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David Pottie provides us with a careful and detailed analysis of the inner workings of the recent South African election, one grounded in his own full-time work as a researcher for the Electoral Institute of South Africa. As he suggests, the concept of ``normalization'' has been much used in conventional circles to describe the consolidation of liberal-democratic, multi-party practices that seems to be taking place in South Africa. (jbv)

vol 14 no 4

"Normalization"?: The South African election
David Pottie and John S Saul

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 4, August 1999
Page 1
"South Africa"



John Saul writes:

David Pottie provides us below with a careful and detailed analysis of the inner workings of the recent South African election, one grounded in his own full-time work as a researcher for the Electoral Institute of South Africa. As he suggests, the concept of "normalization" has been much used in conventional circles to describe the consolidation of liberal-democratic, multi-party practices that seems to be taking place in South Africa.

But what does this so-called "normalization" entail, precisely? In this regard, evaluating the recent elections is no easy matter. Do they suggest the political cup in South Africa to be half-empty or half-full? Both interpretations have some plausibility.

Of course, as an observer at both the 1994 and the 1999 elections, I did not expect the 1999 version to have quite the same human drama as was on display in 1994. 1994 was, after all, the occasion of the Freedom Election, its essence unrepeatable in quite such historically charged terms. But the 1994 election was also carried out in a volatile, even dangerous, atmosphere. The 1999 event was much more decorous: well attended, peaceful, largely respectful as among the parties contesting the outcome. This kind of "normalization" must have seemed no bad thing to South Africans who have witnessed so much politically-charged carnage in recent decades.

True, some have seen a threat in the fact that what electoral politics has consolidated in South Africa is a one-party dominant tilt, a dominance that is cast, moreover, in primarily racial terms - with the ANC, overwhelmingly, the party of South African "Africans" (except in KwaZulu-Natal where, however, an accommodation between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party seems to be holding) and the Democratic Party, now the official (if relatively small) opposition, having purchased its success in large part by playing the racial (white) card.

Yet far more worrisome, I think, is another kind of dominance: the one-ideology dominant tilt of the elections that have just transpired: the fact that the ANC's hegemony has been won in the name of a neo-liberal economic strategy - one, it should be noted, that no other party of significant following (least of all the DP) sought to contest during the election - that has little promise of transforming the lives of the vast majority of ordinary South Africans.

Perhaps it was not, strictly speaking, the voters' intention to so sanction neo-liberalism. But one ANC politician did put the point quite clearly on television as the results poured in: "Our platform was GEAR," he said. Or, as another argued in the heat of the campaign: "Fiscal and monetary constraint and liberalized trade and capital movements ... which aim at the structural repositioning of SA's economy in response to globalization, whatever their long-term benefits, have severe short-term costs for constituencies of voters who are among the chief supports of the governing party. The ANC has, however, indicated that it will persist on its chosen path." As one British banker put the point, in the wake of the election, to the Washington Post: "[New SA President] Mbeki holds things close to the chest and makes decisions in a secretive way. However, he is not a populist and has been a `Thatcherite' in his fiscal ideas. His experience in exile introduced him to the financial world - he is unlikely to abandon the close ties to business developed in those years abroad."

In his excellent recent book, Fault Lines: Journeys Into the New South Africa (University of California Press, 1999) David Goodman finds one of his informants, a brash emergent African entrepreneur named Tumi Modise, stating quite frankly and unequivocally: "Race is not the issue anymore. It's class." Yet while this seems to be, to a signal degree, objectively true of the new South Africa, it is still far from being subjectively so. In this election both the "common-sense" of neo-liberalism (normalization indeed!) and - probably even more importantly - the continuing resonance of African nationalism (and the ANC's past political achievements) helped to obscure the fact. Surely the development policy debate must eventually occur in South Africa in much more sophisticated and contested terms than the ANC's policy programme, and its electoral hegemony, encouraged this time round.

