South Africa is holding its quinquennial national and provincial elections today.

Of course, I care about this – because that’s a regular travel-and-business spot for me.

But everyone should care at least a bit about this situation, since it will be rather pivotal for us in the years ahead.

Here’s what to watch – and why you should care….

Today’s elections are for the national parliament, and separately for the provincial parliaments in each of South Africa’s nine provinces.

These are basically the only elections that are held for those governing levels in South Africa. The elections use a straight total-jurisdictional-vote-count and employ that to grant seats from ordered party candidate lists in proportion to the number of votes garnered by each party. The resulting parliaments then elect the provincial premiers and the national leader (President).

Due to the straight-proportional-representation system, the overall election is a bit of a free-for-all, with dozens of parties on the ballot.

If this all piques your interest, you can read through some further detailed analyses here and here.

But here are a few quick thoughts.

What to Watch

Ever since the end of apartheid in 1994, the political wing of the old rebel movement, the African National Congress (ANC), has firmly held the reins of power. The ANC is certain to win this election handily, and in a couple weeks the newly-seated parliament is thus sure to elect Jacob Zuma as the new President of South Africa.

But there are two things to watch here.

The first is the key question about the national ANC vote total. At the higher end, if the ANC can get at least 2/3 of the votes cast (c. 67%), that could have critical implications. Under South African law, the constitution can be modified via only 2/3 vote of Parliament. In the last election (2004), the ANC actually gained almost 70% of the vote and had that kind of majority in Parliament; significantly, even with that majority no changes were made to the Constitution.

But that leads into the second key item – what kind of a leader certain-new-President-to-be Jacob Zuma will be.

Mr. Zuma comes from a very different background than his two aristocratic predecessors – Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Mr. Zuma comes from a much less-advantaged background, and has always been much more of a rough-and-tumble populist. He was also the target of a long-running corruption investigation that recently was dismissed from the courts.

The main concern is whether Mr. Zuma will behave like a constitutional leader – or not. Many of his public statements over the years have led to concerns that he has autocratic dispositions, and is anxious to crack down on the independent judiciary and the media.

On the other hand, Mr. Zuma was always a much harsher critic of Robert Mugabe’s abusive rule of neighboring Zimbabwe – and publicly broke with President Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” policy for that situation.

At the national level, Mr. Zuma himself is the biggest wildcard factor in this entire election.

While at one extreme there is concern about the ANC garnering a 2/3 majority, at the other end there is also a very strong possibility that the ANC will make an historically weak showing – perhaps even having its vote total fall below 60%. In Western Cape province (home to Cape Town), the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) seems to have a real shot at winning the provincial vote – which would mark the first ever ANC electoral defeat.

My short analysis is that in any open political system, there is never a long-term “hold” for one large, powerful party – the centrifugal pressure to have other issues addressed is just too strong. In particular, South Africa’s ugly and most-pressing problem is the horridly-high crime rate. Climatically, South Africa is much like California (rolled onto its side), and is a lovely garden-spot. But every building (even private homes) is secured like a fortress (homes tend to be surrounded by high walls topped with electrified razor wire). One suspects that much like New York City in the 1970s, the crime problem will become the unifying factor that will cut across all social and political boundaries. Let’s hope so, since it would resolve many social tensions – and also hopefully take a bite out crime.

Why You Should Care

The key factor is that South Africa is the real lynchpin-state of southern Africa in general. It’s by far the largest country by population, the richest, and the best-armed. Stability in South Africa is critical to stability and growth in the rest of the region.

And despite the troubles in Zimbabwe, the rest of that region is showing some real hints of progress. Have you heard much about Botswana in the news lately? Probably not, and that’s because things there have been stable, free, and quiet for a long time. Botswana is becoming wealthier due to its position as a major diamond producer. Namibia has some of the world’s best and largest uranium resources; it’s already a major supplier to the U.S. nuclear power industry – something to keep in mind if we ever come to our senses and start building lots of nuclear plants again.

The bottom line in southern Africa is that the area is resource-rich, has a young population (something to keep in mind as this fades badly in places such as Europe and east Asia), and is becoming quieter and starting to grow. That’s all good, and we should all like that for many reasons. Peace and stability in South Africa are critical to that continued progress.