South Africa’s ‘watershed moment’ – and a very important 2 weeks

 ·4 Jun 2024

For the first time since the end of apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) was unable to receive an outright majority in South Africa’s recent parliamentary elections.

“This is a massive shift in South African politics, and it is a watershed moment,” said a lecturer in Political Studies at Wits University, Dr Nicole Beardsworth.

South Africa has a proportional representation system, which generally does not lead to dominant party democracies.

However, the country has seen one-party dominance for the past 30 years, with Beardsworth saying that this largely stems from the ANC’s role as a liberation party.

In the 2024 general elections, the ANC fell well under 50% in Parliament, receiving around 40% of the vote.

Although still a central figure in South Africa’s political landscape, a flurry of negotiations between the ANC and other political parties is set to take place to form a coalition government for the seventh administration.

Some of the key players at the negotiating table include:

  • The main opposition party, the centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA) led by John Steenhuisen;
  • uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a populist party led by former president Jacob Zuma;
  • The far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema;
  • The conservative Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), led by Velenkosini Hlabisa; and
  • Gayton McKenzie’s right-wing Patriotic Alliance (PA).

These are heavy options to weigh, especially given that each hold vastly different ideologies.

Some analysts favour an ANC-DA/IFP-Multi Party Charter coalition, largely due to its free-market economic policies, but working together is unpopular among some segments of their supporters.

Research associate at the Social Policy Initiative, Duma Gqubule wrote that “for many ANC members, a coalition with the DA would be crossing a red line [causing] another split and the ANC will become a 30% party.”

Another possibility is an ANC-EFF-IFP/PA coalition, with Gqubule saying that the ANC could probably meet the EFF halfway on issues such as land, mines and outsourcing. 

However, coalitions between the ANC and EFF at a municipal level have proven shaky, and Investec Chief Economist Annabel Bishop described it as a “severe down case” for markets due to various policy positions.

Other possibilities include the ANC pairing up with the MK Party, a party led by former president Zuma that was born out of what it labelled as “saving the ANC” from the “ANC of Ramaphosa,” leaving several points of contention.

Whatever the case, South Africa’s “long-term implications will very much depend on decisions made within the next 14 days,” said Beardsworth.

Let the negotiations begin

“The major factors in coalition negotiations are usually [how similar or different their ideological stances are], what proportion of seats the smaller party holds, and prior experience of coalition negotiations,” explained Beardsworth.

The political expert said that due to limited experience with coalition-building at the national level, there is a risk of forming an oversized coalition with a greater ideological distance between the parties.

“Of course, along with these issues will be the usual kinds of horse-trading for positions and contracts, so it will be a complex game of multi-channel negotiations,” said Beardsworth.

The ANC has already signalled that it is interested in a ‘grand coalition’ or ‘government of national unity’ as the one that governed South Africa from 1994-1996 and has said that it is open to working with all parties who received more than 2% of the vote.

As a result, the ANC has reportedly already reached out to the DA, IFP, EFF, PA and MK Party as it “wants to meet everyone” to move the country forward.

“But of course, some parties – such as the DA – are more ideologically distant from the ANC than others, like the EFF,” said Beardsworth.

“I expect that the DA might have some red lines around BBBEE that could present a sticking point, while the EFF’s stance on land redistribution and the MK’s position on scrapping the Constitution and the Constitutional Court will almost certainly be important areas of debate,” she said.

In addition to this, there are some seemingly raw wounds from recent political fights among the parties and their leaders.

Simply, these ideological sticking points of parties could be the make-or-break factor. The ultimate decision “all depends on which faction of the ANC is in ascendance,” said Beardsworth.

The expert said that “(Deputy President Paul Mashatile)’s faction would be most inclined to work with the EFF, while (party chairperson Gwede Mantashe) seems happier to partner with either EFF or MK.”

“On the other hand, (Cyril) Ramaphosa and his closest allies are said to favour an oversized coalition with the DA as the most stabilising coalition,” she added.

“The long-term implications (for South Africa) will very much depend on decisions made within the next 14 days,” said Beardsworth.

After this, Beardsworth said that “this is the first real test of our parliamentary system, where governing must be done through consensus politics.”

“Coalitions can either be messy, fractious and prone to break-down or they can help to correct a problematic political course… it depends on the coalition partners and their willingness to put the country’s interests ahead of sectional interests.”

“Only time will tell,” said Beardsworth.

Read: What happens next? How and when South Africa’s next President will be elected

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