international analysis and commentary

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


Despite relative well-being and increasing wealth, today South Africa faces the most uncertain time since the end of the Apartheid regime 25 years ago. The political elections in May saw vast disaffection towards politics, uncovered social conflicts, and let internal disputes between political parties paralyze the country. A new wave of violence – both gender and racially motivated – has stung the largest Sub-Saharan African economy, whilst ever-lasting challenges involving corruption, political killings, and power and energy supplies are still unresolved. Combine those factors and a worrying picture comes into focus.


Political divide

The African National Congress (ANC) has ruled over the country since the end of the segregation regime and is still the main parliamentary force in the country. But its level of political support is decreasing and the party won an underwhelming 57.5% of votes in the latest elections. While the political force stays atop, its two main challengers are thrusting from below: the Democratic Alliance (DA), liberals, topped at 20.8%, and the leftist party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), almost doubled its basin to reach 10.8% of the votes.

ANC activists campaigning for Ramaphosa


The ANC’s slow decline is linked to old struggles and the party risks seeing its majority further undermined by internal conflicts. Jacob Zuma, who ruled the country from 2009 until 2018, will face trial on corruption charges for the infamous 1999 arms deal in which he is accused of receiving bribes from French arms manufacturer Thales. As the South African Constitution prevented him from running for a third mandate, this prompted the judiciary to further scrutiny into the matter. Current President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to crack down on the widespread graft that has eroded support for the ANC, but kept his judgement ambiguous, maintaining that political interference might steer the trial.

On top of corruption scandals, internal dissatisfaction is rising. The ANC runs for elections jointly with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in the so-called Tripartite Alliance. The alliance was sealed by Nelson Mandela in the early post-Apartheid days, but discontent has always stirred among communist lines – albeit silenced by political convenience. Now, the appointment of figures in key governmental positions has shaken the SACP to the point that its leader, Dr. Blade Nzimande, is considering challenging the ANC in local elections next year. This intention is under the thrust of both political reasoning (for instance, the recent loss of the Tshwane and Joburg districts) and the idea that parting ways with allegedly corrupt leaders would benefit his party. To heat things up, communist leaders have acknowledged the importance of local and traditional communities as the primary target of activism, in an open challenge to the praise of unity by the ruling party. This threat has been putting the government under much pressure as the SACP holds two key ministries: communications and, most crucially, higher ducation, science, technology, whereas the COSATU holds trade and industry.

The demographics of the vote have always been a factor for South Africa, but recent elections seem to have polarized most elements. The ANC and DA keep on drawing from older and middle-class voters, while their consensus decreases among younger generations, lower-income citizens and black South Africans (source). At the same time, votes are all the more grounded in local and ethnic communities, as smaller parties are making their voices heard and are drawing their strength from traditional circles. For instance, the rise of the Inkatha Freedom Party as the fourth-largest force in Parliament (3.38%) is particularly significant because of its efforts to grant larger autonomy to traditional African communities and their leaders, a political discourse that is now being picked up by the SACP as well. Strongly rooted in the Zulu community, the largest ethnic group in South Africa – 11 million strong in the eastern part of the country – the Inkatha party gathered consensus through a renewed aspiration towards autonomy and self-governance. In fact, while the ANC loses ground on account of widespread corruption, the Inkatha recipe of preventing a one-party country seems, to a great extent, effective. In fact, disaffection towards the central government has spurred in marginalized areas and where the sense of belonging to a narrower community is stronger (such is the case of the Nguni and Zulu people in the east, and Sotho–Tswana communities in the north).

Ethnic divisions still play a crucial role in shaping South African politics. On the other end of the political spectrum, the Freedom Front Plus – which openly represents the interest of the Afrikaans’ community – advocates for similar decentralization policies. While scattered in the center and the north of the country, and thus unable to secure geographical unity, the Freedom Front Plus has tight links with the Democratic Alliance, to which it was formally allied until the 2014 elections. While the DA emphasized economic growth and innovation as pillars for its political action, the Freedom Front Plus pushed on self-determination for Afrikaaners and nibbled votes. It would be incomplete to draw the demographics of votes based on race and ethnicity, but with the government currently stalled on fiscal, agricultural and economic bills, the votes of local and traditional communities are likely to play a major role in the 2020 elections.


