Resisting State Capture in South Africa

Issue Date October 2019
Volume 30
Issue 4
Page Numbers 5-19
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This article assesses the state of democracy in South Africa, twenty-five years after Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) came to power. The ANC won its sixth straight election in 2019, led by presidential candidate Cyril Ramaphosa. Yet the party faced a strengthened challenge from the populist left, and the 2019 contest saw the smallest ANC majority and the lowest turnout of any general election since the end of apartheid. This article argues that the most fundamental test for South Africa’s democracy has been dislodging the corrupt networks of “state capture” entrenched under former president Jacob Zuma. Civil society, opposition parties, accountability agencies, and the ANC itself succeeded in removing Zuma before the end of his term, but the task of rebuilding public trust remains.

On 8 May 2019, nearly twenty-five years to the day after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, the country went to the polls in its sixth round of national elections. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) had won by comfortable margins in every previous election, all peaceful, “free and fair” contests administered by the country’s well-regarded electoral commission. Much of the skepticism about the quality of South Africa’s democracy has centered on the ease with which the ANC wins elections. With the majority of voters committed to the ANC, the essence of democracy as described by Joseph Schumpeter—elite competition for voter support—seems to be lacking. And South Africans seem to be in no rush to pass Samuel Huntington’s two-turnover test of democratic consolidation.

About the Authors

Rod Alence

Rod Alence is associate professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

View all work by Rod Alence

Anne Pitcher

Anne Pitcher is professor of political science and African studies at the University of Michigan.

View all work by Anne Pitcher

At first glance, the run-up to the 2019 election looked like more of the same. The ANC’s presidential candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa (b. 1952), campaigned on the lofty promise of bringing a “new dawn” that would reinfuse the country with Mandela’s values. He had the pedigree to make this promise credible. In the early 1980s, at the height of the apartheid policies that had institutionalized a pervasive system of racial discrimination, Ramaphosa founded and led the National Union of Mineworkers, the country’s largest trade union. Between 1991 and 1996, he served as secretary-general of the ANC, which made its own transition from banned resistance movement to dominant political party. He played a central role in the political negotiations that brought South Africa out of apartheid, and he was a key architect of the country’s progressive, democratic 1996 Constitution. Ramaphosa was reportedly Mandela’s personal choice as presidential successor when the widely renowned [End Page 5] ANC leader stepped down in 1999. The party leadership opted for Thabo Mbeki (1999–2008) instead, and Ramaphosa headed to the private sector, where he was very successful. He later returned to active politics, becoming South Africa’s deputy president after the 2014 national election.

Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” represented more than just the politician’s clichéd promise of a brighter future: For South Africans alarmed by the country’s recent political turmoil, it also subtly alluded to a period of darkness that he vowed to relegate to the past. That darkness was the presidency of Jacob Zuma (2009–18), which Ramaphosa referred to in several speeches as “nine wasted years.” Under Zuma (b. 1942), a sprawling network of corrupt procurement involving high-level politicians, public officials, and business cronies took root both in the government and across South Africa’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The crisis was so dire that a previously little-known academic term—”state capture”—became part of the public lexicon. The term described activities that ran much deeper than the garden-variety diversion of public resources for private gain; under Zuma, powerful individuals systematically sought to undermine the institutions designed to keep such abuses in check. The assault on these institutions of political and legal accountability posed an existential threat to South Africa’s democracy. It also inflicted substantial collateral damage on the country’s fragile economy and society.

Voters gave Ramaphosa and the ANC victory by a margin that would please most politicians throughout the world, but the election also signaled that rebuilding public trust in government and the party will take more than campaign slogans. In an election that was peaceful, free, and fair, the ANC won 58 percent of the vote and 230 seats in the 400-seat National Assembly, the main house of South Africa’s Parliament.1 These numbers both ensured that the ANC would remain the majority party and handed Ramaphosa the office of president, formally filled by parliamentary vote. The ANC’s closest rival, the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), managed only 21 percent of the vote and took 84 seats in the Assembly. Twelve smaller parties also won parliamentary seats.

