Historic liberal surge in South Africa

In the wake of the referendum, with Trump appearing to be gaining ground in the US, and populism on the rise across Europe, we Liberals could start to feel a little grim about our future relevance in the world.

Not so in South Africa where the Democratic Alliance (DA), long-time Liberal Democrat sister party and the only viable opposition to an increasingly corrupt African National Congress (ANC) government, has surged to its best result yet in last week’s nationwide local elections.

In the 2006 local elections, the ANC got 66.3% votes nationwide, with the liberal DA at just 14.8%. Last week, the ANC managed to win just under 54% of the vote with the DA at 27%. While the ANC still dominates, cracks are beginning to show in its support, despite the recent assertion of the party’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, that the ANC was “anointed by God” to rule South Africa.

Crucially, the ANC has lost its grip on some of South Africa’s most important cities: Pretoria (part of the City of Tshwane), the administrative capital city, Nelson Mandela Bay, a major industrial centre also famous for its history of anti-apartheid struggle, and the City of Johannesburg, the country’s economic nucleus. Since apartheid ended, the ANC have always had strong 60%+ majorities in all three, now they are the largest party by just a hair’s breadth in Johannesburg and smaller than the DA in both Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.

The DA has ruled the Western Cape, which includes the City of Cape Town, since 2011 but this is the first time they have come close to overtaking the ANC in South Africa’s other metros. Their detractors have often belittled the DA’s record of good governance in the Western Cape – where crime has declined and service provision improved – by saying that Cape Town is its own animal, incomparable to South Africa’s other cities and rural areas. Now the DA will have its opportunity to prove their brand of transparent, democratic and effective local governance can work outside of Cape Town.

Last week’s elections prove that the ANC no longer owns the black vote by default. Nelson Mandela Bay, with over 80% non-white residents, elected a white DA candidate Athol Trollip as mayor-elect despite the ANC’s efforts to target him for his skin colour and tarnish him as a child of the apartheid National Party. While race is understandably a serious issue in post-apartheid politics, it appears that it is no longer the only issue. The DA, which elected its first black leader Mmusi Maimane last year, is moving beyond its past image as a largely white party and reaching out to new demographics. While the results in this election can be largely explained by a hugely successful Get Out The Vote campaign in the more affluent suburbs of major metros, analysis also shows a more significant trend. The DA has made modest inroads in the notoriously ANC-dominated townships across the country, and many disaffected ANC voters have opted for the DA over the more radical and populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) than some experts predicted before the election.

President Zuma has tarnished the ANC, which has been overwhelmed by corruption scandals and internal divisions since he came to power in 2007. His administration has been plagued by accusations of economic mismanagement as unemployment has skyrocketed, now at 26% and even higher amongst young people. The scandal surrounding the improper use of state funds for “security upgrades” (such as a swimming pool) for Zuma’s private residence continue to plague his party at the polls.

South African voters are now more concerned with real service delivery, clean government, and effective redress than with the ANC’s obsession of racial identity politics.

These most recent elections mark the beginning of genuinely competitive politics in South Africa. Where Zimbabwe and other African nations have become dominated by the parties that began as liberators and grew into oppressors, South Africa has managed to break this mould, with a political space opening up for opposition parties like the DA and the radical EFF to challenge the ANC from across the political spectrum. Just 22 years since the end of apartheid, it is now conceivable that South Africa will one day – perhaps as soon as 2019 or 2024 – be run by a government led by today’s opposition.

As Party Leader Mmusi Maimane has said since the results came through, the hard work begins now for the DA. Across the country, they will need to begin the process of overturning decades of poor local governance and corruption, deliver on their manifesto to new supporters, and build towards 2019 national elections.

This week I will be in Johannesburg to meet with the Africa Liberal Network (ALN) and discuss our support for the Network’s activities in the coming year. Could there be a better place to discuss the future of African liberalism than the country which just declared itself ready for a new era of democratic change?

