Alliance politics after SA’s elections


Based on long-term political party trend analysis in the book Fate of the Nation and on various recent surveys, support for South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) in May’s elections should come in at around 58%.

That’s below the current 62% support it received in the 2014 parliamentary polls but better than the 52% it received in 2016’s local government elections. Fifty-eight percent would be a good outcome for the ANC and reflect the appeal of its president rather than the party. Without Cyril Ramaphosa the ANC would do much worse.

That outcome would allow the ANC to govern to 2024 without the need for a national alliance partner. Ramaphosa would be sworn in as president on 25 May and present a second State of the Nation address shortly after.

South Africa would get a smaller and more capable cabinet and Ramaphosa would proceed with the business- and investment-friendly reforms that alone can unlock more rapid growth and jobs.

Except for the Western Cape, the ANC is likely to win in seven other provinces

A big unknown is the extent to which the many smaller parties with these elections may draw support away from the big three. Except for the Western Cape, the ANC is likely to win in seven other provinces – though with smaller majorities than before. In Gauteng ANC support could easily fall below 50%. It may therefore have to decide on an alliance partner between the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the Democratic Alliance (DA), or an amalgamation of smaller parties.

The DA is likely to retain the Western Cape and should get around 23% at national level, possibly more if ANC turnout is particularly low. Although it too has struggled with leadership, policy and other issues, the DA can point to the Western Cape and Cape Town as examples to the rest of the country in terms of constraining corruption, effective service delivery and job creation.

It is however unlikely to achieve sufficient support in Gauteng to be able to form a governing alliance, except possibly with the EFF. The ideological differences between the DA and EFF would make this an unworkable partnership, however.

The EFF could get around 10% nationally – a substantial improvement on its current 6%. The remaining 9% will be divided between the many smaller parties, including the Inkatha Freedom Party and Congress of the People.

After the May elections Ramaphosa and his top leadership, flawed as it may be, would then need to decide on the direction in which to take the ANC towards the 2021 local government elections and the next national elections in 2024.

South Africa could enter an era of coalition politics that would reshape its political future

Current indications are that the 2021 local government elections will likely again see the ANC take a hammering at the polls since it traditionally does worse in local elections. Turning local government around is sure to take a long time and it is here that the ANC’s poor governance is most acutely felt.

On its current mediocre service delivery and divided trajectory, the ANC will probably lose its national majority in 2024 and thereafter be dependent on others to form a governing coalition. That would require the ANC to enter into a post-2024 alliance with either the DA or EFF at national level.

In contrast to the first-past-the-post system, South Africa’s proportional system incentivises coalitions and alliances. The choice of a suitable alliance partner in Gauteng after 8 May should be seen in the context of the ANC positioning itself for local government elections in 2021 and national elections in 2024. Various commentators have already concluded that the 8 May election outcome could introduce an era of coalition politics that would reshape the country’s political landscape.

Under Jacob Zuma the ANC veered decidedly towards black nationalism – an increasingly ruralist party of social conservatives dependent on buying the support of traditional leadership. On this trajectory the ANC would eventually depend on the EFF nationally and possibly also in a few rural provinces to stay in power beyond 2024.

This is a vision anchored in redistribution, black economic empowerment and a centralised state as a response to SA’s many challenges. It doesn’t hold the promise of better governance, growth, jobs or improved service delivery. But it would deliver another term of national power for the ANC in partnership with the EFF, even if with calamitous results for the party and the country.

SA’s current mediocre development trajectory doesn’t allow for talking left and walking right

The association with state capture, corruption and poor service delivery detract from voter appeal for an ANC that pursues this future. Although an alliance with the EFF is emotionally appealing to many in the ANC, it would probably strengthen general concerns about corruption and governance particularly in the business community, and with middle-class voters and international investors. South Africa would suffer.

Ramaphosa remains an enigma to many but there is little doubt about his belief in a mixed economy, a constitutional state and a non-racial future. This is a vision of a modern, social democratic state that prepares for participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the potential of the digital economy to unlock a more prosperous future.

That vision is a far cry from the party’s current mediocre trajectory but it is in tune with the demographic profile of younger and more urban-based born-free voters that will, by 2024, dominate our electorate.

It is this faction that will consolidate its power after 8 May as the Zondo Commission, the new National Prosecuting Authority director, the Hawks and reform of state-owned enterprises whittle away at the support base of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and former president Jacob Zuma. It is likely in expectation of these developments that Magashule is seeking to strengthen his faction by reaching out to Julius Malema and the EFF.

Under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki the ANC could talk left and walk right. Ramaphosa’s instinct is to do the same, but the need to change the country’s current mediocre development trajectory and the declining electoral fortunes of the ANC don’t allow for that.

If the ANC indeed loses its majority in Gauteng and looks ahead to 2021 and 2024, these calculations could see an alliance between the ANC and the DA in the province as a precursor to a potential national alliance after 2024.

It would ensure that Ramaphosa would remain president of South Africa to 2028 when, ahead of the 2029 elections, the ANC would embark on its next choice of leader. It would also be the best outcome for South Africa, but ironically not for the DA.

Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria

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