By the ANC’s historical standards, however, the results were less impressive: They marked the party’s smallest-ever national majority and the first time its vote share fell below 60 percent. The ANC lost the most ground to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the party founded in 2013 by Julius Malema—a former president of the ANC’s youth league. Feeding on populist resentment of the political and economic elite among many black South Africans, the EFF earned 11 percent of the vote and 44 seats, establishing it as the largest-ever challenger on the ANC’s left flank.2

The national, provincial, and municipal elections held since South Africa’s 1994 transition to democracy provide useful barometers of [End Page 6] party competition and public perceptions of government performance. But the most profound test for South African democracy so far has been confronting the existential threat posed by state capture during the Zuma presidency. A wide range of actors across South Africa’s varied constitutional terrain—from whistleblowers and opposition parties to independent agencies and commissions of inquiry—mounted the resistance. A vibrant civil society fueled and sustained that resistance, with critical contributions by investigative journalists who went to great lengths to uncover and publicize misdeeds. Zuma was ultimately removed from office before the end of his term—and the key blows were struck within his own party.

The Architecture of South Africa’s Democracy

South Africa’s democracy has thus far combined closed-list proportional representation (PR) and single-party electoral predominance. Although closed-list PR makes it easy for factions to defect and win seats as splinter parties, the ANC has largely avoided major breakaways (the biggest one to date came with the formation of the EFF). Electoral predominance gives the ANC control of state power, while the closed-list electoral regime gives its leadership a powerful lever for internal party discipline. Yet political challenges as well as institutional checks have complicated the exercise of authority for successive ANC governments.

In South Africa’s national elections, held every five years, voters cast their ballots for parties rather than for individual candidates. Votes translate directly into parliamentary seats (subject to rounding): Each National Assembly seat corresponds to 0.25 percent of votes cast, usually amounting to roughly forty-thousand votes. In a country with a total population of 59 million, any party with enough supporters to fill a medium-sized soccer stadium gets a parliamentary seat. Members of parliament (MPs) are drawn from ordered lists that parties submit before the election, and the lists are “closed,” meaning that voters have no direct say over which candidates from their preferred party make it to parliament. Each MP thus owes his or her seat to a party rather than to any particular constituency of voters.

Figure 1 below shows the ANC’s vote share compared to that of its closest competitor for each of South Africa’s six democratic national elections. Despite a recent downward trend, the ANC has consistently enjoyed a majority of between 58 and 70 percent. Under Mbeki, the party’s support climbed to a peak above two-thirds of the vote in 2004. It has declined steadily in each election since. Meanwhile, the opposition has been fragmented, with the largest opposition party never getting more than 22 percent of the vote. In the founding election of 1994, the National Party (NP), the party that instituted apartheid, received just 20 percent of the vote; after an attempt at rebranding, this party dissolved [End Page 7] in 2005. The Democratic Party (DP), which became the DA in 2000, was heir to the progressive-liberal tradition of opposition politics in the era of whites-only elections. From a starting point of less than 2 percent in 1994, its support grew more than tenfold over the next two decades. The party’s initial growth depended on attracting former NP supporters, but it has aggressively sought to build a multiracial constituency. While surveys consistently show that most white South Africans now vote for the DA, most DA voters are not white.


Source: Electoral Commission of South Africa, Note: NP = National Party; DP = Democratic Party; DA = Democratic Alliance. (The DP became the DA in 2000.)

Given South Africa’s system of indirect presidential elections, the ANC’s dependable parliamentary majority has also ensured that its candidate always prevails. South Africa’s president forms the “national executive” by appointing a deputy president and cabinet ministers, most of whom must be MPs. The constitution endows the president with ultimate executive authority (to be exercised in conjunction with the cabinet), but also gives parliament wide powers of oversight. These include the authority to summon members of the executive to appear or give evidence, the power of a simple majority of MPs to force the president and cabinet to resign through a vote of no confidence, and the power of a two-thirds majority to remove the president for “serious” legal infractions or misconduct.

