South Africa’s recent general election has bucked the international trend towards populism by consolidating its democracy at the political centre. The ruling African National Congress, led by the popular centrist, Cyril Ramaphosa, has maintained its outright majority by committing to the reform and cleaning up of the party and state.
South Africa went to the polls on May 8th to elect its sixth democratic government. Due to poor economic growth, extensive corruption and infighting in the governing African National Congress (ANC), this election had been billed to be the most consequential since the end of Apartheid, in 1994. Except for minor issues at polling stations and technical questions regarding the balloting system, South Africa’s peaceful and orderly ’s electoral process has ensured further democratic consolidation, proving itself as a bastion for free and fair elections on the continent.
With 57.5% of the national vote, the ANC has maintained its governing majority. The official opposition remains the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), with 20.7%. Completing the Big Three is the leftwing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who attained 10.8% of the vote. Eleven smaller parties captured enough votes to secure one or more seats in the sixth National Assembly. An assessment of the results illustrates several significant impressions.
The fringe fails to factor
While democracies around the world have moved to the fringes, South Africa appears to be maturing towards the middle. Though the centre-left ANC and centre-right DA shed the same number of seats gained by the leftwing EFF and rightwing Freedom Front Plus (FF+), 19 and five respectively, the threat of further splintering to an array of radical fringe parties did not materialize. None of these parties, including Black First, Land First which rejects white membership and the National Front which advances a white secessionist state, achieved traction among the electorate. Neither received a singular seat in Parliament.
The FF+ and EFF may appear to be the election’s big winners, but this analysis is superficial. The FF+ has simply captured a quadrant of the persistently mobile white conservative vote. Unlike the DA which has failed to support this group, the FF+ has offered it an unabashed home. The EFF almost doubled the bounty of its first electoral outing in 2014. It did, however, fail to make the kind of inroads it hoped for and was expected to receive. The party which calls itself the government in waiting, whose leader is referred to as the commander in chief, which dominates local social media optics, and which attracts a significant sector of the young black vote, may fill a football stadium with jubilant supporters at a pre-election rally. It could however not perform on the day that mattered. The ambitious EFF was seeking to capture a greater chunk of the ANC’s vote, thereby taking South African politics and economics further toward the radical left. Its failure to secure more votes at a time that the ANC was particularly weak points to an electorate with little appetite for populist radicalism. The EFF, with its politically astute and ambitious leadership will now be compelled to tone down its agitation and provide practical policy alternatives. It will have to move towards the middle if its goal of power is to be realised.
The centre holds
The losses of both the ANC and DA will demand introspection and clear future strategies. The DA faces an inflection point. The party which has traditionally received the overwhelming support of minority groups has actively been seeking to break this threshold by courting the majority black support. Its poor performance suggests that not only did it fail to make inroads in this sector; its attempt to reach across the aisle resulted in its traditional support feeling alienated. Furthermore, it was unable to consolidate an approach to foil the popular Cyril Ramaphosa. The DA’s 6% growth in 2014, largely taken from the ANC, was received for its campaign to Stop Zuma! – a tactic to oppose disgraced and maligned presidential incumbent, Jacob Zuma. This time around there was no boogie man to blame, leaving the DA with more questions than answers as to its future political approach and ideology. As a traditional, Western liberal party, the DA appears out of touch with South Africa’s broader socio-economic reality. 2019 may very well be the last time that the DA emerges as the official opposition.
While the ANC achieved its worst electoral result since 1994, shedding 5% from its 2014 showing, it nevertheless maintained its outright majority. It also maintained all the provinces where it governed previously. The ANC’s powerful mandate is largely thanks to President Ramaphosa’s clean image and his commitment to reform. Ramaphosa, whose popularity exceeds that of his party, replaced Zuma in a narrow victory at the party’s elective conference in late 2017. Ramaphosa, a trade unionist cum billionaire businessman who was Nelson Mandela’s preferred successor, has been the face of the ANC’s electoral drive. Contrary to the traditional advance of a manifesto, the ANC’s campaign has been centred on Ramaphosa. His accession to power indicates the commencement of reform and cleaning up, from the top.
