Who will rule? The significance of South Africa’s upcoming election

Adriaan Basson, Editor-in-chief, News24
15th May 2024
13:00 - 14:00

The speaker 

Adriaan Basson is editor-in-chief of News24 and the author of four books on corruption and current affairs. He is the recipient of multiple awards for investigative journalism, including the CNN African Journalist of the Year for news and the Taco Kuiper award.

As an investigative journalist on the Mail & Guardian, Basson was a founding member of the centre for investigative journalism amaBhungane, before moving to City Press as assistant editor. In 2013, he became editor of Beeld and in 2016 was appointed editor-in-chief of News24.

The video 

Five takeaways from the talk and the discussion 

1. The outcome of this election might be characterised by big changes. As South Africa heads to the polls for its seventh democratic general election on May 29th, the question of who will rule looms large in the country. 

After the first free election was held in the country in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's legacy Liberation Party, has won majority representation in six consecutive multiparty elections, despite multiple corruption scandals, an energy crisis, failed housing and land reform, weak economic growth and rising unemployment. 

However, analysts believed this may be the year the ANC loses its grip on power. “It's not unexpected that the ANC have finally reached the point where they may dip below the 50% mark,” said Basson. A total of 31 political parties will contest the national elections for the first time, with ANC incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa, DA leader John Steenhuisen, EFF leader Julius Malema, among others. 

2. A coalition government might be on the horizon. South Africa has had coalition governments at a local government level but not yet at a federal level. Those coalitions have been successful to varying degrees. 

“I think there are fears and some anxiety exists around the possibility that, when you have a coalition government, the coalition partners may not be in it for the long haul,” Basson said. “[They] might only be there to extract positions and benefits and may then start making unreasonable demands. So we've been writing a lot about potential coalition formations in South Africa that could follow the election.”

3. Danger can loom large for reporters in the country. “In the past few weeks we've rolled out the largest data report we've ever done on election results. At the same time, we had to buy bulletproof vests for our reporters in KwaZulu-Natal because the threat of violence is expected to be the worst since the late 90s,” said Basson. 

He explained that election coverage has been greatly improved in the last few years by technological advancement and polling models that make data more accessible and available to South Africans. However, while he doesn’t expect any large-scale national outbreaks of violence, tensions in the KwaZulu-Natal region make it so that journalists have to be prepared for whatever may come.

4. Violence extends beyond the ground into cyberspace. Basson said that they have had problems with hate speech, attacks, and harassment directed towards their journalists on social media, particularly on X. 

As editor-in-chief, he encourages his journalists to think about if they want to engage with the platform. “It's very different now than what it was 10, 15 years ago when it was actually a robust, healthy and interesting space for debate and information sharing,” he says. “It's really become quite toxic in South Africa.”

5. Paywall models during elections. News24 currently employs what they call a ‘freemium’ model, which means that a portion of their content is paywalled whereas another portion is free to view for any reader. Election coverage, as well as breaking news, falls into the latter category. 

On top of that, they decided that for the last week of the election they will open up all their previously paywalled election coverage so it’s accessible to the public for free as a public service. “Many South Africans are unemployed and a new subscription is the last thing on their mind,” he said. “We hope that people will still take up the opportunity to be exposed to our content during elections, but then join us as a subscriber afterwards.”

The bottom line 

The upcoming South African election signals potential shifts in power in the country. Safety concerns for journalists are heightened both on the ground and online where platforms have become increasingly hostile. Amidst these dynamics, news outlets like News24 are adapting their models to ensure broader access to crucial election coverage, recognizing socioeconomic realities that may limit subscription uptake.

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