Yet because of the way in which South Africa’s executive is formed, these seemingly formidable legislative checks on the executive tend to be much less robust in practice. The problem is that MPs owe their positions to their parties, and MPs elevated to the executive are typically [End Page 8] higher in the governing party’s internal pecking order than those who remain as rank-and-file MPs. This dynamic produces a top-down relationship between the executive and parliament, formal accountability mechanisms notwithstanding. One consequence is rigid party discipline in parliamentary votes, with the ANC’s majority serving as a rubber stamp for proposals put forward by the executive. Another consequence is that governing-party MPs generally show a profound reluctance to confront the executive, for reasons that become obvious in the exceptional times when they do. In 2010, for instance, the ANC chairperson of a parliamentary committee dared to give an ANC minister thirty days to turn over a confidential commission report. The party responded by removing the committee chairperson from his position, describing the chairperson’s ultimatum to the minister as verging on “ill-discipline.”3

Although South Africa’s constitutional setup inadvertently makes it difficult for the legislature to hold the executive accountable, it also enables the judiciary to act as a formidable check on the other two branches. The constitution’s provisions entrench the principle of constitutional supremacy and establish several independent institutions designed to strengthen constitutional democracy. The first of these, the Office of the Public Protector, is charged with protecting the public from impropriety in “any conduct in state affairs, or in the public administration in any sphere of government.” This office, which is authorized to investigate, report, and “take appropriate remedial action,” played a prominent role in combating state capture. The constitution also contains an expansive bill of rights that includes justiciable rights for all South Africans to the “progressive realization” of access to adequate housing, healthcare, food, and water. The scope of these protections gives opponents of many government policies recourse to the courts, and several high-profile judgments have struck down policies (for instance, the government’s refusal to provide a specific antiretroviral drug at public clinics) as violations of social and economic rights.4

One unplanned check on the executive has been a “lame-duck” problem rooted in factionalism within the ANC. Since 1997 the party has held its national elective conferences, at which it selects its leaders, on a five-year cycle. These conferences therefore take place roughly a year and a half before each national election. The successor to a final-term president is nominated at the party conference, which makes the incumbent a lame duck. This situation was an afterthought in 1997, when Mandela voluntarily declined a second term and endorsed Mbeki as his successor.

The scenario was very different in 2007, however, as Mbeki approached the end of his second term (the most he could constitutionally serve). Two years earlier Mbeki had “released” his deputy, Jacob Zuma, after Zuma was implicated in a court judgment related to corruption in a large government arms purchase. Zuma mobilized other disaffected [End Page 9] ANC members, contested the vote for the party presidency, and defeated Mbeki’s chosen successor. The result was an unexpected situation: “two centers of power,” with Mbeki as president of the country and Zuma as the president of the party. The Zuma-aligned party leadership in fact had the upper hand institutionally, because at any time it could orchestrate Mbeki’s removal by instructing ANC MPs to pass a vote of no-confidence.

Ironically, dysfunction within the governing party transformed parliament for a period into the kind of accountability mechanism envisioned in the constitution. Zuma and the rest of the party leadership used their leverage to convert the ANC’s parliamentary delegation into a vigilant watchdog, scrutinizing every move by Mbeki and his executive. Then, in September 2008, a court set aside the corruption charges against Zuma on the grounds that Mbeki had meddled in the timing of the prosecution.5

Mbeki’s announcement that he would appeal the judgment further incensed the Zuma-aligned ANC leadership, and the party’s executive committee passed a resolution “recalling” Mbeki from the presidency. Mbeki privately questioned the legality of his being removed from office by the ANC rather than Parliament, but he saw the writing on the wall and complied.6 Through Parliament the party installed Kgalema Motlanthe as caretaker president, and he served until Zuma was voted in following the next round of national elections. Less than a decade later, Zuma would himself feel the force of South Africa’s accountability mechanisms in the hands of a hostile party leadership.

