IEC elections results centre in Pretoria. Picture: GCIS
IEC elections results centre in Pretoria. Picture: GCIS

South Africans might have to spend a bit more time working through the ballot paper if they have no clear idea who to vote for come May 8.

There are 48 political parties contesting this year’s general election — 19 more than in 2014 and a record, according to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC). But while it seems voters are spoilt for choice, it may be a case of quantity over quality.

In the run-up to the election, the political environment is more fractured than ever, and it’s said this poll will be the most hotly contested since 1994.

But many of the new parties seem to be more of a sideshow than actual contenders. The real issue is that so many voters are disgruntled with the country’s biggest parties.

That said, the number of coalitions that formed after the 2016 local government elections showed how smaller parties can punch above their weight. The EFF, for example, contested its first election in 2014. It became a kingmaker just two years later; three years on, it has its eye on governing.

But a party first needs to make the grade. The number of votes required to win a single seat in parliament depends on voter turnout; in 2014 that was about 50,000 votes. Of the 29 political parties that contested that election, only 13 won seats in parliament. Among them were newcomers the EFF, Agang SA and the National Freedom Party.

It’s also not a cheap exercise. Parties have to pay a R200,000 deposit to take part in national elections, and a further R45,000 for each province. This means a party contesting national elections as well as those in all nine provinces will have to pay a deposit of R605,000.

A total of 48 parties have raised the money to compete at the national level.

Picture: 123RF/Felix Pergande
Picture: 123RF/Felix Pergande

Among them are Patricia de Lille’s Good, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA’s Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s African Content Movement (ACM), the controversial Black First Land First (BLF) and the Capitalist Party of SA (ZACP).

Some hardliners in the faction that lost at the ANC’s 2017 elective conference at Nasrec have moved away from the party. But it remains to be seen if they are prepared, on the ballot, to back Zuma ally Mzwanele Manyi’s African Transformation Movement (ATM), the ACM or the BLF, which seems set on spreading racial discord.

At the signing of the electoral code of conduct in Midrand last week, Motsoeneng, dressed in a purple suit, approached the podium, hands in the air, calling for "90% in the house" — a reference to his decision, while at the SABC, to have 90% local content at the public broadcaster.

He went on to say that "all people here in their heart will vote ACM".

"They know ACM will deliver under my leadership … This one is the only dawn," he said, referring to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s "new dawn".

However, it is highly unlikely that Motsoeneng — the man thought to have brought the SABC to its knees — will drum up enough support to get even one seat in parliament.

The BLF’s Andile Mngxitama, considered a frontman in the Gupta cheerleading brigade, unsurprisingly issued a warning from the podium.

He said the party wants to be treated fairly and if it isn’t, "we’ll have problems".

"If you don’t allow us to go to parliament, we will do it our way," he said, shortly before signing a code of conduct recognising SA as a democratic and constitutional state premised on the principle of regular elections.

On the other hand, you have De Lille’s Good and the ZACP, parties whose ideals could be more in line with DA supporters on either side of the political spectrum.

The ZACP’s principles are closer to those of DA hardliners: the party places liberty at its core, emphasising the rights of the individual over those of the group. It takes up a largely uncontested space, given the number of parties crowded into the Left.

The party has said it’s not looking to govern, but wants to win 10 seats in parliament so it can influence policy through the portfolio committees. This is no small aim, given the number of votes this would require.

De Lille — who has been around the political block — and her party offer a campaign message that is surprisingly in line with that of the capitalist party. Her party believes SA needs "good people to volunteer for good people".

However, it remains to be seen whether voters are sufficiently disenchanted with the ANC, DA and EFF to venture a vote for the unknown — or whether they’ll be more inclined to heed the DA’s SMS campaign call: "Don’t waste your vote on a small party."