Such, at least, is the "half-empty" reading of the import of these elections, seen, from this optic, as having served to damp down the measure of class consciousness and class conflict that is so necessary to the vast majority of South Africans' eventually securing their futures. Note, however, the one saving grace of the elections considered in this way. For while it is true that the ANC tacitly played the neo-liberal card and continued to court the international market-place for all it was worth, it did run (as Pottie suggests), in the most public terms it offered, on the platform of "delivery" - a theme that also formed the core of newly-minted president Thabo Mbeki's inauguration speech. Should its chosen strategy fail to deliver on the promises thus made to its popular constituency, the debate in future elections might well prove to be cast in terms of a much wider range of strategic alternatives.


David Pottie writes:

On June 2 South Africa held its second democratic elections for national and provincial government. These elections were free and fair, levels of political violence were negligible, voter turnout was very high, and the proceedings were carried off in a single day of voting. Ultimately, the election result brings 13 political parties to seats in the National Assembly (up from 7 in 1994) and ushers a substantial re-alignment of the varying strengths of the opposition parties. The ANC renewed its electoral dominance, whereas the New National Party (NNP) was reduced from second to a distant fourth place standing in the overall party rankings. In its place, the Democratic Party (DP) has assumed status as the second place party. But aside from these overall rankings, what are we to make of electoral politics in South Africa?

There has been, for starters, the transition both in the leadership of the ANC and in the nation's presidency from Nelson Mandela to Thabo Mbeki. Much has been made of the question: "What will happen when Mandela goes?" Now Mbeki's steady hand seems set to guide the direction of ANC policy. The 1999 election thus brings us, smoothly, into the "Mbeki era" -whatever that may prove to connote.

More broadly, the so-called "second elections" are being seen as a crucial marker in the democratic consolidation process, its affirmation of liberal-democratic, multi-party practices representing an apparent "normalization" of the South African political system. In 1994 the main issue was the legitimacy of the state and the basic political demand for one person, one vote. In 1999 the elections focused on much more mundane concerns: competing party policy statements and the management of the electoral process itself. In this regard at least, the 1999 elections welcome South Africa to "normal" politics. For some, the South African political transition, at least in terms of multi-party politics, is now complete. According to this thinking, South Africa is well on its way towards full-fledged democratic consolidation.

The electoral process

But whatever the merit of this way of framing the 1999 elections, sustaining free and fair electoral politics is a tricky business and South Africa will continue to face challenges across a number of fronts.

Firstly, the 1999 elections were an expensive affair. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) budget was close to one billion Rand and the combined tally of political party election campaign expenditure is estimated to be over 500 million Rand. Many capital-intensive and high technology applications contributed to these costs and South Africa must evaluate their sustainability. The National Results Centre alone cost close to 100 million Rand and all those computers will need a buyer once the IEC closes up the 1999 election shop. Many voting stations lacked phones, and these have been installed at IEC expense, theoretically as an investment to be available for the next time around. But given the rate of copper cable theft, only time will tell if this was a sound investment strategy.

Secondly, South Africa must now prepare for the second round of local government elections slated for sometime in 2000. It must therefore decide how best to maintain the institutional and financial capacity of the IEC in anticipation of these elections - or else face the task of re-inventing the wheel each time elections come around. Thirdly, electoral resources remain, like most resources in South Africa, unevenly distributed across the lines of race, class and region. Queues at voting stations, as well as the size and staffing of the voting stations themselves, varied enormously. As evidence, well-resourced voting stations in rich urban neighbourhoods or small towns were able to deal with the flow of voters in their districts and reported results, hours, and in many cases, days, in advance of their less well-resourced township and rural counterparts.

More substantively, it is worth noting, from this recent experience, that electoral politics in South Africa continue to follow the lines of race, and electoral calls for a strong opposition party (prominent in the Democratic Party campaign) came in practice to draw upon just such a cleavage. Significant, too, is the fact that South Africa is now firmly a one-party-dominant political system - although any evaluation of the ANC in this regard must also recognize the diversity of voices, policy positions and options available within the broad base of its structures.

