Is South Africa heading towards a political turning point?


South Africa may fast be approaching a political turning point – but things will get worse before they get better.

The country’s future rests heavily on the outcome of the very public struggle for power between two competing factions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC). In our recently launched research, we have broadly categorised these factions as ‘traditionalists’ and ‘reformers’.

Although perhaps too simplistic a characterisation, traditionalists are typically those loyal to President Jacob Zuma, who endorse socially conservative and highly redistributive policies, and a commitment to a centralised state.

Reformers, on the other hand, are largely composed of urban social democrats with a commitment to inclusive economic growth. The former are paternalistic insiders, currently benefitting from the status quo, while the latter are generally outsiders, vying to gain access to the rich bounty of resources from which they are currently excluded.

A number of key milestones between now and 2024 will contribute to raising the political temperature between these two groups, and will determine the country’s rate of economic and social progress. These include the municipal government elections scheduled for August 2016 and a likely international investment rating downgrade towards the latter part of 2016, or early in 2017. A third key milestone is the election of a new president of the ANC in December 2017 (or earlier – should Zuma step down in response to growing pressure for him to do so).

Born-free voters will change election outcomes at greater volumes each year

Support for the ANC is on a downward trajectory, from a high of 70% in 2004 to 62% in the 2014 national elections. Furthermore, protest is growing increasingly violent and election-related. Our forecast – detailed in a recent Institute for Security Studies (ISS) publication titled South Africa scenarios 2024 – suggests that the ANC could lose its national majority by 2024. This could happen as early as 2019 if the ANC splits in 2018, as we think could happen.

All of this depends on the outcomes of the National Conference set for December 2017, when the party elects the 86 members of its National Executive Council (NEC) – including a new president.

Following that, national and provincial elections scheduled for 2019 and 2024 are two points at which we will clearly see the impact of generational change on voter behaviour as the electorate becomes better educated, more urban and more picky. A larger cohort of ‘born free’ voters (born after elections in 1994) – less encumbered by the personal experience of apartheid – will change election outcomes at greater volumes each year.

But what will this change look like?

If traditionalism continues to dominate within the ANC, growth prospects are poor

Building on two previous ISS papers on the long-term future of South Africa, our most recent forecast to 2024 describes and projects three possible future pathways for the country. We’ve called these Bafana Bafana (the uninspiring yet most likely pathway), Mandela Magic (a possible desirable future), and Nation Divided (the downside scenario).

Bafana Bafana is a dreary future where President Zuma is replaced by a compromise top ANC slate of traditionalists and reformers at the end of 2017. Although it will appear to be a big change, this will be a balancing act to keep the party united but South Africa muddling along.

Under this scenario, the ANC goes into the 2019 national/provincial elections with a new but uninspiring team. With a newly elected ANC and South African president, the ANC should obtain in the region of 56% support during these elections – but could fall below an absolute majority of support in 2024.

Given the burden he has become to the ANC, Zuma’s departure as president of both the ANC and South Africa – before or immediately after December 2017 – would point the country towards the Mandela Magic, higher-road scenario. This pathway is characterised by a rapid transition to a new leadership dominated by a truly reformist grouping. This will only happen if the leadership transition is accompanied by a bold reform of the country’s current low-growth policies, wastage and cabinet incoherence.

Progress will come from increased investment in SA’s productive and innovation capacity

Mandela Magic sees a reformist grouping of the ANC take the party forward after the December 2017 NEC and the traditionalist camp accepting defeat. With that, support for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) eventually drops off on the understanding that most of the EFF votes were actually protest votes against the current leadership of the ANC. In addition, ANC voters considering voting for the Democratic Alliance (DA) – particularly in Gauteng – may be persuaded to give the reformed ANC the benefit of the doubt under a revived leadership that echoes Mandela’s vision of a rainbow nation. Or ANC support drops below 50% and a coalition of a reformed ANC- DA takes the country forward.

But, as positive as this scenario may sound, it would not be smooth sailing. The ANC will face internal revolt from those who lose their power and ability to access resources, and some within the party will rebel against its more social-democratic policies.

The country will be put on a truly divisive and economically worrying Nation Divided path under either of two conditions. The first is if the ANC extends Zuma’s mandate as president of the party and the country to 2019 (by aligning the term of office of the president of the ANC with that of the president of the country).

The second is if the traditionalists triumph in December 2017 by electing an NEC, including a top six, who continue to support the notion of growth through redistribution. Either of these situations would likely see the ANC begin to emulate the populist policies espoused by the EFF, and even entering into a coalition with them at various levels. The result, in time, would be a much smaller economy, increased levels of social instability and a country that is much poorer than it could have been.

Events in South Africa’s economic heartland of Gauteng could serve as a tipping point

In summary, if the traditionalist camp of the ANC continues to dominate the party and national politics, growth prospects are poor and a weaker economy is likely to further incentivise the recourse to violence and widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. But if the traditionalists gain the upper hand in December 2017, it is quite likely that the party could again split; similar to the events that led to the creation of the Congress of the People and the EFF.

If that happens, South Africa would enter an unprecedented era of coalition politics at the national level – since it is quite likely that the ANC would then tip to below 50% during the 2019 elections, instead of only by 2024 as forecast under our most likely Bafana Bafana scenario.

We believe that events in South Africa’s economic heartland of Gauteng could serve as a tipping point for national support levels for both the ANC and the DA. Our most likely pathway is that the DA is very likely to win Gauteng with an absolute majority in 2024. Once this happens, the ANC will find itself essentially a rural party and its future support could slip quite dramatically – particularly if the relatively higher decline in ANC turnout in rural provinces (as opposed to more urban provinces) continues.

Political change led by a reformist ANC – either as the dominant party or in a coalition with the DA at local and provincial levels – that ushers in a commitment to a labour-intensive, low-wage and a less-regulated growth path could, in time, reduce much of the country’s economic and social malaise. But achieving this will not be easy. While South Africa needs to build an inclusive economy to empower the marginalised, it also needs to build a knowledge economy in partnership with the private sector to spur much more rapid rates of growth.

Progress will come from increased investment in the country’s productive and innovation capacity. This would be a much more efficient approach to the management of public finances (and the economy as a whole), including the removal of most Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment policies and associated disincentives to growth.

While current conditions may look dismal, politics are more fluid than they’ve ever been and South Africa continues to have significant pent-up economic growth potential. The next few years will indicate if political developments can unlock a more prosperous future for all.  

Ciara Aucoin, Researcher, and Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation Programme, ISS Pretoria

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