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South Africa enters uncharted territory

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Cyril Ramaphosa starts his second term as the president of the republic, after he is sworn in at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on June 19, 2024. A GNU centred on the ANC, DA and IFP emerged as a compromise following the elections. The other eight GNU members are an alphabet soup of tiny parties with wildly conflicting interests, the writer says. – Picture: Timothy Bernard / Independent Newspapers

By Paul Nantulya

Having earned only 40 percent of the vote in the most pivotal election since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy in 1994, a subdued African National Congress (ANC) scrambled to find partners to form a government.

It was faced with the option of striking a deal with the Democratic Alliance (DA), of John Steenhuisen, which got 22 percent of the vote, or the parties that broke away from it, namely the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of Julius Malema, which won 10 percent, and former President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MKP), which received 15 percent.

The DA, which draws its main support from whites and coloureds, vigorously opposes the ANC’s signature policies of affirmative Black Economic Empowerment, state-funded universal healthcare, and steep minimum wage increases, among others.

Its critics accuse it of protecting white minority economic privilege built during apartheid, a charge it denies. Many in the ANC favoured a coalition with the EFF and MK, as they come from the ANC’s ideological universe, share the same constituency, the majority Black population, and their combined vote comes to 65 percent.

Others argued that an ANC/EFF/MKP deal would spook the markets and foreign investors. EFF and MKP favour the ANC’s so — called “left-of-centre” policy programmes like land expropriation without compensation. These remain popular with Black voters but are disliked by market sentiment, foreign investors, and the DA.

The ANC’s Alliance Partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), stood against a coalition with either the DA or the MKP. The SACP characterised the latter as a “counter revolutionary force” led by forces implicated in state capture that resisted ANC reform efforts, increased factionalism within it, and brought down its share of the vote.

A Government of National Unity (GNU) centred on the ANC, DA and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) emerged as a compromise. The other eight GNU members are an alphabet soup of tiny parties with wildly conflicting interests that must be managed with great dexterity to avert government shutdowns, paralysis, and public unrest.

They include the Patriotic Alliance, which favours mass deportations of undocumented African migrants, the Freedom Front Plus that wants “self-determination” of Orania, a whites-only settlement in the Karoo region that has resisted integration into post-apartheid South Africa, and Al Jamaah, a political home for Muslims.

The EFF and MKP stayed away from the GNU talks and went to the opposition benches, where they built a “progressive caucus” that holds 30 percent of the National Assembly seats. They refused to participate in a GNU that included the DA, which they call “the enemy.” The feeling is mutual: the DA characterises the EFF as “public enemy number one” and called a coalition among the ANC, MKP, and EFF, a “doomsday scenario.”

Roger Southall notes, the “ANC tradition” has remained dominant while the ANC Party has declined. Notably, opposition parties outside the “ANC tradition” have played less of a role in wiping out the ANC majority.

Making sense of the ANC’s decline

Over 400 mostly micro parties and independent candidates contested the polls in an unprecedented effort to break the ANC’s majority. The DA assembled a grouping of smaller parties that added 32 seats to its 87 for a combined 119 National Assembly seats.

But it was the MKP, which named itself after the ANC’s former military wing, which inflicted the most damage on the ANC.

The biggest chunk of its votes came from ANC branches, and included scores of former uMkhonto weSizwe commanders and fighters that have been languishing in abject poverty since 1994. The ANC would have finished at 55 percent had the insurgent uMkhonto not stolen its votes and political infrastructure.

The trend of the ANC losing ground to malcontents started way back in the 2009, when its vote was shaved to 65 percent (down from 70 percent in 2004).

This was after followers of former President Thabo Mbeki founded the Congress of the People (COPE), which took its name from the 1959 Congress of the People that produced the renowned “Freedom Charter.”

They left the ANC to protest Mbeki’s ouster by Zuma loyalists a year before the expiry of his presidential term. The trend continued under Malema’s EFF, formed in 2013 by expelled members of the ANC Youth League that he led at the time.

In 2014 they sunk the ANC’s vote to 62 percent. In 2019, they reduced it further to 57 percent, to become South Africa’s third-largest party.

That lift also partly came from ANC followers who wanted to punish the ruling party for cutting Zuma’s presidential term short and replacing him with President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018. This time around, they had their own political outfit to do damage to their former political home.

As previously mentioned, the combined ANC, EFF, and MK seats constitute a majority of 65 percent. In 2019, 2013, 2004, and 1999, the combined votes of the ANC and its splinters were 68, 69, and 71 percent respectively.

Hence as Roger Southall notes, the “ANC tradition” has remained dominant while the ANC Party has declined. Notably, opposition parties outside the “ANC tradition” have played less of a role in wiping out the ANC majority.

Indeed, the DA, South Africa’s second-largest party, has remained in the lower 20’s since 2014, meaning it has not grown at the ANC’s expense.

Put differently, the ANC’s slow but steady decline has mostly occurred at the hands of its supporters, voters, and members.

All this is being closely watched by fellow liberation movements and other entrenched ruling parties around Africa and elsewhere.

Many desire to remain in power indefinitely, and like the ANC, they have been beset by mounting levels of discontent stemming from systematic corruption, impunity, entitlement to rule, and insensitivity to citizens’ concerns. It is unclear what lessons they will pick from the ANC’s rude awakening.

The ANC’s Alliance Partners, the SACP and COSATU, stood against a coalition with either the DA or the MKP. The SACP characterised the latter as a “counter revolutionary force” led by forces implicated in state capture that resisted ANC reform efforts, increased factionalism within it, and brought down its share of the vote.

Charting the way forward

Formal apartheid is over but its effects continue to shape South Africans’ daily lives. According to a 2017 land audit by South Africa’s Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, South African Whites own 72 percent of the country’s individually owned land despite representing less than 10 percent of the population.

Black South Africans own 15 percent, while other groups own the remaining 13 percent. Meanwhile, according to the South African Human Rights Commission, 64 percent of Black people live in abject poverty, compared to 1 percent of their White compatriots, 6 percent of Asians, and 41 percent of coloureds (mixed race).

It is therefore unsurprising that South Africa has one of the highest rates of protest action in the world, many of which turn violent, causing massive economic damage. In the first half of 2022 alone, South Africa lost a staggering 1.6 million work days due to strikes.

The country also has the world’s third highest crime rate, with youth unemployment hovering at above 50 percent. Drawn up by South Africans from all walks of life, the “Freedom Charter” sets forth an ambitious programme to address and alleviate the historical sources of inequality, of which land, housing, and free education remain paramount.

Many agree that these issues cannot be postponed indefinitely and must be tackled head on to avoid following the path of other countries.

However, there is a tendency by many politicians to characterise the call of the Freedom Charter, which Ramaphosa cited extensively at his inauguration as a so — called “radical” programme that will scare the markets and damage the economy.

In other words, maintaining market stability and investor confidence, and creating a more equal and just society are presented as mutually exclusive options. This need not be the case, as a more equitable South Africa should ultimately be the best guarantee for long term economic and market stability.

The task of moving South Africa forward should not be left to politicians, however. Civil society played a catalytic role during key turning points of South African history, including the famous Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) that midwifed the transition to democracy.

Indeed, some are calling for a civic-led CODESA II to accompany the current transition, facilitate public input, and hold the parties accountable at each step. South Africa can thus draw on its rich historical experience to navigate this pivotal moment.

Paul Nantulya is a Research Associate with the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.

This article was first published on ACCORD