Managing the election

One of the main challenges facing the Independent Electoral Commission in the actual management of the election was to compile South Africa's first common voters' roll. This activity was undertaken over the course of three weekends between December 1998 and March 1999. South Africans were able to register upon presentation of a bar-coded identification book issued by the government. The bar-code identification requirement became the focal point of a series of charges and counter-charges by the political parties, the IEC and the Department of Home Affairs (tasked with issuing the identity documents). Opposition parties charged that their supporters did not have the required documents whereas ANC supporters did, that the Department of Home Affairs was unable to issue the documents, and ultimately, that the requirement was an unnecessary infringement on the right to vote. Upon review in several High Court cases, the courts ruled in favour of the IEC. In the end approximately 80% of potential voters or 18.5 million South Africans registered to vote.

A second challenge facing the IEC was the introduction of an electoral code of conduct to regulate party activity in the hopes of contributing to free and fair elections. Overall, the election campaign period was free of the kind of political violence associated with the run-up to the 1994 elections. There were instances of violent confrontation, particularly in parts of the former Transkei, in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands region and the North Coast, as well in the Cape Flats outside of Cape Town. But this violence was different from 1994 in at least two important ways. First, the arrival of the UDM on the political scene has introduced another dimension to the ANC-IFP conflict and accounts for the different geographic pattern of violence. There is now a three-way dynamic to consider. Second, the overall level of violence was enormously reduced compared to 1994. So while reducing the high levels of crime remains a priority for all South Africans, there has been a marked degree of success in lowering the levels of political violence.

For its part, the IEC was charged with applying the Electoral Code of Conduct to gain the peaceful and tolerant participation of political parties in the elections. The Code of Conduct specified an extensive list of prohibitions on party behaviour during the election period. These restrictions were designed to contribute to the operation of free and fair political competition throughout the election campaign. As a result, parties and their supporters were prohibited from carrying weapons at political rallies, tearing down posters, preventing rivals from gaining access to voters for the purpose of voter education, collecting signatures, recruiting members, raising funds or canvassing support.

Moreover, in addition to these prohibitions, the Electoral Act also assigned additional rights to parties to formally participate in, and thus take further ownership of, the monitoring of electoral procedures on voting day. As a result, every registered party could appoint two party agents for each voting station; and four party agents for each counting station. The IEC also remained in touch with the political parties through party liaison committees and conflict management committees established through the provincial electoral officers.

Other challenges

In addition to the regulatory framework governing campaigning, effective participation by the political parties in the South African electoral system also requires funding, and the Constitution seeks to address this concern. Section 236 of the Constitution reads: "To enhance multi-party democracy, national legislation must provide for the funding of political parties participating in national and provincial legislatures on an equitable and proportional basis." Government therefore bears a constitutional responsibility to provide some financial support for political parties.

However, state funding of political parties extends only to parties currently represented in national or provincial legislatures - a total amount of R53 million being allocated to the represented parties from public funds. In the run-up to the 1994 elections all parties that demonstrated a threshold of public support through signatures qualified for funding and this experience formed the backdrop for sustained demands by the new parties lining up for the 1999 elections. In the end no new funding was extended to these parties. Of equal concern, private or foreign donations to political parties are not subject to any regulation. During the election campaign the media reported on substantial foreign government donations to the ANC (e.g. the United Arab Emirate and Saudia Arabia each contributed US$10 million to the ANC!)

As for campaigns, the top two campaign issues identified in opinion polls were crime and job creation, with housing and education following. Crime held the spotlight in most campaign posters with bald pronouncements from the NNP such as "Hang Killers and Rapists" and "No Mercy for Criminals." The DP's overall campaign slogan was "Fight Back" which variously meant fight back against corruption, against crime, or against the prospect of a two-thirds electoral majority for the ANC.

For its part, the ANC largely campaigned on its record of delivery while in government. It did not actively promote the two-thirds majority goal in its posters, although the benchmark certainly figured in campaign speeches. Nevertheless, the ANC did not claim any desire to amend the constitution. The ANC also refused to be drawn into the death penalty debate. Instead it fought the campaign on its own terms, proud of its achievements in government and raised the bar for itself by promising to carry on with delivery targets for social services and infrastructure delivery, and to address corruption and crime. If this campaign approach seemed rather mundane against the more inflammatory appeals of the opposition parties and, as we will see, in light of the real needs of the electorate, it didn't seem to put off South Africans from voting for the party.