Social conflicts

As political issues only mirror social conflicts, the fight for power within the Parliament also reflects deep cleavages. Even after the end of the Apartheid regime, the country faced political killings as a rule and not as a dreadful exception; targeted assassinations are still very much a factor in the political landscape of South Africa. In the past, killings would be interpreted as internal fights for power, and most importantly towards ANC members who would have spoken out about corruption in their own party. Today, assassinations are taking place to settle scores at the lower levels of parties’ hierarchies. The province of KwaZulu-Natal accounts for the overwhelming majority of these killings and, in recent years, these have been increasingly concentrated in specific areas, such as the Umtshezi (Estcourt) municipal area, Ulundi and KwaMashu. The recrudescence of political killings has prompted politicians to prioritize them in their agendas in a condescending attempt to soothe their local constituencies; nonetheless, declarations remain vague, with no concrete actions undertaken at the policy level.

Bheki Cele, South Africa’s Minister of Police


According to the Minister of Police, some assassinations (in some provinces numbering as many as hundreds of cases) can be attributed to the illegal business of private security companies, where the employees would make themselves available as gunmen for hire.

In such a grim picture, violence is not confined to the political sphere but has spilled over. Instability is further fueled by growing xenophobia and racism and the unprecedented levels of violence have awakened the international press and international civil society organisations. South Africa traditionally hosts a significant number of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, especially from neighboring Zimbabwe but also Nigeria and Asian countries. The country has been experiencing systematic damaging and burning of businesses belonging to foreign nationals, in Pretoria and Johannesburg alike. Violence has risen because of immigrants being accused of stealing wealth away from South Africans, and even for as little as speaking a different language in public.

Anti-xenophobia demonstrators in South Africa


The outbreak of violence is not a recent problem, but the numbers have recently reached unusual levels. What is especially worrying is that politicians of all parties have fueled xenophobia with classic anti-immigration rhetoric. Some international actors, like Amnesty International, have criticized the political class of purposely inciting xenophobic behaviors in an extreme attempt to gain consensus. Predictably, such declarations resulted in sparking hatred towards both non-South African nationals and people from lower-income classes (most of the victims are in fact South African citizens, albeit from minority ethnic groups). Some have labelled this tendency as “Afrophobia”.

Gender violence does not have a different root, but a different target. Sexual offenses are spreading all over the country and especially in large cities. Figures are shockingly high: 137 women per day are victims of sexual offense and in August and September 2019 at least 30 women were found dead after enduring rape. And while the government has accelerated the creation of more dedicated courts and forward-looking plans for schools to prevent crimes, gender violence continues. Thousands have taken the streets in the past months to demand stronger measures to prevent crimes, and even South African star Charlize Theron spoke out, claiming that “the justice system had failed women”. President Cyril Ramaphosa seemed favorable to consider the death penalty for the worst cases.

A rally against gender violence in South Africa


The strong disconnection between the social fabric and the political agenda seems to be a key element when attempting to explain the wave of violence in South Africa. By the same token, it is noteworthy that violence happens in those areas with the lowest turnout rates. If citizens do not trust institutions, some may feel entitled to private justice. Furthermore, the country seems to be failing to supply an adequate amount of energy to its citizens, as constant and prolonged blackouts have been occurring for months as a result of years of mismanagement and corruption in the state-owned utility, Eskom.

As in vicious circles, problems and conflicts seem to feed one another. Political disengagement at the local level has turned into disaffection towards politics, increased rioting, and targeted violence. But the political class has been falling back on itself as it focuses on internal fights and has disregarded social conflicts, now exploded to unrestrained levels. Should politics solve its own problems first? Or should it finally turn to help the people?