* Harriet Shone is Head of the Liberal Democrats’ International Office.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Bernard Aris 11th Aug '16 - 10:29am

    In my high school- and student days in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, I often joined all-night wakes in front of the South African embassy here in The Hague when another execution in South Africa of ANC/Umkonto we Siswe fighters was imminent.
    Being a young D66 activist, I always got into big debates with the leftist co-demonstrators, who thought only the ANC was the true resistance against Apartheid, and belittled the “Ladies in Black”, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) of Van Zyl Slabbert and the legendary Helen Suzman MP (the direct predecessor of the DA), and the dissident protestant pastors in South Africa like Beyers Naudé. For them, the Armed Struggle was everything, other forms of protest and resistance was a useful but marginal addendum. I always replied: “how much good did Che Guevara’s armed resistance without political support do in Bolivia?”

    The ANC has for decades worked hand in glove with the South African Communist Psrty (Joe Slovo!), so hearing them describe themselves as “anointed by God” (here: to govern) is a extremely curious ideological turnaround.

    My party, D66 in the Netherlands, has always supported any resistance against- and critique of Apartheid; and rejected the love affair between European (New) Left and the ANC.
    When Mandela was freed and real elections were held, the ANC had developed a party culture of secrecy and top-down decisionmaking (usefull, necessary in a guerrilla); so many of us feared that the absence of opportunity for internal criticism would be carried over in the ANC as democratic government power. To a large extent, that is what has happened. They still won’t criticize Robert Mugabe’s bloody and people-starving dictatorship; that says a lot.

    So the rise and rise of the DA, and its social-liberal tradition (from the PFP roots), is warmly welcomed by us as wll; hopefully it will lead to self-reflection and atonement inside the ANC.

  • Shows what you can do when your campaign is led by people who know what they are doing.

  • Adrian Sanders 11th Aug '16 - 1:36pm

    Tony Dawson – you aren’t implying that the DA’s results improved once a certain person came to run our General Election campaign?

  • Tony Dawson 11th Aug '16 - 2:40pm

    You might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

    Neither would I dream of suggesting the UK Euro-stay campaign was run by people who didn’t want us to stay in Europe 🙂


  • Richard Underhill 11th Aug '16 - 10:55pm

    Those who noticed Nelson Mandela’s criticism of his successor have been waiting for this.
    In other countries it happened more quickly.

  • Peter Bancroft 12th Aug '16 - 12:15am

    I hope that I am not the only person who has found the unrelated to the article personal attacks on Ryan mentioned above deeply unpleasant. It’s somewhat inappropriate to attack party staffers in general, but I would suggest that as Tony and Adrian are unlikely to be at all familiar with Ryan’s activities in the DA (where he had quite a different role to his in the UK) that posting strong insinuations on a public forum as to what he may or may not have achieved in the DA when either clearly has no clue is both disrespectful, incredibly nasty and demonstrates a focus on personal vendettas rather than an actual desire to discuss politics.

    Could either possibly tell me what they felt Ryan’s top 3 things that he brought the DA in his time as CEO (or previous roles as an MP, advisor to Helen, etc.) were and also what his three main failings were?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Aug '16 - 12:40am

    Bernard writes so truthfully and it is welcome indeed re the success of outstanding fellow Liberal Democrats in our sister party in South Africa .

    A party superbly led now , but with the many Liberals past and more recently , making significant contributions . Can I add one , Alan Paton , known as the author of the great humanitarian novel , Cry The Beloved Country , and as well , a founder of the Liberal Party of South Africa , he spoke for Nelson Mandela in court at his trial.

  • Dan Falchikov 12th Aug '16 - 12:43am

    Coetzee was never a ‘member of staff’. He was a director of strategy. Therefore he was ultimately responsible for the 2015 lib dem campaign. Yet that disaster wasn’t enough for people to see his lack of ability. So the political establishment gave him a more important job keeping the country in the EU. He messed that up too.

    It’s fair comment.

  • Well-written and informative article. Thank you. Amandla DA!

  • Peter Bancroft’s personal attack on people for making light-hearted comments about those who destroyed our Party’s parliamentary representation and then our membership of the EU is noted.

    I have known Adrian Sanders for about 30 years or so. What Adrian and I have in common (other than having once lived, sequentially, in the same house in Yorkshire) is having taken key roles in numerous election-winning teams. I presume there is a course somewhere that Peter will soon sign up for?

