South Africa’s next elections are scheduled for today, the fifth general elections to take place since the end of apartheid and the beginning of majority rule. Since 1994, the African National Congress has won handily each general election, giving it uncontested control of the country’s presidency. During the last general poll in 2009, the ANC garnered almost 66 percent of the vote, less than it had received in 2004 yet significantly more than winners of many competitive elections around the world. Even after this lopsided victory, some were quick to declare the ANC’s dominance to be fading, wondering how long South Africans would be able to support a party unable or unwilling to respond to citizens’ needs. This theme of decline continued after the ANC again won big in the 2011 municipal elections, securing 62 percent of the overall vote, well ahead of the runner-up Democratic Alliance’s 24 percent. For comparison, the Nelson Mandela-led ANC won under 63 percent of the vote in 1994, the first post-Apartheid general elections.
In the lead-up to today’s poll, the same, largely Western commentariat has revived this trope, with some venturing perilously close to betraying their excitement for the ANC to underperform. The reasons for the party’s dismissal are many, and at face value, valid. Service delivery needs are largely unmet in rural areas and many of the country’s underdeveloped suburbs. Jacob Zuma, the country’s president and leader of the ANC, is under scrutiny for using state funds to finance lavish upgrades at his Nkandla residence as well as other past corruption allegations.
It is possible that when listing the reasons that Zuma and the ANC should fall in the 2014 elections, we are accidentally including one of the largest reasons that this scenario is unlikely to pass anytime soon. South Africa features a Gini coefficient of 0.631, the second highest in the world. Next to its neighbor Lesotho, South Africa is the closest country in the world to having a perfect inequality of 1, where income is entirely distributed to one individual (for comparison, the Gini coefficient of the United States is 0.45 and Norway is 0.25). This figure represents a grotesque level of inequality, of which most South Africans are intimately conscious yet many outside observers ignore, looking instead at the country’s GDP, World Bank-designated upper middle income level status, and membership in the BRICS bloc of emerging economies.
While above-expected economic indicators and a role as an emerging economic power are certainly positive things for a country to possess, they mean little if their benefits are only observed by a small portion of the country’s population – an elite that neither resembles nor pretends to identify with those who live in underdeveloped areas with inadequate housing, sanitation services, and access to nutrition. They do not mean much for future growth and development if the country’s poor rural and suburban populations cannot afford the risk of purchasing bus fare to interview for uncertain employment in urban areas or possess any employment prospects closer to home. At the same time, the United States is steadily decreasing foreign assistance to South Africa, virtually all of which targets the HIV/AIDS epidemic. USAID’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy for South Africa, which outlines its approach from 2013 to 2017, is peppered with language to “transition” USAID programs to South African management and funding, as well as references to South Africa as a new donor and development partner itself, rather than a traditional recipient of foreign assistance. These are both positive things that should be considered goals for foreign assistance programs, though it is likely far too soon to hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner in South Africa, where 47 percent of the country lives on less than $43 per month.
Likewise, it is perhaps wishful thinking to expect competitive elections where inclusion in development has been slim and access to information is limited for many (only 41 percent of South Africans are Internet users, though this figure is steadily increasing). It is even more far-fetched to hope that viable opposition parties will form in a country where connections to the ruling party are seen as the primary avenue to joining the ranks of the elite, and the disparities between the elites and the non-elites are so extreme. Commentators should consider these contexts when reconciling their published hopes with the recent polling, which predicts another big win for the ANC.