Social and Economic Challenges

Democratic governance in postapartheid South Africa has involved grappling with complex social and economic legacies. Under apartheid (literally, “apartness”), enforced from the mid–twentieth century until the transition of the early 1990s, South Africans were classified into four population groups—black (African), coloured (mixed race), Asian or Indian, and white—and subjected to institutionalized discrimination that profoundly structured their life options. This discrimination had a strong spatial dimension, going back to early–twentieth-century land legislation that dispossessed Africans and reserved the bulk of the country’s arable land for whites. Under apartheid, many Africans were pushed into economically unviable rural “homelands,” while those working in cities were forced to live in designated areas often located on the urban periphery.

The democratic Constitution of 1996 nullified all remaining legal vestiges of apartheid in one fell swoop, affirming universal rights to human dignity and equal protection under the law. Yet the new democratic South Africa inherited deep inequalities, highly correlated with apartheid racial categories, that have taken much longer to address. As the [End Page 10] country approached its first democratic elections in 1994, it remained among the world’s most unequal societies. Poverty and deficits in basic services were most severe in the former rural homelands and in informal urban settlements populated by recent migrants from the South African countryside or immigrants from countries across Africa. To make matters worse, the South African economy was mired in a deep slump, with output per capita having declined to levels not seen since the mid-1960s.

To have a chance at denting the triple legacy of unemployment, poverty, and inequality, the South African economy needed to grow over several years at a rate at least several percentage points higher than the rate of population increase. The country did achieve positive economic growth per capita almost every year from 1994 until the 2008 global financial crisis, but growth rates lagged behind the global trend for other countries in South Africa’s upper–middle-income bracket. Growth also failed to substantially reduce the official unemployment rate, which declined only marginally (from 30 percent to 27 percent). Even these high numbers probably underestimate the problem, since they are based on international definitions that do not classify “discouraged workers” (people who have given up looking for work) as unemployed. South African labor statistics suggest that a more realistic definition which includes discouraged workers might easily yield unemployment numbers upward of 40 percent.

In policy areas more directly influenced by government spending, the record looks more positive. A key element of the ANC’s antipoverty strategy has been to expand the country’s network of social-welfare grants, and South Africa has done a good job of using means tests to target these to the neediest. The share of the population living under the poverty line ($5.50 per day in 2011 international prices) has fallen from 71 percent in 1996 to 57 percent as of 2014.7 Living conditions among the poor have also been improved by expanding access to electricity, water, and sanitation and by building and subsidizing low-income housing. Between 1996 and 2018, the share of households living in formal dwellings increased from 58 to 72 percent, the share of households with electricity in their dwelling rose from 57 to 87 percent, and the share of households with piped water inside or on site grew from 60 to 75 percent.8 Violent protests have erupted in many areas where residents are dissatisfied with the pace and quality of basic-service provision, but the evidence points to overall improvements.

Narrow measures of income inequality suggest that South Africa remains roughly as unequal as ever. In light of the country’s slow growth and high unemployment rate, this is not entirely surprising. Yet the formal deracialization of citizenship, along with policies promoting employment equity and black economic empowerment, have created some space for upward social mobility among South Africans from previously excluded groups, particularly those who have managed to get a good [End Page 11] education. As a result, inequalities across racial categories are gradually decreasing. This decrease, however, is being almost fully offset by increases in within-category inequalities, particularly among black South Africans. These trends are producing a middle class that is increasingly diverse in terms of race, estimated as of 2014 to be 50 percent black, 21 percent coloured and Indian or Asian, and 28 percent white. The lower classes, which account for three-quarters of the population, remain almost exclusively black and coloured.9

The onset of the 2008 global financial crisis dealt South Africa an additional shock in the months preceding Zuma’s presidency. When Zuma was inaugurated in May 2009, the country was in the midst of the most severe recession it had experienced since becoming a democracy, with output per capita shrinking by nearly 3 percent during the year. Growth bounced back into positive territory in 2010, boosted by construction spending and tourism revenue linked to the country’s hosting of that year’s FIFA World Cup. For the rest of Zuma’s presidency, per capita growth trended close to zero, nearly 4 percent lower than the global average for upper–middle-income countries. While no president can be held fully responsible for a country’s poor economic performance, this dismal record cannot be understood without considering the consequences of state capture.

