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Future Scenarios

Will the South African Elections Alter the Political Landscape?

29 May 2024

The upcoming national elections in South Africa, scheduled for May 29, 2024, are poised to be a watershed moment in the country's post-apartheid history. This significance is underlined by the fact that it coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of the inaugural post-apartheid elections in 1994. Anticipated to be the most fiercely contested since the African National Congress ascended to power, these elections present a myriad of challenges for the ruling party. The African National Congress not only aims to sustain its majority in the National Assembly but also endeavors to secure another term for President Cyril Ramaphosa. Given these circumstances, it is increasingly likely that a coalition government will be necessary to effectively govern the nation.

It is evident that the ANC has lost significant support from its electoral base. Internal divisions, corruption scandals, and the party's failure to fulfill its promises for a better life have contributed to this decline. Despite 30 years of leadership, the government still faces economic problems, including high unemployment rates, inadequate electricity supply, and issues with service delivery. Additionally, there is a noticeable disparity between different social classes in South Africa. Furthermore, the ANC's position as the ruling party is now threatened by the increasing popularity of rival parties, which puts the ANC at risk of not securing a majority of seats in the National Assembly. In such a scenario, the party would need to form a coalition with one or more parties to maintain its position or face being ousted by a coalition of opposition parties, such as the multiparty charter led by John Steenhuisen of the Democratic Alliance, which aims to remove the ANC.

Perhaps another shift that makes this year's elections different in South Africa is the inclusion of independent candidates running for seats in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures. This change is a result of the Electoral Amendment Act of 2023, which introduced a clause allowing candidates to compete for seats without party affiliation.

This article aims to identify the primary competing forces and parties and analyze future prospects by presenting several expected scenarios and their consequences on issues of change and stability in South Africa.

Key Contenders in the Elections: 

The upcoming elections are governed by four major forces:

1- The African National Congress Party: Led by Cyril Ramaphosa, the African National Congress (ANC) party, originally known as the Original National Congress of South Africa, was founded in 1912. In 1923, it was renamed the African National Congress. Initially a national liberation movement during the apartheid era, the ANC transformed into a political party and participated in the 1994 elections. Since then, the party has consistently obtained the largest percentage of votes in National Assembly elections. However, its share of votes has declined since 2009.

The ANC has faced challenges in recent years, including corruption scandals and disillusionment over service delivery issues such as electricity supply and malnutrition. Internal divisions within the party have also resulted in the departure of high-ranking members and the formation of new parties, such as the People's Congress Party in 2008, the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2013, and most recently, the Zuma Party at the end of 2023.

2- The Democratic Alliance (DA): Led by John Steenhausen, the party was founded in 2000, and has been the official opposition party in the National Assembly since 2004. It came in second place behind the African National Congress (ANC) in the elections held in 2004, 2009, 2014, and 2019. Over the years, the party has increased its share of the vote from about a tenth to about a fifth. The DA traces its roots back to the Democratic Party, which was founded in 1989 and opposed apartheid. Although initially seen as a liberal party for the white population, the DA has made efforts to diversify its membership and now includes a roster that represents many different ethnic South Africans. The party's message for this election is "Save South Africa." Its program includes combating corruption and crime, improving healthcare and education, and ensuring access to electricity and clean water. The DA's leader, John Steenhuisen, founded the Multi-Party Pact, an alliance of opposition parties that aims to oust the ANC. However, the party does not rule out forming a coalition with the ANC if it is the only option to prevent Zuma's new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, from coming to power.

3- The Economic Freedom Fighters: Led by Julius Malema, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party was founded in 2013. It came in third place behind the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Party in the 2014 and 2019 elections. Malema, who was originally a leading member and president of the ANC Youth League, was expelled from the ANC in 2012 due to his controversial statements.

Members of the National Assembly from the EFF party wear red uniforms to express their sympathy for the working class, and the party adopts a more left-wing approach compared to other parties and advocates for the nationalization of mines and banks, as well as the confiscation of land for redistribution, in order to address historical economic inequality.

In early 2024, the EFF party lost some support to Zuma's party in a by-election, and this trend may continue in the national election to some extent. However, Malema stated that his party is open to the possibility of forming a coalition, including one with Zuma's party.

