What does a wounded ANC mean for South Africa’s prospects?

Amidst debates about presidential impeachment, the main question is how far ANC support will fall in the 2024 elections.

Much ink will be spilt and tweets posted about the future of South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, his governing African National Congress (ANC) party, and South Africa in the coming weeks and months.

On 2 December, the president was apparently dissuaded from resigning based on the damage it would wreak on the ANC – a party suffering declining support and already in a crisis of corruption, patronage and divisive politics.

The events followed a damning report that found sufficient grounds to consider impeachment. Written by an independent panel appointed by the National Assembly, the report concluded that Ramaphosa may have violated the constitution and could be guilty of serious misconduct. This related to the theft of large sums of US dollars from his Phala Phala game farm in 2020 and how the crime was handled.

The accusation against the president is rooted in factional infighting within the ruling party, having been brought by Arthur Fraser, a former intelligence operative implicated in corruption and misconduct.

The ANC’s fortunes are inextricably tied to Ramaphosa, who remains SA’s most popular political leader

The stakes are high. On 16 December, the ANC meets to elect the leadership that will take it into the 2024 general election. The party’s fortunes are inextricably tied to Ramaphosa, South Africa’s most popular political leader. Without him, support for the ANC will likely plummet come election time.

Before the release of the panel’s report, expectations were that ANC support would continue to decline from its 57% in 2019 – likely by around 10 percentage points in 2024. Still the country’s largest party, the ANC would need smaller coalition partner(s) to govern until 2029, when an opposition coalition would become viable. In 2024, the current ANC government in Gauteng – South Africa’s economic heartland – will likely be replaced by an opposition coalition in this crucial province.

These are critical times for the ANC and the country. They provide the opportunity to update the political scenarios that the Institute for Security Studies has regularly released since 2017 on South Africa’s future. Our offering recently explored two broad alternatives – one where Ramaphosa remains the country’s president and the other, where he steps aside ahead of the party’s imminent internal elections.

Given the damage it would suffer should Ramaphosa resign now, just before the ANC chooses its new leaders, his supporters reportedly persuaded him to stay on to contest for leader and president of the country. He has also now taken the Phala Phala report on review since much of it seems based on hearsay, and some legal interpretations appear questionable.

Ramaphosa’s contenders are also weak and suffer accusations of poor leadership, lack of judgement and incompetence. ANC parliamentarians have already been instructed to vote against adopting the Phala Phala report, pending a review, when they meet on 13 December.

In 2024, ANC support could fall well below the 47% previously expected in updated ISS forecasts

Ramaphosa is still likely to be re-elected as ANC president this month and even endure an impeachment hearing should things come to that. But he is wounded, and the ANC will suffer at the polls in 2024. With ongoing electricity outages, unprecedented crime levels and a hostile external economic environment, ANC support could fall significantly below the 47% previously expected in our updated forecasts.

The crisis in the ANC is unlikely to translate into an opposition government by 2024. But the party’s support will probably decline to the low 40s, forcing it into an alliance with one of the two larger opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The prospect of a new party building a national profile by 2024 is remote.

Previously the ANC may have been able to govern in alliance with a batch of smaller parties. Given the very different ideological orientations of the two larger opposition parties, the ANC’s choice would be crucial for South Africa’s future – basically one between pursuing wealth redistribution or economic growth.

The impeachment saga has shaken South Africa, but Ramaphosa has consistently demonstrated his belief in the supremacy of the rule of law and due process. For all the noise around Phala Phala, Ramaphosa, unlike many of his senior party colleagues, is committed to constitutionalism. He will likely remain the country’s president until 2029, although at the head of a coalition government.

South Africa has much to lose if the ANC ousts Ramaphosa at its elective conference or as its candidate for national president in 2024. He has doggedly rebuilt the country’s institutions and steadily advanced government reform – such as empowering the National Prosecuting Authority and the Auditor General. These steps will, in time, unlock accountability and are vital for potential investors in Africa who are uncertain where to plant their seed.

A change in government is needed for SA to disrupt the ANC’s record of patronage and poor governance

However, a change in government is needed for South Africa to prosper and disrupt the deeply embedded patronage and poor governance that characterises the ANC. The Phala Phala saga hastens the demise of the ANC, a party that has compounded inequality, poverty and unemployment through its action and inaction.

The only question now is how far ANC support will fall in 2024. Party reform could have happened when the ANC was on an upward trajectory, but it’s almost impossible to shift the party’s present track. That track is closely tied to elites in rural areas and traditional leadership, even though urbanisation and education point to the need to mobilise the urban vote.

While it’s certain that the ANC will need partners to remain in government after the 2024 elections, it will probably still have enough support to stave off an opposition coalition government.

But which orientation will emerge in a 2024 government where the ANC is still the largest single party? Will it be DA- or EFF-leaning, or will the ANC be able to cobble together enough smaller parties to get a majority? South Africans need good governance to grow the economy, and the choice made will be critical for the future.

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

Image: © Esa Alexander / Pool / AFP

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