Stress-Testing Democracy

Although the term “state capture” only gained currency well into his second term, Zuma was no stranger to corruption allegations. The charges that had been dropped in 2008 were reinstated on appeal a few months later, and Zuma was perhaps the first politician in the world to be elected president with 783 counts of fraud and corruption already hanging over his head. Then, early in his first term, journalists discovered that public funds were being used to pay for lavish upgrades to his personal estate in Nkandla, a town in rural KwaZulu-Natal (Zuma’s eastern home province). Petitioners including an MP for the opposition DA lodged complaints with Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, and in 2014 Madonsela issued a report finding that over $20 million had been spent—little of it justified by the “security considerations” invoked by various officials. As a remedy, she ordered the president to reimburse a “reasonable percentage” of the cost of nonsecurity improvements to his property.10

When a second major scandal hit the news, South Africans got their first glimpse of a far more systematic abuse of public resources. The scandal centered on Zuma’s closeness to the Gupta brothers, politically connected businessmen who were scooping up contract after contract from the government and SOEs. Rumors abounded that the president had even outsourced his responsibility to select ministers and SOE directors [End Page 12] to the Guptas. After once again receiving complaints, this time including one from DA leader Mmusi Maimane, Madonsela launched a fresh investigation. Her October 2016 report was damning but not fully conclusive, due to limited resources and the end of her term of office. In her main proposal for remedial action, she called for the president to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry, largely to probe his own conduct.11 Zuma predictably dragged his feet. But in mid-2017 the case was blown open when two anonymous whistleblowers, apparently with inside access, leaked “a few hundred gigabytes” of emails and documents from the Guptas’ server.12

Revelations from the so-called GuptaLeaks made it clear that the illicit network that had taken shape under Zuma was more than just an energetic corruption ring. In addition to colluding to divert public resources, those involved were systematically subverting the accountability mechanisms intended to prevent such malfeasance. The modus operandi was first to identify strategic positions in public institutions, then to replace competent professionals with pliable loyalists, and finally to reap the benefits as appointees abused their gatekeeping powers to facilitate corrupt transactions between the state and private business interests.

A wide range of institutions, including cabinet ministries, law-enforcement agencies, the national revenue service, and the boards of SOEs, were infiltrated in this manner. When a respected finance minister rejected a proposal for a massive nuclear-energy project (a Gupta-controlled company had recently bought a uranium mine), Zuma replaced him with an obscure backbencher—a former small-town mayor best known for having his house burnt down by disgruntled residents. After the ANC leadership forced Zuma to reverse this decision, he turned his attention to attacking the independence of the central bank, whose aggressive crackdown on money laundering was prompting South African banks to close the accounts of Gupta-controlled companies.

State capture did significant damage to the South African economy. Particularly dire repercussions have flowed from the failure of the state-owned electricity utility, Eskom, which was at the center of several corruption scandals involving contracts for coal supply and power-plant construction. Mismanagement has led to chronic shortfalls in generating capacity as well as to short-term disruptions of coal supply, and Eskom was forced to resort to “load-shedding” (rolling blackouts to prevent a collapse of the national electricity grid) in 2014–15 and again in 2018–19. The South African central bank noted that by 2019 the country had less generating capacity than it did ten years earlier, despite massive investment of public funds—a situation the bank attributed to state capture. The bank estimated that if load-shedding continued through 2019, it would cost the country about 1 percentage point in forgone economic growth, even before considering the longer-term impact on private investment and government finances.13 Meanwhile, plausible estimates of [End Page 13] the direct cost of state capture during Zuma’s second term put the four-year price tag at more than $100 billion, or about four months’ worth of South Africa’s estimated 2018 GDP.14

With the public increasingly aware of state capture and feeling the brunt of its economic impact, resistance spread across several fronts—including Parliament, the judiciary, and the ballot box. The key decisions that finally led to Zuma’s removal from office, more than a year before the end of his term, came from within the ANC.

