Democratic South Africa’s political path has been relatively easy to navigate, up until November 2021, says BNP Paribas analyst Nic Borain. However, the significant upset for the ANC in the 2021 local elections has brought even the surest of bets into question.
According to Borain, the governing African National Congress has always been the dominant political party, with an outright majority that makes it easy to predict where policy direction would go long before it even makes its way to parliament to be voted on.
“The important debates about policy were won or lost in party and alliance structures well before those decisions were voted on in parliament,” Borain said.
While the ANC’s internal debates have been less predictable, Boarian said that 20 years of analysis has laid out a broad modus operandi for the party.
“The ANC tends to ‘talk left but walk right’. The party would leak, suggest or otherwise let it be known that it might embark on a radical shift in policy. After the (subsequent) crisis, the ANC would settle on levels that were milder and acceptable to investors,” he said.
These two ‘certainties’ – the ANC in control, and how it does things – have made it easier for analysts, economists, and investors to navigate the often complex sociopolitical landscape in South Africa over the last two decades.
But things are beginning to change, creating an air of uncertainty for what comes next.
ANC in decline
The 2021 municipal election results were a big shock for South Africa’s political landscape, seeing the ANC drop below 50% for the first time since the dawn of democracy.
The party slipped to an unprecedented 45.06% of the poll in the local elections, which Borain said presages a time when predicting policy changes in South Africa will require more than simply following ANC and alliance policy debates.
Investors and analysts will now need to look beyond the ANC, and also cast an eye to the factious and volatile alliances juggled by the opposition parties. This presents a new age of unpredictability in the country’s political space.
“We have already seen a harbinger of this unpredictability at the centre of national politics in the ANC’s failure to get the two-thirds majority by failing to get EFF support to change the constitution in mid-December,” he said.
In 2004, the ANC won 279 of 400 seats in the national assembly with 69.39% of the vote. It could have easily achieved the required two-thirds majority on its own in the national and provincial elections.
“The ANC’s share of the vote has been slipping ever since, however. This weakening at the polls suggests that the ANC’s previously strong influence on the general populace is waning – an observation reinforced by the extensive riots and looting that occurred in July 2021,” Borain said.
“It is becoming clearer that the extent of internal ANC conflict over both ideological matters as well as about power and the opportunity to be first in line to extract rent from state and semi-state procurements make policy-making and implementation more uncertain than we had assumed.”
While the shift presented by the 2021 local elections heralds changes to come, they will not be immediate.
Between the 2021 local elections and the 2024 national elections, the ANC needs to navigate its conference in December, where it will elect leadership to take it through to the next election.
Polling indicates that ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa remains the most popular leader in the party, and is more popular than the ANC overall.
“If president Ramaphosa gets strong backing from the national conference and once and for all pushes his enemies to the edge of the party, he will be able to act far more decisively in his second term as ANC president and country president if the ANC wins or builds a majority alliance in 2024, in our view,” Borain said.
However, for Ramaphosa and the ANC to recover from the setbacks of the second half of 2021, growth must be evident, he said.
“So to a discernible improvement in infrastructure, an improvement in living conditions for the majority population and external investment in projects – like renewables – where investors feel satisfied with the stability of the legal and regulatory framework.”
“We see some upside possibilities here, but he will only have about 15 months between the conference and the elections, and many of the policy changes that will be required remain controversial in the ANC and its trade union allies,” Borain said.
The analyst said that it is impossible to predict how the 2024 elections will go, but historically the ANC underperforms in the local elections by approximately 6.5 percentage points versus the national elections, pointing to a potential 50%+ result for the party in 2024.
Voter turnouts have slowly been declining over the last decade or so, however – which is a major factor in these results. Despite this, national elections tend to draw a larger voter crowd, and more money gets pumped into electioneering and campaigning, he said.