4- UMkhonto we Sizwe Party (MK): On December 16, 2023, former South African President Jacob Zuma announced the formation of a new party to compete with the African National Congress (ANC). Interestingly, he chose to name it after the ANC's military wing, the Spear of the Nation. Opinion polls suggest that this new party will further complicate the electoral challenges faced by the ruling ANC in Zuma's stronghold, the KwaZulu-Natal region.

What is concerning is that Zuma's party adopts a provocative rhetoric with elements of populist extremism. For instance, they talk about replacing the current constitutional system with a parliamentary one, which is worrisome because South Africa has been striving to establish a constitutional democracy based on a set of fundamental rights for its citizens since the first democratic elections in 1994.

In any case, the MK Party can be seen as a political faction within the ANC. It is possible that Zuma's motivation for creating this new party is to evade the charges against him, which could result in him being imprisoned once again.

Four Potential Scenarios:

Potential scenarios after the May 29 elections in South Africa are as follows:

1- Continuation of the ANC government: The likelihood of this scenario is minimal as it would necessitate securing nearly 50% of the vote in the May 2024 elections. The Congress Party could potentially form a minority government without relying on any major political party or by maintaining an outright parliamentary majority. However, internal divisions within the ANC persist, making it challenging for the government to pass economic reforms. This situation may prompt Ramaphosa to form alliances with other small parties and independent legislators on a case-by-case basis to pass legislation. Consequently, Ramaphosa's government might encounter numerous obstacles in enacting substantial economic reform, exacerbating the country's economic distress and unemployment crisis. Despite these challenges, the party's unity and cohesion may be maintained until the 2026 municipal elections.

2- Alliance with small parties: It is possible for the African National Congress (ANC) to form a coalition government with smaller opposition parties, even if they only obtain about 45% of the votes. Despite promises made by other opposition parties, such as the Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Party, not to form a coalition with the ANC, agreements have been reached in exchange for influencing policies. However, this has led to tensions within the ANC between President Ramaphosa and the pro-radical economic transformation faction, deepening the state of political uncertainty. Efforts to limit public spending may also lead to contentious wage negotiations, resulting in strikes and disruptions of basic services.

3- Alliance with the Economic Freedom Fighters: The African National Congress (ANC) is likely to encounter a significant electoral setback, with projections indicating a potential acquisition of only about 40% of the votes. This could compel the ANC to form a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party. In such a scenario, there is a possibility of a shift in government policy away from President Ramaphosa's pro-business stance towards a more favorable environment for the private sector.

The EFF, backed by the populist Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC, advocates for policies such as land expropriation without compensation and the nationalization of state resources, aiming to promote black economic empowerment. While President Ramaphosa opposes the more contentious policy measures proposed by the radical faction within his party, the government's interventionist economic policies and expansion of redistribution programs may lead to a decrease in investor confidence. This, in turn, raises concerns about the sustainability of South Africa's debt and threatens to trigger a severe economic crisis in the medium term.

4- Defeat of the National Congress Party: This is a low-probability, high-impact scenario. The South African Multi-Party Charter, led by the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, could win a majority of seats. In this case, it is possible to envision the formation of a national unity government in exchange for broad economic reforms to the electricity, transportation, and water sectors in South Africa. However, it is expected that radical parties such as the party of former president Jacob Zuma, And the Economic Freedom Fighters Party. They may resort to organizing large-scale protests that significantly disrupt supply chains and threaten to turn into incidents of mass looting. While the pressure exerted by the Democratic Alliance may force the African National Congress to move forward with comprehensive reform of the energy sector and expand the role of private companies in the water and transportation sectors, the reform process may be hampered by major obstacles due to the possibility of widespread union protests from unions. It is possible that these pressures will push the government to back away from draft laws or specific policy proposals. While investor sentiment towards South Africa is broadly improving, growth in foreign investment may slow amid continuing challenges facing the country's energy sector, escalating violence and increasing political polarization.

In conclusion, South Africa’s post-election trajectory will be significantly influenced by shifting political alliances, mounting public dissatisfaction with declining public services, and the increasing significance of the youth vote. The evolution towards a multi-party system, evident since 2009, is expected to continue, even if the ANC maintains its majority. This shift may lead to greater involvement of opposition parties in crucial political decisions, including the formulation of foreign policy, which has traditionally been the prerogative of the African National Congress. Regardless of the election outcome, South Africa is poised to redefine its national interests and its position in the global community.