Parliament provided opportunities for opposition parties to challenge Zuma’s leadership. From early in his second term, it became difficult for the president to appear in the chamber without being ridiculed and disrupted. During his 2015 State of the Nation address, for instance, Malema and the EFF interrupted repeatedly with chants of “pay back the money,” referring to the public protector’s Nkandla report. They were ejected forcibly from the chamber by security staff. The disparate opposition parties also joined forces several times to try to remove Zuma through no-confidence votes. Most of these were futile given the ANC’s majority. The final one, in August 2017, was different. Opposition parties went to court to demand a secret ballot, hoping that some ANC MPs would join the opposition to vote Zuma out. The court confirmed only that the ANC speaker of Parliament had the discretion to allow a secret ballot, which the speaker then unexpectedly chose to exercise. The motion of no confidence failed by a thin margin of 198 to 177, meaning that more than a tenth of ANC MPs must have supported it.

The judicial branch was also crucial to holding Zuma accountable. Probably the most important judgement was a unanimous March 2016 decision by the Constitutional Court confirming that the public protector’s proposals for remedial actions are legally binding. (The case was initiated by the DA and the EFF to challenge the lack of action with respect to the Nkandla report by the ANC-controlled executive and Parliament.) Though Zuma appealed many judgments against him in order to delay having to act on them, these appeals were rarely successful.

Ordinary voters got to impose their own form of accountability during the 2016 municipal elections, in which South Africans took out their frustrations on the ANC. The party lost a string of major cities to DA-EFF coalitions, including Johannesburg (the country’s economic hub), Pretoria (its administrative capital), and Port Elizabeth (the largest city in the Eastern Cape, the ANC’s historical heartland). The DA also strengthened its majority hold on Cape Town (the country’s legislative capital). The collapse of ANC control in so many cities highlighted growing discontent with Zuma among the party’s urban supporters. Zuma’s popularity was plummeting almost as fast in rural areas. Among the many municipalities the ANC lost in 2016 was the president’s own hometown, Nkandla.

The steep plunge in Zuma’s approval shows up clearly in Figure 2. [End Page 14]

The data are from three Afrobarometer surveys, conducted in 2011 (during the first half of Zuma’s first term), in 2015 (during the first half of his second term), and in 2018 (about six months after he left office). The net-approval rates are the difference between the percentage of respondents who approve of the president’s performance and the percentage who disapprove. Zuma was still enjoying an impressive “honeymoon” in 2011, with approval exceeding disapproval by 42 percentage points among rural dwellers and by 28 points among urban dwellers. By 2015 his net approval had turned negative for both groups, and considerably so in urban areas. By 2018 the tables had turned completely, with disapproval among rural and urban dwellers exceeding approval by 35 and 55 points respectively.


Source: Afrobarometer Round 5 (2011) and Round 5 Update (2015 and 2018). Note: Net Approval (%) shows the difference between the percentage who approve of the president’s performance and the percentage who disapprove.

Zuma’s downfall began at the ANC’s December 2017 national elective conference. He was ineligible for reelection as party president, and the leading contenders for the office were Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former chairperson of the African Union Commission and Zuma’s ex-wife. Ramaphosa was clearly the candidate of change, while Dlamini-Zuma was seen as the more respectable face of her exhusband’s faction. The race was extremely close. Political maneuvers [End Page 15] by David Mabuza, the premier and ANC chairperson of northeastern Mpumalanga Province, proved key in producing a “unity” slate: Ramaphosa for president, but with substantial representation of the Zuma camp in the party leadership.

Ramaphosa took control of the party, albeit with a small majority in the national executive committee, while Zuma continued to run the government. Demands from within the ANC to recall Zuma mounted. Many believed Ramaphosa should be installed as president in time to give the February 2018 state of the nation address and kick off a campaign to clean up the ANC’s image in advance of the 2019 election.15 Zuma, under pressure within his own party and having lost yet another appeal, finally appointed the commission on state capture proposed by the public protector. This did not buy him much time. He resigned under duress a few weeks later, on 14 February 2018.

