General elections will be held in South Africa, May 8. Voters will elect a new National Assembly (parliament) and nine provincial legislatures. The National Assembly will, in turn, elect the president. Political rallies and service delivery protests have increased in recent weeks and will continue ahead of the polls. Major changes to policy or political stability are unlikely as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party is projected to retain a working majority in the National Assembly and in at least in eight of the country's nine provinces.
The Political Context of South Africa Elections
South Africa is a multiparty democracy, currently governed by the ANC. The political environment has been relatively stable since the country's first democratic elections in 1994. Recent opinion polls indicate a slight decline in support for the ANC compared to general elections in 2009 and 2014; however, the rise to power of President Cyril Ramaphosa following the ousting of former president Jacob Zuma in February 2018 may bolster ANC fortunes in the May polls. Ramaphosa, who represents the politically and economically moderate camp, is seen as a unifying figure within the ANC, which was beset by fierce political infighting and factionalism during the Zuma years. Ramaphosa may also increase the ANC’s electoral appeal through an electoral campaign based on clean governance and anti-corruption, undoing the image of scandal and corruption associated with the Zuma regime. According to the Bureau for Economic Research, a South African research institute, financial losses of approximately ZAR 1 trillion (USD 72 billion) occurred during Zuma’s nine-year tenure; resultant economic dislocation and popular discontent likely helped bolster the favor of opposition parties promising a better deal. Ramaphosa also enjoys the support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) with its 1.5 million members.
The two main opposition parties are the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF has run on a platform of redistributive economic policies, such as land redistribution without compensation, and state managements of the economy, which has reportedly yielded a 6-percentage point increase in support for the party compared to elections in 2014. To counter the appeal of the EFF, the ANC has increased its populist rhetoric and cooperated with the EFF to enact some populist policies. The ANC supported the passage of a constitutional amendment that allows for the expropriation of land without compensation, but with the caveat that foreign assets will be protected. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) is likely to retain control of Western Cape Province, albeit with a reduced majority given the projected gains by opposition parties. Official opposition status in most provincial legislatures will likely be divided between the DA and the EFF.
Political rallies and campaign-related events have increased in recent weeks. Larger and more disruptive events may continue to occur in the weeks leading up to the election day, including in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Pretoria (Tshwane). Political gatherings are usually held in stadiums, public spaces, and near political party offices. Political parties may also hold occasional high-visibility protests in the central business districts of major cities. Opposition supporters, civil society groups could stage counter-protests at the campaign or election-related events or at the political offices of political competitors. Low-level acts of violence involving supporters of rival political parties are possible at party offices, rallies, protests, and other election-related events.
Politically Motivated Violence During South Africa Elections
Politically motivated violence and intimidation between rival political factions may intensify in the weeks ahead, though such occurrences usually have limited wider impact. The nature of this violence includes attacks and assassinations on political rivals, with most incidents occurring within the ANC over coveted political positions and government contracts. The threat of violence is highest in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces, which have historically experienced the highest incidences of election-related violence. In May 2018, the president appointed the inter-ministerial committee (IMC) on political killings to address politically motivated violence, with a focus on KwaZulu-Natal Province. The IMC task-force has arrested 161 suspects allegedly involved in attacks and murders and has reportedly confiscated large numbers of firearms and ammunition.
Service Delivery Demonstrations
South Africa experienced a surge in service delivery protests in 2014 - also an election year. According to Municipal IQ, a local data monitoring firm, nationwide service-delivery protests in 2018 peaked, surpassing a record high in 2005. Frustrated residents often stage demonstrations to pressure the government to address service-delivery backlogs related to amenities such as housing, water, and electricity. Studies show that at least 90 percent of protests in 2018 were disorderly or violent. Service-delivery protests can trigger xenophobia attacks as residents blame foreign nationals for housing shortages, taking scarce jobs, criminal activity, and delaying service delivery. The country saw a surge in xenophobic tensions in late March, early April, particularly in the KZN province; a spate of xenophobic violence in the Durban area left seven people dead, and 249 displaced March 24-26. Protest actions related to such causes frequently occur at informal settlements surrounding provincial capitals in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and Western Cape provinces. Protesters frequently blockade main thoroughfares and national highways with debris and burning tires, causing travel disruptions. Police may use crowd-control tactics, such as tear-gas and rubber bullets, to restore order in these locations.
Outlook on Political Stability
Political stability is likely to be maintained through the May elections as the ANC retains its ruling majority. Expect limited bouts of politically motivated unrest and potential violence at party offices, voting stations, rallies, protests, and election-related events, especially in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. Election-related violence is unlikely to target foreign travelers or interests.
Advice for Personnel or Business Operations in South Africa
Avoid all protests, demonstrations, and gatherings; large crowds and areas with a heavy security presence; even peaceful protests can result in spontaneous clashes between security forces and protesters. If unrest erupts near you, leave the area immediately and seek shelter in a non-governmental building such as a hotel when possible. Exercise caution if traveling along motorways near protests in low-income areas. Verify road status before attempting travel to affected areas. Do not attempt to bypass any roadblocks, as protesters often attack motorists; instead, seek alternative routes to circumvent the protest sites.
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