While the ANC’s promise of renewal seems to have satisfied those deciding to cast their ballots, a significant sector of the 55 million population simply stayed away. More than nine million eligible voters did not register to vote. Another nine million registered voters did not make their cross, and more than a quarter of a million voters decided to spoil their vote. These numbers point to a frustrated populace that is tired of the cycle of politics wherein the ANC rules with impunity. Significantly, there was a clear division in voter turnout in urban and suburban districts compared to informal and rural dwellings. The former, the traditional terrain of the opposition, observed an enormous voter turnout (more than 90% of registered voters), the latter, the heartland of the ANC, experienced a considerable stay-away. While the failures of the state are collectively placed at the ANC’s door, so too are its successes. The millions of poor South Africans receiving state subsidies are clearly unwilling to trade what they have for the speculative promises of populism. Simply, 17 million subsidy beneficiaries see the ANC as the state and vice versa.
Going forward from the elections
The appearance that President Ramaphosa is now comfortably in power is, however, an illusion. Though he was able to mobilise the electorate and achieved a comfortable mandate, Ramaphosa’s greatest task was always going to commence once the elections are over. His challenges are internal to his party. He needs to effectively deal with a splintered party wherein a contingent of allies of the former president remain in senior positions. Ramaphosa will have to act swiftly to neutralise this powerful group and prove to the electorate and the markets that he can implement his promises. His first move will have to be to assemble a clean and competent cabinet that is able enact his reformist policies. Before the elections, Ramaphosa tactically delegated power to institutions that have laboured under poor and often corrupt leadership. He will have to lead from the front; he will have to act. He must capitalise on the positive sentiment across civil society and business to work together towards overcoming the perilous situation under Zuma.
Africa becomes area of global competition
The widespread view of Africa as one huge problem point on the planet’s body characterized by pandemics, hunger, poverty and wars – the so-called “Afropessimism” – has now been replaced with an approach which was launched by global powers as they compete for economic and political presence on the continent. After a lull, Russia has joined the race as well.
According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “African states are steadily gaining political and economic weight, asserting themselves as major pillars of the global multi-polar system and enjoying ever more say in making decisions on the most critical issues of the regional and global agenda.” Significantly, Africa accounts for about one third of the votes in the UN.
After Russia made an impressive “comeback” in the Middle East, Moscow became attractive for states seeking alternatives to the old political and economic ties. The first African country to do that was the war-torn Central African Republic, and the next to follow was Sudan, a country facing a similar challenge. Then more countries did the same. At present, more than 30 African countries have reached agreements with Russia which envisage the development of geo-resources, the supply of produce of the military-industrial complex, and the training of army personnel and law enforcement forces. Among the most significant contractors are Algeria, Egypt, Angola, Uganda and Nigeria.
The consistent and rarely publicized efforts of the Russian diplomacy resulted in the first Russia-Africa summit, which was held in Sochi on October 23-24. The day earlier, the Russian-African Economic Forum opened in Sochi too. Of the 62 African legal entities officially recognized by the UN, the Russian forum was attended by heads of state of 43 countries while another 11 participated at minister and ambassador level. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi represented both Egypt and the African Union.
During the Sochi forum, Russia and African countries signed more than 500 agreements worth about 800 billion rubles. Considering the low solvency of African partners, the participants came to agreement to set up a $ 5 billion trade support fund. The success of the forum prompted the decision to hold it regularly, every two years.
China seems to be Russia’s top economic competitor on the Black Continent. Beijing offers African countries big but easy loans and builds social infrastructure facilities on a gratuitous basis. China attaches great importance to “soft power” by promoting cultural and scientific contacts in an attempt to form loyal national elites. Every year thousands of Africans are granted scholarships to study at Chinese universities. As a result, ten years ago, China snatched from the United States its leadership as Africa’s trade and economic partner thereby becoming one of the major investors and donors to African countries.
Since the beginning of the century, the China-Africa Cooperation Forum has been held regularly, with nearly four dozen African countries joining the One Belt One Road mega-project.
And finally, (as investments have to be protected) in 2017, a Chinese military base appeared in Djibouti, the first beyond the bounds of the PRC.
