It’s election season in South Africa. Small planes drag political slogans across autumn’s blue skies while parliamentary sessions dissolve into scenes of protest and fisticuffs far below. In April the nation’s three largest political parties staged rallies to unveil lengthy election manifestos far ahead of municipal polls on Aug. 3, with thousands of would-be voters packing into sports stadiums to show their support.
Some stadiums were more packed than others. For the governing African National Congress, the optics of its launch weren’t ideal, with awkward swaths of empty seats pictured in Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in the southern city of Port Elizabeth, where President Jacob Zuma spoke. The rally’s spotty attendance didn’t escape the attention of South African reporters, whose “preoccupation with stadium seat-counting” was later lambasted by an ANC spokesman, calling it “the new science of ‘stadiumology.’ ”
Science or no, stadiumology is a tried-and-true part of the electoral theater. I moved to South Africa in March after working as a journalist in India for four years. As India prepared for its own heated election in 2014, the media drew regular comparisons between the thinly attended rallies of the incumbent Indian National Congress and the frenetic crowds drawn by the opposition’s frontman, soon-to-be Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nobody expected Congress to lose as big or Modi to win as big as they did in May 2014. In retrospect, the mood in the stands was a clear omen.
The ANC, the party that led South Africa out of apartheid, has historic parallels and ties with India’s Congress party, which was instrumental in freeing the subcontinent from British rule. And the travails of the two Congress parties—Indian and African—have a lot to say about the challenges faced by young democracies.
Calls for Zuma, who’s led the country since 2009, to step down have come from both an energized opposition and freedom-struggle stalwarts. The party leadership has backed Zuma, easily carrying him through a parliamentary vote in April that attempted to remove him from office. Since then, a court ruled that a decision by state prosecutors to drop almost 800 corruption charges against Zuma was “irrational” and that he should face charges. The president has applied for leave to appeal the decision.
Zuma has continued to campaign enthusiastically. On May 17, members of the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party calling for his ouster were thrown out of parliament amid brawling and lobbed water bottles. Zuma proceeded to address the house, taking the podium with a chuckle.
Not everyone is amused. For many, 22 years after South Africa’s first democratic elections brought to power the party that fought apartheid, the optimism that once defined the Rainbow Nation is flagging. Protests over the state’s failure to deliver basic services, such as water and electricity, have become a fixture of civic life. Economic growth has fallen from an annual average of 5 percent from 2004 through 2007 to less than 1 percent, projected for this year. In early May the government announced that unemployment reached 26.7 percent in the first quarter, the highest in at least eight years.
Zuma has said South Africa is still a success story—and it is—but for some, the ANC has lost its luster. “When our leading party took power, we thought all would be well,” says Johanna Nomvete, a politician and member of a small ANC breakaway party, Congress of the People, at a Johannesburg protest. Today, “the poor remain poor, and the rich become richer.”
The mood is strikingly similar to New Delhi in the runup to India’s national elections in 2014. Public sentiment had turned against then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose government also faced allegations of large-scale corruption. The heady growth that had captured the world’s imagination had slowed. With widespread unemployment and few prospects for new jobs, India’s young majority was instrumental in voting Congress out—a move their grandparents wouldn’t have dreamed of. “The system could no longer deliver,” says Mohan Guruswamy, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “Younger people were entering the workforce in large numbers, and you didn’t have jobs for them.”
Some say the ANC is repeating Congress’s mistakes. “The ANC, the last of the iconic liberation movements, is falling in the trap of all of them,” says William Gumede, executive chairman of the African nonprofit Democracy Works Foundation. Political parties born out of liberation struggles often retain strong majorities during their early years in power for good reasons. Their supporters have deep and emotional ties to the organizations, and as the parties start to govern, there are credible excuses for them to take time to rebuild weak institutions. But voter loyalty also means such a party “can mess up for a while,” says Gumede. “People support it for much longer than they should.”
For any party, a clear majority means there’s no urgent impetus to do the kind of introspection and reform an electoral defeat can spark. Problems that emerge, be it a corruption scandal or poor administration, can linger, widening the gap between party leaders and supporters to the point of genuine disconnect. It happened in 1977, when India’s Congress party lost power for the first time since independence, and again in 2014. And that’s what the ANC’s critics say is happening now in South Africa.
Of course, there are clear and important differences between South Africa’s ANC and India’s Congress—among them the size of the countries, the nature of the struggles, and the rule they fought against. The ANC has been in power for a little over two decades; Congress was in power for three before its first ouster. By the time of its most recent victory, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had already run India before and presented a much broader challenge to Congress than either of South Africa’s two main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the EFF, presents to the ANC today.
At last count, the ANC was still going strong, capturing 62.1 percent of the 2014 vote, down slightly from 65.9 percent in 2009. Whether a sizable number of those voters have lost faith won’t be clear until August. Even if opposition parties perform well in cities, the ANC could remain the party of choice among rural voters, where it dominates. National elections aren’t scheduled until 2019: If the party does perform badly in August, there will be a window of opportunity for the ANC to be introspective and alter its course. “Personally, I believe if you got the right leadership in place, you have a party that has the greatest commitment and empathy for the poor people, the people in the street,” says Mavuso Msimang, one of several ANC veterans who have recently called for Zuma to step down. “But that will only happen if you employ the right people to do these things.”
India’s problems, for the record, didn’t disappear under new management. Modi has hit many of the same walls Congress faced, and his much touted bid to make India a manufacturing hub hasn’t taken off. In the end, notes Guruswamy of Observer Research, the BJP’s inability to make a dent in joblessness among young voters—who helped bring the party to power in 2014—could be its undoing and Congress’s next opportunity. That kind of power struggle is healthy for democracies such as India and South Africa, says Democracy Works’ Gumede: “That’s what you want in a developing country. You need a sense of competition.”
Whatever happens at the polls, that sense of competition is growing. At the end of April, Soweto’s Orlando Stadium outside Johannesburg was overflowing with EFF supporters, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the party chief, former ANC youth leader Julius Malema. They roared as the firebrand politician entered the stadium wearing the party’s trademark red jumpsuit, beret, and his own signature gold aviators. The stadiumologists had a field day.
Mahr, now based in Johannesburg, was a special correspondent for Reuters and Time magazine’s bureau chief in India.