Challenges of the “New Dawn”

Ramaphosa ascended to the presidency with broad public support but tenuous control over his own party. His main challenge has been to root out networks of state capture without exposing himself to rearguard action by the Zuma-aligned figures who secured leadership positions at the 2017 ANC conference. His strategy has been to rely on independent commissions and legal processes to remove those implicated, thereby avoiding anything that could be portrayed as a factional purge. He made enough progress to earn a modest mandate in the 2019 election, though developments since the vote show that he still has a long way to go to usher in his promised new dawn either for the ANC or for the country as a whole.

Ramaphosa began tackling entrenched malgovernance soon after winning the party-leadership contest. Even before his inauguration as president, he announced a new board of directors for Eskom, which he instructed to remove all executives facing allegations of serious corruption. He also appointed commissions of inquiry into tax administration and into the national prosecuting authority. These commissions recommended the removal of three top officials, whom Ramaphosa duly dismissed. Meanwhile, the commission on state capture formed in the final weeks of the Zuma presidency began holding televised public hearings in August 2018; these produced serious and credible allegations against the powerful while turning whistleblowers into household names.16 Ramaphosa gave the government’s efforts in this area sharper teeth by establishing a special unit within the national prosecuting authority to specialize in corruption-related crimes.

As the 2019 election approached, Ramaphosa’s progress and prospects in tackling state capture were central to every major party’s campaign. The opposition argued that Ramaphosa’s emphasis on due [End Page 16] process showed that he was too weak and indecisive to tackle criminal elements in his own party. Using a recurring campaign metaphor to refer to Ramaphosa and the ANC, the DA’s presidential candidate Mmusi Maimane argued, “South Africa does not need a new driver. We need a new bus.”17 Yet the opposition parties, previously able to gain easy popularity by attacking their common enemy, clearly faced a tougher contest against Zuma’s far more popular successor. The centrist DA, to the ANC’s right, and the EFF, to the ANC’s left, had jointly led the charge against Zuma in Parliament and had formed minority coalitions against the ANC in several municipalities. Without Zuma, opposition voters’ conflicting interests, shaped by differences in race and class, became more politically salient.

The election result gave Ramaphosa and his “new dawn” a clear but modest mandate. The party retained majority control of the eight provincial legislatures it previously held (with the DA retaining its majority in the Western Cape). In the crucial province of Gauteng, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, it held onto its majority by a mere eight-thousand votes out of 4.3 million cast. The ANC’s vote share also fell in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the party may have faced a backlash over his unceremonious removal. The election outcome signals public support for Ramaphosa’s leadership but dispels illusions that voters are ready to forgive and forget the ANC’s transgressions.

The 2019 election’s biggest shortcoming was its turnout, which was the lowest of any national election in the country’s democratic history. Fewer than two-thirds of South Africa’s 27.8 million registered voters came to cast their ballots, a significant drop from 2014. As a share of the total voting-age population, turnout was a mere 47 percent. One likely reason for the decline in participation was populist cynicism about politics, a sentiment that has been on the rise worldwide in recent years. In a nineteen-country survey, South Africa came in second (just behind Brazil) in the prevalence of populist attitudes, with 39 percent agreeing both that “my country is divided between ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them” and that “the will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics.”18 The two parties whose support grew most between the 2014 and 2019 national elections tapped into this populist sentiment, if from opposite ends of the political spectrum. The EFF, with its manifesto of “our land and jobs now,” consolidated its position as a significant contender on the populist left. Meanwhile on the right, the vote share of the Freedom Front Plus, a party with white Afrikaner-nationalist origins that is opposed to affirmative action and land expropriation without compensation, grew from less than 1 to almost 2.5 percent.