Simultaneously, Africa’s growing dependence on Chinese financing may become one of Russia’s competitive advantages as the continent starts to look for alternative partners.
The United States has unintentionally been contributing to this, by criticizing the policies of Moscow and Beijing in Africa. Washington has become seriously concerned with measures to repulse the “expansion” of China and Russia. In December 2018, the Trump administration presented a new strategy for Africa, or in fact, a plan to counteract the activity of Russia and China on the continent. There have been numerous official statements to this effect. “These countries are expanding their financial and political influence to Africa by applying “aggressive” practices and acting for their own benefit, which poses a threat to US national security,” – the then adviser to the American president, John Bolton, said, as he unveiled the program. It turns out that the United States is acting in Africa to the detriment of its own interests?
China bore the brunt of criticism. Bolton, as usual, lashed at Beijing for many things, but above all, for using loans to enslave the Black Continent. Last summer, during the US-Africa business summit in Maputo, the United States launched the Prosperous Africa Economic Program. The Program’s ultimate goal is the same – to contain the growing influence of Russia and China by expanding trade with countries of the continent, by promoting American technology and by boosting assistance in the anti-terrorism campaign. According to Bolton, the new approaches will allow African countries “to remain independent in reality, not in theory”. But for the rhetoric, there is little new in the American approach.
Europe boasts traditionally strong positions on the African continent. After they gained independence, the authorities in many former French colonies’ capitals installed monuments to Charles de Gaulle. African countries are interested in cooperating with the European Union in three interrelated areas: peacekeeping, which is so critical for the Black Continent, receiving economic and humanitarian aid, and assistance in the anti-epidemic effort.
In turn, the EU is more set on measures to thwart illegal migration from the African continent, which is its top priority for now. Simultaneously, the EU is trying to be realistic about the economic and political potential of African partners. As far back as in April 2000, Cairo hosted the first EU-Africa summit, attended by heads of state and government. Seven years later, the Strategic Partnership Agreement for Trade and Democracy was signed in Lisbon, designed to boost economic and political ties and calling for “genuine cooperation” and partner equality.
Nevertheless, the number of Europeans present on the continent has been dwindling. Even the French who until recently affected the political situation in Francophone Africa have become fewer in number. According to the authoritative French weekly Le Point, Paris “is losing ground here,” and should thus “come to its senses”, as its influence and economic weight on the continent are steadily declining.
Incidentally, Ankara embarked on cooperation with the continent years ago. The first summit on Turkey’s cooperation with African countries (mainly Muslim) was held in 2008. This year the third summit took place. Since 2010, the government has been following the so-called “African Strategy.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry has proudly reported on its website that the two parties have been demonstrating mutual interest in bilateral ties, which becomes clear from the following figures: while in 2009 there were only 12 Turkish representative missions on the Black Continent, today their number totals 39. And African countries have increased the number of their diplomatic missions in Ankara threefold – from 10 to 33 – over the same period.
Speaking of the prospects for cooperation between Russia and Africa, we can say first of all that Russia is one of the top ten exporters of food products to African markets. Secondly, Moscow is one of the major suppliers of military produce to the continent – the value of military contracts in 2019 is expected to exceed $ 4 billion. Thirdly, local consumers are quite satisfied with the price-quality ratio of many Russian-made products. And the contractors can pay for these goods: Africa accounts for up to one third of the developed mineral reserves, and given that surveys were not always carried out at the appropriate level and did not cover all resources-rich areas, there are more. So, the fourth area of Russia-Africa cooperation is geological prospecting work.
Addressing the Sochi forum, President Putin made it clear to African guests that Russia had no intention to repeat the mistakes of the USSR, which was determined to multiply the number of political pseudo-allies at the expense of economic feasibility. The United States and the EU have also reiterated the mutually beneficial nature of trade and economic relations. Moreover, all actors regularly write off Africa’s debts, and Moscow is no exception.
And finally, it is necessary to point out that Western countries invariably make this cooperation conditional on the “right”, from their point of view, foreign and domestic policies of their contractors. Russia has a clear edge here as it does not seek to force its opinion on anyone, be it Europe or the African continent.
