In the months leading up to South Africa’s third national elections (which took place on April 14), there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the African National Congress (ANC) was going to win. Indeed, the main “debate” amongst the mainstream political pundits and analysts who dominated the media election coverage was centred on the extent of the ANC’s victory margin. After all, the ANC’s only real electoral opposition consisted mostly of right-wing parties. The traditional left (COSATU and the SACP) obediently played the role of the ANC’s cheerleaders-in-chief and the more radical social movements called for either an election boycott or the casting of spoilt ballots.

The electoral campaign of the ANC was run in true bourgeois political style, with millions in corporate donations providing the necessary money-power. President Mbeki and his coterie of ministers criss-crossed the country on a whirlwind road show especially designed to show the “common touch” of Mbeki and the ANC’s political elites. Ready-made photo opportunities with destitute rural pensioners and urban township youth were mixed in with “reconciliatory” visits to ultra-wealthy townhouse complexes. The cameras clicked away, the dutiful articles appeared in the papers and the airwaves were filled with “news” about the “new look” Mbeki and interminable (and mostly sycophantic) interviews with various ANC leaders.

The former liberation movement parties of the left such as the Pan Africanist Congress and the Azanian People’s Organization were left to shamelessly feed off the ANC’s scraps and show just how hopelessly out of touch they have become in confronting the neo-liberal juggernaut.

On the other side of the political, ideological and organizational tracks, anti-capitalist social movements such as the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) and the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) used the elections period to intensify grassroots organization and struggle centred around the most basic socio-economic needs of the majority poor.

For political, tactical and material reasons, the APF, along with several other social movements, chose not to contest the national elections and made the call for the masses to join the social movements in the longer-term struggle to build an alternative to the ANC through building people’s organizations on the ground, uniting working class forces and mass action in struggle. As to the people’s involvement in the elections, the APF called for those who wanted to participate to cast spoilt ballots, while the LPM called for a boycott through their “No Land, No Vote” campaign.

During the run-up to the elections, and in what has now become a commonplace practice of the ANC and the repressive state apparatus it controls, social movement activists were consistently monitored, harassed, intimidated, physically attacked and in two notable cases, subjected to mass arrests and incarceration for simply daring to organize legitimate public protests. Clearly afraid of the incipient people’s power and practical effect of the struggles of the social movements, the ANC went out of its way to perfect its usual “talk left” electoral message. The ANC promised heaven and earth to South Africa’s poor whilst ensuring, with lots of help from the kowtowing media, that its “act right” neo-liberal macro-economic strategy, responsible for mass unemployment and impoverishment, remained firmly in the shadows.

On election day, and before the indelible ink used to mark voters’ fingers had the time to dry, the media were predictably running headlines such as, “Huge turnout for elections” and “ANC set for landslide.” By the time all the votes had been counted the following day, confirming a comfortable ANC victory, ANC leaders were crowing about receiving a “decisive mandate” and garnering “the overwhelming support of the majority of the people.”

And yet, for all the political spin dished out by the ANC and their corporate and media acolytes around the ANC’s “massive victory,” a 76 per cent voter turnout and South Africa’s “mature democracy,” the reality tells another story.

  • Only 56 per cent (15 806 380) of all eligible voters (27 438 897) cast their ballots;
  • Just under seven million people eligible to vote, did not even bother to register;
  • Of those registered to vote (20 600 000), over five million chose not to exercise their vote;
  • Just 38 per cent (10 877 302) of the entire voting population voted for the ANC;
  • There were 250 871 spoilt votes;
  • In the industrial heartland of South Africa (the Gauteng Province which includes Johannesburg) the ANC vote dropped by over 175 000 from the previous national elections;
  • The national voting turnout has gradually decreased since South Africa’s first, one-person one-vote elections. In 1994, 19,5 million people voted; in 1999 just over 16 million voted; and in 2004, under 16 million (remembering that the country’s population has grown substantially over the last decade).

Despite these realities, Mbeki was arrogant and disingenuous enough to claim publicly, soon after the elections that the people “have spoken loudly and said that they have understood the truths the ANC has communicated to them, and understood the falsehoods that others have told âe¦ they have firmly rejected the false claim that their movement, the ANC, has failed them.” Even worse, Mbeki went on to quote from the biography of that paragon of intellectual strength and democratic virtuosity, U.S. President George W. Bush, about how the U.S. remains a divided “two-nation” society and then asked smugly, “ âe¦ after 200 years it still has not been able to solve problems of poverty. Why then do people expect the ANC to have solved such problems in ten years?”

Of course, the question Mbeki should have asked, but which he and his ANC are clearly too terrified to even contemplate, is this: Why, after only 10 years of bourgeois democracy, has participation in South Africaâe(TM)s elections been reduced to almost the same levels as that of a country that has been holding elections for over 200 years?

What South Africa’s third national election has confirmed is that millions of poor are deeply disillusioned with a “democracy” and an ANC that promised them so much ten years ago but that has delivered the goods to the rich. It confirms the commodification of that “democracy” (along with almost everything else), in which national elections have rapidly been turned into the political playground of those with access to capitalist patronage. And, it confirms the huge potential that exists for the social movements and the rank-and-file of the organized working class to fill the political vacuum and build a viable and radical people’s power alternative to the ANC.