South Africa

The failing ANC is rejected by over half of South Africa

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Economist
May 30, 2024 at 17:38
Photograph: Reuters
Photograph: Reuters

The country now faces its biggest test since the end of apartheid

The african national congress (anc)—the continent’s oldest liberation movement, the spearhead of resistance to apartheid and the governing party since 1994—is no longer a hegemonic force in South Africa’s politics. Though the results of elections held on May 29th will not be finalised for a day or two, early projections suggest that the anc has taken a beating. The party is set to win about 42% of the national vote, according to psephologists from News24, a local outlet, a precipitous fall from the 57.5% it won at the previous elections in 2019. Cyril Ramaphosa will be the first anc leader without a parliamentary majority. Unlike his hero, Nelson Mandela, who magnanimously opted to govern in a coalition during the first three years of multi-racial democracy, the South African president will have no choice but to cut a deal to keep his party in power.

As a consequence the next fortnight will see the most important political negotiations in South Africa since the talks in the early 1990s that ended white rule. Mr Ramaphosa, who led those discussions on behalf of Mandela, again faces a defining task. Though the precise results, including those in concurrent provincial elections, will dictate all the possible routes, the path ahead has essentially two possible destinations: pragmatism or populism. What the president and other politicians decide in the days ahead will determine the direction of the country for years to come.

On the eve of the elections many analysts believed that the anc would defy the polls and eke out a majority. They were wrong. Years of declining living standards, deteriorating public services and rising crime meant that South Africans were already souring on the ruling party. The entry of uMkhonto weSizwe (mk), led by Jacob Zuma, whom Mr Ramaphosa replaced in 2018, gave many of the disaffected a new vehicle. The party, named after the anc’s old armed wing, is projected to come third in the first election it has ever contested—a stunning feat. In KwaZulu-Natal (kzn), the second-most populous of the nine South African provinces, and the stronghold of the country’s largest ethnic group (Zulus), it could come first. The former president weaponised both material grievances and tribal identity to strike a vengeful blow against Mr Ramaphosa.

What now? After the results are formally announced (probably over the weekend) the National Assembly must meet within 14 days in a sitting chaired by the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court. The new mps in attendance then elect a new president and parliamentary speaker via a simple majority of votes. The president they select then forms a government and picks his cabinet.

Before these dignified televised formalities there will be the dirty work of backroom politics. Mr Ramaphosa may want to open the calculator on his iPad to see if he can assemble a coalition of the anc plus an array of tiny parties whose leaders would exult in becoming the deputy junior minister for cultural tourism (or some other sinecure). But at the time of writing the anc seemed to have fallen so low that it would require a deal with a larger party to stay in national office.

That could mean a pact with one or both of its extremist offshoots, mk and the Economic Freedom Fighters (eff), which on current projections looks as if it will be the fourth largest party. Many moderates in the anc, including Mr Ramaphosa, will instinctively dislike the prospect. But such an alliance might have some cold, cynical logic to it. The eff and mk are part of the anc family, albeit the outcasts. They might be content to strike something of a package deal based on what happens in provincial elections. The eff could do relatively well in Gauteng, the most populous province. In exchange for backing the anc’s presidential nominee, it might demand the anc’s backing to run Gauteng. Mr Zuma may do a similar deal with the anc to make kzn his fief.

The prospect of the anc teaming up with such avowedly populist parties has rightly frightened markets. The rand dipped by as much as 2% against the dollar, the main share index dropped by 2.3% and the interest rates investors demand to hold local currency South African bonds jumped by eight basis points to 12.13%.

Another option would be for the anc to turn to the Democratic Alliance (da), the country’s main opposition party which is projected to win around 22% of the vote. This would, in effect, mean a sequel of the post-1994 government of national unity. It would increase the chances of South Africa having a sensible government with centrist policies. John Steenhuisen, the da leader, told The Economist in 2021 that he would want to try to cut a deal with moderates in the anc rather than see the ruling party join with the eff and take South Africa in the direction of “Venezuela or Zimbabwe”. There is no reason to believe he has changed his mind in the years since.

Yet it would also be a huge gamble for both sides. Many in the anc would recoil at governing with what they perceive to be a “white party”; some would worry that it could be harder to earn the spoils of office. In the da there is concern that, like other junior partners in coalitions globally, it would get all of the blame for things that go wrong and none of the credit for things that go right. Going into government would also mean ceding its role as the anc’s chief critic. Its leaders could argue it was putting country before party, but some of its voters would be horrified.


Whatever happens, these results have turned Mr Ramaphosa into something of a lame duck leader. In recent years his authority came from the fact that he was more popular than the party and than any of his potential successors. That was always going to be of diminishing value, since he cannot run for another term in office. Now it seems even less likely that he will get to finish his second full five-year term as state president. The anc will have already begun considering his successor as party leader, who will probably be anointed in 2027. (The anc has something of a habit of defenestrating its leaders, having booted out Mr Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, before the conclusion of their presidential terms.)  Therein lies a bitter irony. In the 1990s Mr Ramaphosa was the wily interlocutor with the outgoing National Party. Now, in the 2020s, after his own failings in office, it falls to him to negotiate the end of anc hegemony.

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