From our partner International Affairs
Moscow’s Institute for African Studies Marks its 60th Year
The Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded 60 years ago, precisely in 1959. Since then it has undergone various changes and carried out huge scientific research on Africa.
Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, the deputy director, discusses some aspects of its most current achievements, challenges and the future. Here are excerpts from the interview conducted by Kester Kenn Klomegah:
Institute for African Studies marks its 60th year. Can we look at its performance, at least, during the past five years? What are the landmarked activities during the past half a decade?
The 60th anniversary is a good reason for looking both back at the results to date and ahead. If I could speak further about the achievements of the most recent years, I would mention first and formost, we try our best to organize fieldwork in Africa, although we are limited in our possibilities rather rigidly.
The landmark activities during the last five years in the academic sphere are as follows: the 13th and 14th conferences of Africanists (2014, 2017) – this is the Institute’s “brand conference”. Every time, it brings together about 500 participants from all over the world, including many African countries. The next, 15th, conference will take place in May 2020; 48 panels with about 10 presentations in each are included into its preliminary program.
In the last five years, several important conferences were organized together with foreign partners – from Slovenia, Portugal and, what is especially important, from Tanzania. The conference took place in Dar es Salaam in March 2019 and brought together scholars from 13 states. The next conference in Tanzania is scheduled for November 2020.
Several dozen books have been published in the last five years, among probably the most important of which are: Federalism in Africa: Problems and Prospects (in Russian and English), edited by Igho O. Natufe and Khristina M. Turyinskaya (2015), Tropical Africa: Evolution of Political Leadership (in Russian) by Tatiana S. Denisova (2016), Islam, Global Governance and the New World Order (in Russian) by Leonid L. Fituni and Irina O. Abramova (2018).
Assess the importance of its research, in form of consultancy, for government institutions and private both in Russia and Africa?
This importance is definitely growing, especially in the most recent years. State institutions and business companies seek the Institute’s consultancy services more and more often nowadays. In particular, the Institute played an important role in the preparation of the Russia-Africa summit in October 2019.
As we are a research institution, my firm belief is that just academic research should be our primary task. The situation has been changing during the last few years. Today the importance of Africa for Russia in different respects, including political and economic, is recognized by the state, and the Russian Foreign Ministry and other state institutions dealing with the Russian-African relations in various spheres, not just purely political, ask us for our expert advice on different points quite often.
What are the current challenges and hindrances to research Africa these years? Do you have any suggestions here on how to improvement the situation?
The situation now is much better for African studies than for a long time before. In particular, today there are much more opportunities for doing fieldwork in Africa. Russian Africanists and their work are becoming better known in the global Africanist community. Quite a lot of junior researchers join the academy nowadays. In my assessment, African studies in Russia are on the right road.
The challenges our African Studies are facing now are the same as the whole Russian Academy are facing, and they are mainly related to the bureaucratic pressure on research institutions.
How about academic cooperation with similar institutions inside Africa? Do you exchange researchers and share reports with African colleagues?
At the moment, the Institute has Agreements on Cooperation or Memorandums of Understanding with 18 universities and research institutes from 12 African states and currently there are negotiations with two more institutions from one more country.
As noted above, many African scholars come to our conferences, and we had and will have jointly organized conferences with particularly Tanzanian partners. Our partners help organize the Institute researchers’ fieldwork in their countries the outcome of which, besides other points, are joint publications (for example, with our colleagues from Tanzania and Zambia).
It is important to say that African colleagues regularly publish their articles in “The Journal of the Institute for African Studies”. We also have book exchange programs with some of our African partners. However, we do not have well-established exchange of researchers with our African partners, especially because of financial difficulties from both sides.
Besides, I must say that not all African partners, even those with whom we have official Memorandums of Understanding or Agreements on Cooperation, are really active in supporting ties with us, some of them do not initiate any joint projects and remain passive when we propose something. Nevertheless, we do have good and diversified ties with many African partners.
And the future vision for the IAS? How would you like the IAS transform, or say, diversify its activities especially now the Kremlin prioritizes Africa?
