international analysis and commentary

South African elections: how blackouts cast a shadow over the ANC

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In 2024, more than 80 countries around the world will hold elections. In Africa, home to eleven of the world’s 20 fastest growing economies, 19 countries are scheduled to vote – including South Africa.

The most industrialized economy of the continent, South Africa will hold general elections on May 29th to appoint a new National Assembly, as well as the provincial legislatures. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), a party founded by Nelson Mandela and currently run by Cyril Ramaphosa, has always secured the largest number of votes. However, due to the party’s extensive political and economic failures in recent years, 2024 could mark a political and strategic reset of the country, with a defeat for ANC at the polls. South Africa is, therefore, facing its most unpredictable national election in three decades.

 

Who is running?

Despite having retained the support of the South African people for the past thirty years, the ANC’s decline now appears to be unstoppable, with recent surveys predicting that its share of the vote will fall below 50%. Moreover, the ANC has lost its unity over the course of time. It is now very fragmentated and many of its former members have founded new parties.

In contrast, opposition parties have increased, with 90 new political groups recently registering, and have formed coalitions to oust the ANC’s parliamentary majority. For example, the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa, also known as the Moonshot Pact, gathers seven opposition parties that have joined forces and agreed on a common vision to govern the country if they win the largest number of seats. Two of the main opposition parties are the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The DA, led by John Steenhuisen, is a centrist party that had historically relied on support from white South Africans. To overcome the perception of being a white-dominated party, the DA entered into the Multi-Party Charter alliance. The EFF, instead, is led by a former ANC leader, Julius Malema, and describes itself as a “radical and militant movement for economic emancipation” and an “anti-imperialist and leftist movement with an internationalist outlook.” The EFF’s main priorities are the expropriation of all remaining white-owned property, state-provided housing and the nationalization of strategic sectors of the economy, such as mines.

 

Read also: Taking stock of South Africa’s deep social and political cleavages

 

Other relevant former ANC members who have founded new parties are the former President Jacob Zuma and the former ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule. While Zuma announced his endorsement for uMkhnoto weSizwe (MK), a party named after the paramilitary wing of the ANC during apartheid, Magashule founded the African Congress for Transformation (ACT). In January, Magashule announced a “united front” between his party and the MK.

Regardless of the several political scandals and widespread public discontent, most analysts emphasize the resilience of the country’s strong democratic institutions, such as the widely recognized Electoral Commission. Moreover, both the judiciary and the national army have repeatedly demonstrated their apolitical nature.

 

The issues at stake

When he came to power in 2018, Ramaphosa promised a relaunch of the national economy, increasing job opportunities and fighting political corruption. Today, these words sound like empty promises. Youth unemployment is at nearly 60% and economic growth is stagnating with consequences likely to threaten the stability of the wider region. Considering the latest data, in 2023, South Africa’s GDP rate was 0,6%, compared to 1,91% in 2022. However, the growth of the real gross domestic product is expected to continuously increase between 2024 and 2029 by in total 0.5 percentage points. Crime and corruption figures have also risen over the last two years. In 2023, South Africa was ranked 83rd out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index. However, the most emblematic example of the ANC’s failure in delivering and improving public services may be blackouts, as they are extremely disruptive for both the economy and social welfare.

The government has been referring to power cuts as “load shedding”, as it has developed a system of measured load losses. Since 2007, in fact, Eskom, the state-owned energy company, has managed planned rationing of electricity, turning blackouts into an accepted routine of citizens’ daily lives. It has even been developed a mobile app that announces, for each day of the week, at what time and how long the power will be out in the neighborhoods. Needless to say, the lack of electricity frequently interrupts working activities and affects the education of students, who have limited hours of light to study. According to recent surveys, in 2024 the blackout issue may cause the ANC to lose up to 24% of its voters.

 

The rise and fall of Eskom

At the beginning of the ANC’s long administration, South Africa’s energy industry was flourishing and ensured the energy supply of neighboring countries as well. Today, the government is trying to avoid the total collapse of the electricity grid.

The first time Eskom announced that it could not ensure electricity to the South African population was in 2007. That year, a blackout plan was put in place. The schedule immediately appeared to be inefficient and confusing, leaving citizens worried about the future of their businesses and healthcare. Former President Thabo Mbeki ensured that load shedding would be in place for up to seven years. However, even the latest energy crisis plan, submitted in 2023, postponed the end of the policy until 2027.

Several investigations have revealed three main causes for Eskom’s disastrous situation: bad management dominated by political interests, systematic theft and huge debts.

 

Read also: Le prospettive energetiche del Sudafrica: un quadro molto dinamico

 

In 2019, Ramaphosa attempted to rehabilitate Eskom by appointing executive André de Ruyter as head of the company. The engineer, however, resigned three years later, after receiving numerous threats. Theft of electric cables and diesel by organized crime gangs, as well as squatters living in slums, occur on a daily basis. The result of the poor management is an unsustainable situation, addressed by the government by committing a total of R78 billion in debt relief for the 2024 financial year. Recent investigations also revealed that the actual production of the state-owned company is only half of what is reported in official documents. In 2023, the load shedding reduced South African economic growth to 0.3% and the forecast for 2024 does not look better.

As the elections approach, blackouts are less frequent, but experts warn that this could lead to a major collapse in the near future. These factors demonstrate the crucial importance of electricity supply in the election agenda.

 

Prospects

Since 2011, the ANC has been realizing the so-called Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) to combat energy shortages and ensure a safer energy future for the country. The document has been revised and updated every year by the Department of Mineral Resources & Energy, headed by the Minister Gwede Mantashe. The latest IRP, written in 2023, was scrutinized by the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) in February 2024, and is yet to be finalized. The draft, however, has already disappointed a great number of international actors and members of civil society.

Among the most criticized measures is the lower amount of energy produced from renewable resources – 8,083 megawatts compared to 15,200 planned in 2019. The government plans to rely more on the oil and gas industry, which provides around 90,000 jobs and has become more important since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as Western countries are looking for alternatives to Russian gas. Minister Mantashe proposed to build 6,000 megawatts of new gas-fired power stations by 2030, while delaying the closure of some coal-fired plants.

This is not the first time that Mantashe favors traditional energy sources over renewable energy projects. His aversion for environmental activism is well known and shared by many politicians, who see the new Western green projects as a new form of colonialism.

Another element of the 2023 IRP that is much opposed by the public is the continuation of load shedding until 2027, contrary to the prior National Energy Crisis Committee’s plan to halt planned blackouts by the end of 2024.

In addition to the South African government’s aversion to the implementation of sustainable energy projects, international actors monitor the country’s increasing relations with China and Russia. Like other emerging economies, South Africa has been attracted by China’s policy of non-interference, which promotes new trade agreements requiring respect for human rights and sustainable standards. As a demonstration of its intention to strengthen relations with Beijing and Moscow, Pretoria was the first African country to join the informal BRICS grouping.

Regarding energy supply, both China and Russia are ready to build traditional or nuclear power plants, while the West hesitates financing projects that do not respect the new environmental, social, governance (ESG) standards.

Whether it will be the ANC or a coalition of parties that wins the 2024 elections, the new government will have to prioritize energy supply and investment, and probably make some tough foreign policy choices as well, reviewing its political and economic ties with Russia and China.