Election year 2024 – South Africa rocks its political realities

Image: Flag of South Africa, a hand in the same colors form the "V"-Victory-Sign

Election year 2024 – South Africa, ©Pixabay

South African elections are but one event on a busy calendar in the global election years, where half the global populations goes to the polls – admittedly with varying degrees of actual voice in political matters. The country is among the bright ones, though, where votes clearly matter. The voters have turned a new page in politics at the Cape, setting a difficult task for a new government.

South Africa is one of Africa’s biggest economy and has considerable political clout on the continent and beyond. It was one of the last countries on the African continent to become politically free, with democratic elections precisely 30 years ago, and it has large symbolic power as one of the countries with clear democratic vocation and apparently reliable institutions to guarantee a free and fair vote. South Africa is a member of the G20, and its presidency of the group is upcoming from 1 December 2024 onwards. In a nutshell: What happens in South Africa thus does not stay in South Africa.

A landslide away from the ANC – Populism strengthened

It is great to see that South Africans made use of their ballot – and could do so in free and fair elections. There is no doubt that, overall, the voting was organised in a free and fair way. Individual complaints might occur, like anywhere in the world, and will be dealt with by capable institutions. The election results overall, though, are beyond doubt, even if the historically low turnout of not quite 59% is disappointing.

The results give a difficult task to the next president – who might be incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa, depending on intra-ANC debates. The setup has fundamentally changed for the next years.

  • As expected, the ANC, governing party of the last 30 year, has lost its absolute majority nationally. The ANC lost a whopping eighteen percentage points nationally compared to previous elections, including in some provinces that were deemed “secure” for the party, e.g. in Mpumalanga, where it lost around 20%.
  • Nationally, the ANC remains the largest party and will have to form a coalition government. Given that it has gained around 40% of votes, this will have to be a “true coalition”, i.e. it won’t be enough to sweep up smallish parties and independent MPs (in a disrespectful wording, “the mice and rats strategy”) to heave itself over the 50% threshold. The ANC will have to politically agree on a government programme with a substantive partner. And it will have to do so under time pressure: the constitutionally fixed timeframe in which to form a new government is two weeks. Talks with largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) have begun almost immediately.
  • Poor performance and the now urgent choice of a coalition partner are likely to make rifts in the ANC even more pronounced. While having the momentum for political talks, President Cyril Ramaphosa is weakend. Yet, so have been his critics in the provinces. Currently most likely seems a coalition with the leading opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), Ramaphosa’s preferred option. Others in the ANC are understood to prefer a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who are a splinter of the ANC of a couple of years ago and position themselves as a populist alternative with strong leftist rhetoric and programme.
  • The very “market friendly” DA, until now official opposition (and longstanding governing party in the Western Cape province), have nationally won around 22% and three more seats in the National Assembly. This is a de facto stagnation, despite massive discontent with the governing ANC, and should lead to some introspective in the party. Yet, the DA is willing to enter a coalition to prevent worse, from their perspective, and thus will take little time for critical self-reflections just now.
  • “Numerically possible”, but politically unthinkable is a coalition between the ANC and very recently formed uMkhonto weSiswe (MK party), led by former president Jacob Zuma. Zuma seems to be mostly motivated by revenge towards the ANC – and Ramaphosa personally – who ousted him for alleged corruption and “state capture”, i.e. using state means for personal gains. The Constitutional Court barred Zuma himself from running for political office, as he was convicted (for contempt of court) before the elections; yet, the party is clearly formed around him as the strong man. Political positions of MK are blurry, yet profoundly populist and rather traditionalist, if not authoritarian. They are hard to reconcile with South Africa’s constitution.
  • The proportional voting system ensures that a handful of newly founded smaller parties will have one or two seats in the national and a number of provincial legislatures. They can use these as a basis to broaden their support; yet, their overall performance was disappointing despite some high hopes in middle-class voters.

The ANC and DA have already begun coalition talks, as the constitution puts a tight timeline to all actors: with the declaration of final results on Sunday evening, the new president will have to be voted into office within the next 14 days.

The provinces as test cases for new settings

Some regional results – votes for the eight provinces’ legislatures – are worth noting at they show some overall patterns and potential difficulties in the years to come.

  • In KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the ANC was swept from power – and leaves a province in uncertainty. Ex-President Zuma’s MK has won around 46% of votes in its first electoral stand, carried by discontent with the governing party and “Zulu nationalism” in that province. In KZN, the ANC only came in third place, with the traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party in second place. It seems impossible to run the province without MK – and yet, MK will need to form a coalition. It is unclear who would want to work with MK. Political turmoil in South Africa’s second most populous province is likely to last for a while.
  • Equally painful will be the obvious loss of the (already slim) ANC majority in Gauteng province, yet with politically different effects. With apparently around 35% of votes in the economic and political powerhouse of South Africa, the ANC’s only option for a two-party majority in Gauteng is the DA that has won around 27% of votes there. It is de facto the only viable option, despite hopes of some ANC politicians for the EFF as an alternative partner. The EFF, however, only comes with around 12% of votes, and any coalition between the ANC and EFF would thus need additional, smaller partners for a majority in Gauteng.
  • The Western Cape clear goes to the DA again, which has secured another absolute majority (of 54%). Prospectively interesting is the emergence of a third party in the Western Cape: The Patriotic Alliance (PA) has particularly strong support amongst “coloured” voters, thus being strong in the Cape, despite alleged linkages to criminal gangs in the province.
  • In the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, the North West, Free State and Limpopo, the ANC remains the majority party, but with reduced dominance. In a number of provinces, the party rather scratches past the 50% threshold (e.g. in the Northern Cape, the ANC lacks one seat for a majority in the legislature). All results are far from historical heights of 70 or even more than 80%.
  • Consequently, provincial Premiers are politically weakened, too – and yet are likely to gain political influence over time. The need to form majorities and reposition the ANC across the country is happening in settings that vary across provinces.

Effects on South Africa, the continent and global politics

The electorate clearly has expectations towards office holders to provide basic services and carve out a decent living for all South Africans, in what remains one of the globally most unequal societies even three decades after the end of Apartheid. Domestic issues are thus the priority for any new government, and upcoming global visibility with the G20 presidency will have to be framed in this light, too.

South Africa will have to stand the test of coalition governments. This is both a major opportunity for the country – and a substantial challenge in an African context that still often builds on the principle of “the winner takes it all”. In fact, for the first time, South Africa in some provinces fully lives the potential of its radically proportional electoral system, demanding the wisdom and strength from office holders to engage in compromising while keeping an eye on the demands of the electorate. This effect will be closely watched by outside observers, and we can only hope that the democratic system keeps a focus on “delivery”, rather than deteriorating into “politicking” and jockeying for offices, as that would damage the reputation of democracy on the continent.

At the same time, the election results are likely to increase factionalism in the ANC. Provincial premiers in various political constellations are presenting different options. This will become interesting to watch in a traditionally rather centrally organised political organisation like the ANC. The party now has options to either go fully populist with the EFF as a governing partner. Or, currently more likely, with the DA as coalition partner, they can form a coalition of centrists and involve different parts of the economic establishment for the future of the country. The future holds hard choices for a proud party that understands itself as “the force for liberation” of South Africa and voice for the “global South” in the world. For the country, though, a page has been turned by the electorate and political actors need to shape it responsibly.

Image: Sven Grimm

Sven Grimm is Head of the Programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South” at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS)

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