As I see it, the Institute’s forseeable future will be based on two main developments. On the one hand, it will more and more become a “think tank” for the state and business, and most probably, this development will dominate.
On the other hand, I hope the Institute will remain as a research institution where fundamental studies into different aspects of African and African diaspora’s past and present are done. The Institute for African Studies has the potential and capacity for combining both trends at a high level and far into the future.
As it becomes clearer from the discussion, I see the prospects for the Institute’s further development, in attracting more young researchers with their energy and new visions and approaches, in extending fieldwork in Africa, and in broadening international cooperation with Africanists worldwide.
We Should Exempt Africa from the Russia–UK Geopolitical Confrontation
Today neither Russia nor the United Kingdom can claim a leadership role in Africa. London reached the peak of its influence here between World War I and World War II, when the British Empire had a larger part of the continent under its direct control. Moscow’s heyday in Africa goes back to the 1960s – 1970s, with the Soviet Union having played the role of the main overseas supporter of various national liberation movements. The odds are that in the XXI Century African countries’ destinies will depend more on the logic of the emerging US – China global competition than on any decisions taken in the Kremlin or at Downing Street, 10.
Moreover, today both Russia and the UK have limited economic, political and strategic interests in Africa, compared to some other parts of the world — e.g. Europe or the Middle East. Arguably, this is the main reason why Africa does not look as toxic for Russia–UK relations as some other regions do. However, we cannot rule out potential clashes between the two powers in various present or future crises and conflicts in Africa. We should avoid underestimating the likely benefits of Russia–UK cooperation, even if it remains quite limited.
Many current trends suggest the role of Africa in the international system will continue to grow over time — both in terms of global challenges that the continent is likely to generate and in terms of global opportunities that it is going to offer. If everybody’s attention seems to be focused on the Middle East today, tomorrow it might well shift to Africa. Russian and UK stakes on the continent are likely to grow, while the price of an uncontrolled confrontation is expected to increase.
Moscow and London have to start working on how to contain risks and cut costs of this confrontation. Ideally — on how to exempt Africa from their geopolitical confrontation altogether. The first important step might be to try to agree on an appropriate ‘code of conduct’ on the continent, which could be applied not only to Russia and the United Kingdom, but also to external players in general. Africa may well be an ideal place to test new ideas about such controversial notions as responsibility to protect, failed state, hybrid war or regime change. London and Moscow are more likely to reach an agreement on many African crises than on more sensitive matters like Ukraine or Syria. At the same time, with an understanding on ‘rules of engagement’ in Africa in hand, it would be easier to approach highly divisive cases in Europe or in the Middle East.
Another area for potential Russia–UK collaboration or, at least, for coordination in Africa could be the area of ‘African commons’. The continent is in desperate need of essential public goods, the demand for them is huge and our two nations could do better avoiding old-fashioned competition and increasing the efficiency of their respective assistance projects in Africa. Take, for instance, the domain of general and higher education and human capital development in Africa, where both the UK and Russia have considerable experience and overlapping comparative advantages. Another area for potential cooperation is public health, which will require substantial investment, as well as personnel training and emergency management. Joint projects in infrastructure development, including private-public partnerships, constitute yet another opportunity.
In the security domain, Russia and the United Kingdom could explore options for more intense interaction in fighting international terrorism coming from Africa or targeting African countries. At the same time, Moscow and London could consider enhancing their respective roles in the UN led peacekeeping operations in Africa and demonstrating more appetite for consorted votes within the UN Security Council. They can work together in fighting piracy in the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Guinea, and so on.
It is evident that any Russia–UK interaction in Africa or about Africa cannot and will not be completely separated from the rest of their bilateral relations. If we fail to settle the core problems dividing Moscow and London today, this divisive agenda will continue to limit opportunities for cooperation in Africa as well. However, the Africa of today and especially the Africa of tomorrow will be too important for the world at large to approach it only as an extension of the ongoing Russia–UK confrontation. It is one of the most apparent cases, in which an exemption would not be a manifestation of weakness or cynicism, but rather a demonstration of political wisdom and a strategic foresight.
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