South African elections 2024: what has been largely missing from the main conversations?

Jun 3, 2024

By Dale McKinley

As we wait for the outcome of South Africa’s 2024 elections here are two key takeaways from the electoral terrain that have mostly been relegated to the margins.

Not surprisingly, the dominant ‘takeaway’ emanating from the media and the commentariat in the months and now days leading up to South Africa’s 2024 national and provincial elections, has been the distinct possibility that the governing ANC party will lose its electoral majority for the first time since the end of apartheid. Coupled to this, there has also been much attention and speculation given over to the participation, and potential support for, ex-President Zuma’s MK party as well as the likelihood of coalition governments at the national level and in hotly contested provinces such as KZN, Gauteng and possibly in the Western Cape.

There have also been several secondary ‘takeaways’ that have been widely punted: that the massive number of political parties contesting the elections confirms that South Africa’s democracy is ‘maturing’; that there continues to be large-scale voter ‘apathy’ amongst the youth; and, that more than in any other previous election there are record numbers (some estimates of up to 30%) of voters who are undecided.

All of these are relevant points to make about these elections, most particularly around their unpredictability and the huge increase and thus expanded voter ‘choice’ related to the number of political parties contesting. Nonetheless, there are two crucial ‘takeaways’ that have not made the headlines or animated most of the discussion and analysis around these elections. Both of them are central to a fully truthful and realistic discussion and analysis of what the 2024 electoral terrain tells us about South African people, society and politics.

The rise of the right

Mirroring what has been happening in many countries around the world, South Africa’s electoral terrain has increasingly moved to the right side of the ideological and socio-political spectrum. Arguably the most visibly and consistently noticeable confirmation of this is the mainstreaming, across most of the main political parties, of xenophobia. Whether it be the hate-filled invective and threats of violence against ‘foreigners’ of the Patriotic Alliance, the largely untruthful and misdirected economic arguments of ActionSA, the ‘law and order’/border control chest-beating of the DA or the deep seated immigration system corruption, cynicism and mal-governance (under the cover of policy reform) of the ruling ANC, the 2024 electoral terrain has made scapegoating of ‘foreigners’ (more especially those that are poor and from the African continent) an increasingly popular political ‘sport’.

More and more parties are espousing socially conservative positions, paying lip service to climate change/environmental destruction, embracing an increasingly narrow nationalist and identitarian politics, becoming more intolerant of dissent and difference as well as adopting a hyper marketized, competitive, mean-spirited and individualistic approach to economic development and policy. Not surprisingly, at the heart of this rise of right-wing discourse, politics and practice is a mythologizing of the past, a manipulation of ‘culture’, a (re)embracing of patriarchy and misogyny and a celebration of a dog-eat-dog world. It is a sad but harsh reality which now threatens to take South Africa down a very dangerous and destructive path.

The commodification of politics

For the most part the proliferation of political parties over the last 2-3 years and more particularly in the year leading up to these elections has been interpreted as representing a positive development, bringing enhanced democratic competition and thus electoral choice. While such arguments do have elements of subjective truth to them, the fact is that most of the main parties represent different shades of grey when it comes to ideological choice and key policy differentiation. There is also something very different going on here that has a more objective basis.

That ‘something’ is the rapid commodification of the world of politics, organisationally, institutionally and relationally. While this commodification, which simply put describes a situation where everything political is bought and sold and up for sale, is not something that has just arisen recently, what is new is the sheer scale and widening impact of it.

The core reason for this is that in South Africa the vast majority of the party political world – and by extension the world of government both institutional and representative – is now almost wholly centred on material advancement at the personal, social group and class levels. The ethos of public service, of a collective consciousness, and of advancing a broader and inclusive societal interest, has become about as rare as a pothole free road; it is now almost completely dominated by a desire to make a (generally very good) living, about enhancing group/class power and about servicing personal egos.

Beyond elections: deepening and expanding democracy

Despite their inherent structural and aspirational limitations, It is important to point out that these are the 7th national-provincial elections held in South Africa since 1994, all of which have (mostly) been run efficiently and accepted as ‘free and fair’. In this respect, it is a crucial reminder to all of us that despite all of South Africa’s problems, we must never take such representative democratic elections for granted.

Whatever the final outcome of these elections, all of those who live and work in South Africa are going to have to grapple with the two realities as described above which pose practical and existential threats to the very survival of any democracy. While the electoral terrain which underpins representative democracy is an absolutely central component of a democratic system, it is on the terrain of participatory democracy that the battles for basic facts/truths as well as political and socio-economic equality, inclusivity and justice will largely be waged.