The South African election: A background briefing. photos show party campaigners2019 election campaigning in South Africa. [Photos by Martin Plaut]

It was a remarkable achievement. South Africa’s sixth election since the end of apartheid saw nearly 17.7 million people vote at 22,924 voting stations. They had a choice of 48 parties who were attempting to get into the National Assembly, or parliament. In the end just 14 parties succeeded.

The election was not without its flaws. It turned out that, with the right chemicals and a little effort, the supposedly indelible mark made on all voter’s thumbs when they cast their votes could be removed. A handful of people have been prosecuted for voting more than once. Voting stations ran out of ballots and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) rightly complained that many of these seemed to be in areas in which the party has high support. But a friend of mine explained how the election officials went out of their way to take mobile phone numbers and call people back when fresh ballot papers arrived, rather than expecting citizens to wait around in the intervening two or three hours.

A bigger issue is the question of voters abroad. Citizens have the right to vote, but it is made as difficult as possible. There are forms to fill in, and others to present at South African embassies and High Commissions. A total of 29 334 were approved, but this is a tiny fraction of the population overseas. Voters in Britain must vote in London in person. They cannot do so at the consulate in Glasgow. This is perhaps not surprising: most of those abroad support the opposition. If one contrasts this with the care that is taken to allow the frail and infirm to vote in South Africa itself (with voting ahead of election day or home visits) it is difficult not to conclude that this is a form of not very subtle jerrymandering.

I spent the best part of two weeks in South Africa touring the rural areas of the Eastern Cape, Port Elizabeth and the Cape Town area. I made a point of going to areas off the beaten track and to visit African people in their homes (they make up over 80% of the population.) My conclusion is that despite the problems outlined above, the 2019 election was a credit to the country and to the Independent Electoral Commission. It was – to use the phrase that is always trotted out at these moments – a ‘free and fair’ representation of the views of the people.

The results

The overall poll was 65.1% of the potential electorate, which has led some commentators’ to regard the election in a firmly negative light, with disturbing levels of voters’ failure to register (despite a determined campaign targeting first-time potential voters) and varying degrees of non-engagement.

As one commentator put it: “This was an exceptionally low-turnout election; an almost shockingly low-turnout election compared to previous national elections. South Africa has never had a national election with less than 70% overall turnout. In 2014, turnout was 72.5%. The overall turnout for the 2019 national election (including all overseas voters who filled in VEC10 forms), is 65.1%. This is much lower than anticipated and influenced the election outcome significantly.”

African National Congress

As many will know by now, the African National Congress was victorious and will govern South Africa as it has for the past quarter of a century. But its share of the vote fell and it will have 19 fewer seats in parliament than it did in 2014. Under Nelson Mandela the ANC took 62.7% of the vote. This year it won 57.5%. This was hardly a poor showing, given the mire of corruption associated with the ANC under President Jacob Zuma. But the recriminations have already begun.

Democratic Alliance

The official opposition – the DA – also received a blow. It won 20.8% of the vote, a fall of 1.5%. Its leader, Mmusi Maimane is a wonderful orator, but has been accused of moving the party towards the ANC, making black empowerment a cornerstone of party policy. Maimane has said he accepts responsibility for the DA’s failure to make progress. This has not stopped his critics.

The other parties

The backing for the Economic Freedom Fighters (who are young, brash and vocal) and their militant leader, Julius Malema, was widely over-estimated. Nonetheless, they were the largest winners, taking an additional 19 seats and their percentage of the vote to 10.8%. The difficulty for the EFF is that they have to show that they are more than just an oppositional force and can actually contribute to the political process. The mainly Afrikaner, Freedom Front Plus were the second major gainers. They took 10 seats and increased their share of the vote by more than 2% to 2.4%. Adopting the slogan “Fight back” they played on white fears that their positions in the country were being eroded.

The Inkatha Freedom Party (a mainly Zulu party) took 14 seats, an increase of 4, but no other party got into double figures.


With the election over, political life has resumed as normal. Both the ANC and DA are holding internal party discussions, to try to remedy what went wrong and apportion blame.

President Ramaphosa has declared that he will not appoint anyone to government who had been accused of corruption. In his first speech to supporters following the election, Ramaphosa said he would not appoint leaders who worked “to fill their own pockets”. He told thousands of supporters in downtown Johannesburg: “We are going to end corruption whether they like it or not.” The revelations by a government commission investigating graft, often aired live on television to fascinated South Africans, “must be things of the past”, the president said. Living up to this commitment will mean taking on Zuma and his allies – something Ramaphosa has skated around since being elected party leader and president of the country. Zuma is not without supporters and continues to sit on the ANC National Executive.

For ordinary South Africans life continues much as before. The political assassinations inside the ANC, which have so disfigured the politics of KwaZulu-Natal, continue as factions vie to keep control, and the backhanders that office brings with it. So too does unemployment, which has driven so many into poverty. In the first quarter of 2019 237,000 jobs were lost. The official unemployment rate stands at 26.6% – among the highest in the world. More than 55% of those between 15 and 24 years old are unemployed. This is a personal tragedy for those who linger without a job; it’s a tragedy for the country, which has failed them so badly. Cyril Ramaphosa has a great deal on his plate.

Martin Plaut is a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of Commonwealth Affairs.

[This is an edited version of an article which will appear on the website of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.To read this article in full and with references, please visit the ICWS website. Opinions expressed in articles do not reflect the editorial position of the Round Table.]