At national level, the election results were never really in question insofar as a simple majority for the ANC was concerned. To be sure, the two-thirds mark was a significant element of opposition efforts to attract voters away from a dominant ANC. But the only other real question mark at national level was who would come second with the NNP and the DP vying for second place. The DP campaigned as if it already was the main opposition party and this approach seems to have paid off, with the NNP dramatically reduced to a distant fourth place finish. The biggest surprise at national level is the strong third place showing of the IFP who at one point on the national results board (owing to an entry error) actually overtook the DP for second place.

Provincial races were more contested and here the results show a wide-range of voter preferences. Two races did meet their expectations. The Western Cape race between the NNP and the ANC has produced a split electorate, with the DP carrying the balance. A coalition government will be necessary there. In KwaZulu-Natal the IFP exceeded all expectations (prior to election day opinion polls placed it at 17% voter support) and actually piped the ANC. However neither party has a majority in the province so there too, a coalition government will be necessary. The race between the ANC and the NNP in the Northern Cape never materialized and the ANC was handed a large majority.

Two former homeland leaders have returned to the scene to form provincial oppositions. In North West, former Bophuthatswana leader Lucas Mangope and his United Christian Democratic Party came second, whereas in Eastern Cape the United Democratic Movement led by Roelf Meyer and former Transkei strongman Bantu Holomisa will form the opposition. The UDM also scored well for a new party in the national elections. Some of the smaller parties will also add controversial figures to the benches of the National Assembly. Rugby supremo Louis Luyt and his Federal Alliance will be in Parliament, as will KwaZulu-Natal-based Amichand Rajbansi, leader of the Minority Front.

But perhaps the greatest electoral slump in this year's elections aside from the NNP is the apparent collapse of the Pan-African Congress (PAC). With just 0.7% of the popular vote the PAC is reduced to three seats in the National Assembly, a sad showing for the party that claims the mantle of Biko and Black Consciousness. AZAPO, contesting its first national election, fared even worse with less than 0.2% of the vote, though even this was enough to capture one seat in Parliament. The Africanist option, for now at least, is dead.

And so it appears that whatever the potential abuses associated with the large electoral majority enjoyed by the ANC, South Africa's system of proportional representation has brought a range of new voices to Parliament. But whether this chorus will play the role of en effective opposition is another matter. The DP has positioned itself for this role and on the basis of its record since 1994 it can be expected to be a capable and vocal critic of the ANC in government.


It is less clear if workable alternatives to ANC policies will be voiced, and once voiced, if they will have any chance of gaining purchase within the policy machinery of the state. This scepticism is based on two observations. First, party politics remains the prisoner of region and race. The only party with a broad base of appeal is the ANC. The DP now has pretensions of gaining a similar foothold, but for the present it remains largely a party of whites. The NNP, in its reduced fortunes, is a Western Cape party, and a largely coloured party at that. As for the IFP, the UDM and the UCDP, these are all regional parties, mostly tailored for the particular dynamics that prevail in their power bases. We may have to wait for possible divisions in the ANC to produce a splinter of dissent that seeks its fortunes either with one of these parties, or on its own.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the ANC has raised the bar by which it will be judged after 1999. To its credit it sought re-election on the basis of its record of delivery since 1994 and it has set its future prospects against the task of improving on this record. The Mbeki-led ANC has repeatedly stated that it will fight corruption in government, that it will hold to responsible government, that it will fight crime, and continue to set and meet service and infrastructure delivery targets. Failure on any of these fronts will expose it to the kind of criticism that plagued several prominent cabinet ministers since 1994 (for example, Nkosazana Zuma in Health, Nzo in Foreign Affairs and Maduna in Energy and Minerals). With an emboldened DP chipping away without having to worry about gaining government power for itself, the ANC has a formidable challenge on it hands. On the one hand, the ANC will want to remain the standard-bearer of transparent and accountable government, and on the other, it will want to control any damage inflicted upon it by its critics, lest foreign investors and the like get scared away. How Mbeki will manage this balancing act is still unknown.

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