UP EXPERT OPINION: The end of the ANC’s single-party rule

Posted on June 04, 2024

South Africa has just completed its seventh national election since Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid victory in 1994. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) had won the previous elections with comfortable majorities, from a high of 70% in 2004 to a low of 57% in 2019. Not this time: the ANC is now in the minority.

Over its three decades of political dominance, the ANC made some progress in providing social welfare, housing, electricity, and piped water to millions of people. Though its total vote had fallen in each of the last four polls, it had never declined by more than five percentage points. This time, however, the ANC lost 17 percentage points, receiving just 40.2% of the vote, which means it will have to govern as part of a coalition for the first time.

Before this election, the ANC controlled eight of the country’s nine provinces. The white-dominated Democratic Alliance (DA) controlled the tourist hub of the Western Cape, with its large mixed-race population, and had been making gains with the black middle class in the industrial heartland of Gauteng.

This time, the ANC lost its majority in two provinces, KwaZulu-Natal (home to one of Africa’s largest ports), and Gauteng, rendering the ANC a rural party based on large majorities in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. Though it still received nearly double the votes of the next largest party – the DA won 21.8% – this result represents a stunning reversal for the ANC. So, what went wrong?

The main cause of the ANC’s precipitous decline is its failure to reverse 32% unemployment, with nearly half of the country’s young people out of work. After 350 years of colonialism and apartheid, South Africa remains the world’s most unequal society, with 10% of the population controlling 80.6% of financial assets. Widespread corruption, particularly under President Jacob Zuma’s administration (2009-18), has exacerbated the problem, with state capture during this period estimated to have cost the country $26 billion.

In addition, state-owned enterprises have been looted, reducing the provision of electricity, water, and train services. Even though the black middle class grew from 2.2 million in 1993 to six million in 2018, there remains a widespread perception that a tiny cohort of black billionaires have used their ANC affiliations to benefit from cozy deals with white business. 

Crime also represents a major concern, as South Africa has one of the world’s highest murder rates. The ANC’s support had already tanked at the local level, and before these polls, it governed only two of eight metropolitan municipalities, with the other six run by fractious coalitions.

At the same time, the 82-year old Zuma turned against the party he once dominated. His administration was excoriated by the independent Zondo Commission for grand corruption (which Zuma has denied), while the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, condemned Zuma’s presidency as “eight wasted years.” (Zuma retorted that Ramaphosa had been his deputy for four of those years.)

Having built up the ANC’s comfortable majority on the back of his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma felt deeply aggrieved. Determined to give the party a bloody nose, he formed the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK, named after the ANC’s paramilitary wing during apartheid) six months ago. MK pledged to replace “constitutional supremacy” with “parliamentary supremacy,” expropriate land without compensation, and nationalize mines and banks.

Remarkably, MK gained a whopping 14.6% of the national vote, including 45% in KwaZulu-Natal, where it will almost certainly form the government. MK also became the official opposition in Mpumalanga as the second largest party, with 17%. The paradox is that the alleged architect of the corruption for which the ANC was punished won a sixth of the national vote, making MK the country’s third largest party.

So, with which party will the ANC form a coalition? Many believe there are only three realistic choices. The first option is the white-dominated, business-friendly DA, which Ramaphosa seems to favor. But many within the ANC would oppose this. The DA’s campaign slogan, “Rescue South Africa,” echoes “White Man’s burden” tropes. And the DA has consistently criticized the ANC’s social-welfare programs benefiting impoverished black people. A coalition could also pose risks to the DA, as it did to the apartheid era’s ruling National Party, which was swallowed up in an earlier coalition with the ANC.

The second plausible coalition partner is the left-leaning, youth-supported Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which is often caricatured as a “Marxist party” of extremists, having called, like MK, for uncompensated land redistribution and nationalization of mines and banks. But the EFF has also consistently maintained an anti-xenophobic Pan-Africanism, and raised issues of structural inequality that no other mainstream party has addressed.

An ANC-EFF alliance would be deeply opposed by the powerful white corporate sector and many white voters, with the DA describing it as a “doomsday coalition.” But it is unlikely that the EFF tail would wag the ANC dog, which won four times as many votes.

The third option could be a return to the 1994-96 government of national unity in which South Africa’s largest parties share portfolios according to their electoral support. There is also speculation about Ramaphosa’s future, with MK already conditioning an unlikely coalition deal on his removal. (Deputy President Paul Mashatile and ANC Chair Gwede Mantashe touted as likely successors.)

A president must now be chosen by parliament within 14 days, even as this election has raised two serious concerns. The first is that the pathologies of South Africa’s unstable government coalitions at the local level will become a national problem, triggering political paralysis. Second, it is feared that Zuma’s Zulu-led victory in his home province could lead South Africa to an atavistic ethnic politics that revives the violent clashes once stoked by the apartheid regime.

With the death of Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosutho Buthelezi last year, Zuma now towers over the country’s second-largest province like a political colossus. The astute South African pundit Steven Friedman predicted that this election could be the last time that any party gains a majority in a South African national election. Coalition politics could be here to stay.

Prof Adekeye Adebajo is a professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Project Syndicate on 3 June 2024.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Pretoria.

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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