  • Lester Holloway 12th Aug '16 - 2:27pm

    The assertion that the ANC thinks it “owns the black vote by default” runs strong throughout this article but deserves a closer inspection than one quote from one individual about the ANC having a God-given right to rule. Free South Africa has always been a vastly complex multi-party democracy with a huge number of party’s, and regional and tribal identities. Aside from those varied jigsaw pieces, the ANC has won the majority of support across the country outside of the Cape, which has long been a DA stronghold. The ANC is not a monolithic entity, but is in fact a huge big tent covering every strand from hardline Marxists to hardnosed capitalists. In that sense it has always been a unity government, riven with tensions around how fast or slow to go with reform to shift power and wealth in proportion to the composition of the post-Aparthied country. Riven with tensions between grassroots demand for social change, business and special interests and whether it is tackling or making excuses for corruption.

    The white minority are concentrated in the Cape, DA’s stronghold. The party has a history of being ‘whites against aparthied’ but not being sensitive or close to black South Africans. That has slowly changed over time, and more visibly so with their new leader. The DA have tended to accuse the ANC of using the struggle for freedom as a justification for their right to rule corruptly. This article hints the same. I’m not convinced this has helped DA massively. It ignores the complex reality and overlooks the importance of recent history. It belittles the sacrifice still fresh in the memory, and fills a critique space where promises of social change for the poor should be. Insulting the ANC is no substitute for a well-worked out programme to elevate the poor out of poverty. And until this programme is formed, the suspicion remains that bitterness towards the ANC is not bourne out of a desire to raise up South Africa’s under-privileged black population and has already forgotten the fight to be free.

  • Lester Holloway 12th Aug '16 - 2:28pm

    We need to move from simplistic phrases like “Zimbabwe and other African nations have become dominated by the parties that began as liberators and grew into oppressors” to better understand how modern history relates to the present, to remove the head from the sand and acknowledge the reality that independence parties do actually have natural support, and then ask intelligent questions of why. This analysis will, I predict, lead away from cartoon images of the ANC and Africa and towards a mindset that understands the feelings of black Africans and how parties that reflect them can more effectively challenge for power on radical programmes of change.

  • Harriet Shone 12th Aug '16 - 6:01pm

    @ Lester Holloway, thanks for your comments!

    My first draft of this piece was well over double the length so you can understand some of its depth was lost in editing!

    I agree that the DA has a way to go in moving away from its predominantly white background, although it has been making strides in this area, and that attacking the ANC is not a platform in itself. I am also certainly not trying to ¨belittle¨ the significance of recent history or the ANC´s role in the end of apartheid – to do so would be beyond naive and offensive.

    There are multiple incidences of the ANC leadership dismissing the DA as ¨for whites¨ and even going so far as to tar its non-white supporters as [in their own phrase] ¨clever blacks¨ who have forgotten the struggle. There are naturally a wide range of people in the ANC – and its supporters make up most of the population – so these attitudes are never going to be applicable across the board. However, senior ANC leadership have been pretty consistent in making these assertions, attacking the DA rather than focusing on improving the lives of their constituents.

    As for my comment on Zimbabwe, I am certainly guilty of a big generalisation there – one that is a result of the shortness of the article more than anything else! I meant only to indicate that there is a trend of one-party and often one-man dominance in post-struggle nations which is unfortunate and which I hope South Africa continues to buck by growing into a more vibrant multi-party democracy, with an ANC made better by the influence of proper political competition and a stronger DA, as well as other parties.

    I appreciate you taking the time to comment – and the same to everyone else as well! 🙂

  • I would add that there would seem to be something for South Africa to learn from Zambia. It is under-reported that Zambia has managed several presidential transitions with democratic elections and recently had a white acting president. The transition from white-dominated colonial regime (of which I was a part) to UNIP (mostly black) government was not, of course, anything like as traumatic as in South Africa, but there are lessons to be learnt from there regarding political development.

  • Nigel Baldwin 13th Aug '16 - 8:38am

    Helen Suzman would be proud!

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Aug '16 - 8:41am

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