In taking stock of the first quarter-century of democracy in South Africa, a narrowly electoralist perspective might lead us to focus primarily on the ebbs and flows of the ANC’s dominance at the ballot [End Page 17] box. Since its transition, South Africa has held peaceful, free, and fair elections—but if its democracy were assessed purely on the criteria of electoral competitiveness and turnover emphasized by Schumpeter and Huntington, the country would not score particularly well. Yet while the importance of free and open electoral contestation should not be discounted, South Africa’s democracy has faced a much tougher test in resisting the scourge of state capture. Even long-established democracies face an existential threat when top officeholders seek systematically to undermine the institutions of accountability designed to keep them in check. The key battles against state capture were fought by a range of actors across a variety of institutions, many of which would be obscured by a narrow focus on voters and ballots.

The “new dawn” promised by Ramaphosa and the ANC is by no means guaranteed by the 2019 election results. The damage inflicted by state capture goes beyond the value of the public resources stolen. It also includes squandered opportunities to address South Africa’s deep social and economic challenges, not to mention the erosion of trust in democracy and the state. The struggle to undo state capture still faces considerable opposition from vested interests within the governing party and in the broader society. Citizens are wary and have demonstrated their distrust by staying away from the polls or entertaining populist quick fixes. Moreover, tackling South Africa’s legacy of racialized poverty and inequality remains a daunting task. But having used the weapons of democracy to resist state capture, the country faces a much brighter future now than it did a few short years ago. [End Page 18]



1. A second house of Parliament, the National Council of Provinces, has limited scope, restricted mainly to national legislation pertaining to provincial governance. For simplicity we use “Parliament” to refer specifically to the main house of Parliament, the National Assembly.

2. The electoral commission’s website has detailed results:

3. “ANC’s Booi Replaced After Tension with Minister,” Mail and Guardian, 18 November 2010,

4. Rod Alence, “South Africa After Apartheid: The First Decade,” Journal of Democracy 15 (July 2004): 87–89.

5. See Jonathan Klaaren and Theunis Roux, “The Nicholson Judgment: An Exercise in Law and Politics,” Journal of African Law 54 (April 2010): 143–55.

6. For a detailed account by Mbeki’s chief of staff at the time, see Frank Chikane, Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki (Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2012). Rod Alence and Anne Pitcher 19

7. World Bank, World Development Indicators (July 2019 release),

8. Data for 1996 are from the national census, as reported in Statistics South Africa, Primary Tables South Africa: Census ’96 and 2001 Compared, Report 03-02-04 (Pretoria, 2001),, 79, 83, 88; data for 2018 are from Statistics South Africa, General Household Survey, 2018, Statistical Release P0318 (Pretoria, 2019),, 138, 163, 142.

9. World Bank, National Planning Commission of the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, and Statistics South Africa, Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: An Assessment of Drivers, Constraints, and Opportunities (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2018), 39. Social classes are defined using a dynamic model of poverty transitions. The “middle class” maps onto percentiles 77 to 96.

10. Public Protector South Africa, Secure in Comfort, Report 25 of 2013/2014 (March 2014).

11. Public Protector South Africa, State of Capture, Report 6 of 2016/2017 (October 2016).

12. Stefaans Brümmer, Sam Sole, and Branko Brkic, “The #GuptaLeaks Revealed,” Daily Maverick, 1 June 2017,

13. South African Reserve Bank, Monetary Policy Review, April 2019 (Pretoria: South African Reserve Bank, 2019),, 4, 6–7, and 27.

14. Marianne Merten, “State Capture Wipes Out a Third of SA’s R4.9 Trillion GDP—Never Mind Lost Trust, Confidence, Opportunity,” Daily Maverick, 1 March 2019, The figure includes the effects on the value of assets held by South Africans.

15. The constitution does not count a partial term against the two-term limit for the presidency, meaning that Ramaphosa could run in 2019 and still be eligible to run for reelection in 2024.

16. An archive of transcripts and videos of every public hearing (numbering 156 as of September 2019) is available on the commission’s website:

17. Mmusi Maimane, “South Africa Doesn’t Need a Different Driver. We Need a New Bus,” alternative State of the Nation address, Bokamoso, 6 February 2019,

18. The survey was conducted as part of the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project. The findings reported are from Matthew Smith, “Brazilians and South Africans Most Likely to Hold Populist Views,” 3 May 2019,


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