the ruling party, in part because of changes to grants brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, and changes to opposition parties’ positions on social grants.

Low turnout in the 2019 elections was driven in large part by low youth voter registration and turnout numbers. Like in many democracies,  young voters in South Africa are the least likely to vote. But the 2024 electorate in South Africa is larger and younger than ever, with the single largest age cohort of voters in the 18-39 age range, who make up more than 40% of the electorate. 

This apparent trend in non-voting may be turning, however, as the Independent Electoral Commission has registered more than 1 million new voters for 2024, with estimates that 77% of new registrations have come from young voters. As Dan de Kadt has noted, however, this is not surprising because of the huge generational gaps in voter registration.

But even as young people may be less likely to turn out to vote, they are still politically engaged. Youth activists in South Africa have been at the forefront of a variety of social movement campaigns around monuments, university fees, climate policy, and anti-corruption initiatives. Youth activists, working outside of political parties, emphasize that youth non-voting is not because of apathy, but because of an overall dissatisfaction with the partisan choices available. 

On youth activists, can you tell us more about what they’re doing in these elections? And what other groups – beyond political parties, of course – have been trying to influence the election outcome? 

Holmes: A lot of political involvement in South Africa happens outside of political parties, in part because of how long the ANC has been in power. Potential voters across the political spectrum, but especially younger and economically disadvantaged South Africans, have organized politically through social movements. 

These movements are diverse and include the Abahlali baseMjondolo (the Shack-Dwellers Movement), which organizes to address the concerns of people living in informal settlements, and the Solidariteit Movement, which advocates for the Afrikaans-speaking population in South Africa, with a broadly, but not exclusively, white membership. Perhaps most well known outside South Africa is the #FeesMustFall movement of university students seeking to increase access to university education.

All of these movements have focused on other kinds of organizing, through events like protests or demonstrations, court cases, petitioning, or attendance at governmental meetings. What has proven so interesting is how these organizations have explicitly forsworn partisan political alliances, and even the label of being “political.” While some leaders from the Fallist movement have made their way into political parties, like the EFF’s Naledi Chirwa or the ANC’s Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, the political legacies of the Fallist movement are not aligned with any political party, or directed toward voting. 

So, while Abahlali has released a set of demands in advance of the election and Afriforum (an affiliate of Solidariteit) will be sending election monitors to polling stations, they have not allied themselves with any parties, nor have they sought to encourage their members to vote. Yet, both groups have tens of thousands of members. The Fallist movement saw massive demonstrations taking place across the country. 

These organizations are working outside of partisan political activity, and are seemingly uninterested in voting as a primary means of political expression. This sort of agnosticism around voting, even among groups that are specifically trying to influence the behavior of the government, paired with their ability to organize participation among the demographics that are least likely to vote, is certainly a challenge for South African parties.

Thanks, Carolyn. We invite readers to join us for the next installment of our 2024 South African elections series — an interview with Shelley Liu, who will tell us what we need to know about misinformation and disinformation in the South African elections.