Menu Close

South Africa’s new political configuration will impact the Continent

Add to my bookmarks
ClosePlease login

No account yet? Register

Share This Article:

President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Results Operation Centre during the national elections announcement at Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand, Gauteng. – Picture: Oupa Mokoena / Independent Newspapers

By Kim Heller

It is a new era for South Africa. The ANC which has ruled since the eve of democracy in 1994, failed to win a majority vote in the country’s national election last week. With just 40 percent of the vote, the ANC will now need to form a coalition government if it is to occupy pride of place in Parliament.

Speaking at the IEC’s results presentation on Sunday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa said, “The people of South Africa expect their leaders to work together to meet their needs. This is a time for all of us to put South Africa first.” Ramaphosa implored South Africa’s political parties to find “common ground” as they fashion the democratic nation’s first national coalition government.

The outcome of the political jostling and reconfiguration set to take place over the next two weeks in South Africa will undoubtedly impact the Continent. South Africa is not only an economic powerhouse on the Continent, but a thought leader, pace setter and mediator. The failure of the ANC to emerge victorious will impact on Continental and regional stability, integration, and cooperation, and could reshape South Africa’s relations with individual African nations.

Speaking to Food for Mzansi journalist, Octavia Avesca Spandiel, just days before the election, Motsepe Matlala, president of the National African Farming Union (Nafu), said, “As the economic engine of the region, South Africa’s elections reverberate far beyond its borders. The outcome of these elections will not only shape the trajectory of South Africa but will also influence political and economic dynamics across the entire SADC region.”

Matlala spoke of how South Africa’s elections are not just a national affair but reverberate across the continent, influencing “everything from trade agreements to regional cooperation”.

The most likely coalition is between the ANC with the centrist, historically white DA. For many, this would be a blight not only on the liberation project in South Africa but Continentally. An ANC-DA government would represent a stronger shift towards and concentration of neo-colonial economics.

This could see South Africa moving slowly but surely away from BRICS in the restoration of US and Europe economic ties and co-operation. This would surely be welcomed by the US and France, in particular, who are fast losing their grip on the Continent after being increasingly rejected by African countries, particularly in West Africa.

In reorientating South Africa towards Europe and US, issues of African unity and collaboration are likely to be backstaged. This could impact on the significant role that South Africa plays in fostering regional and Continental stability and security. With an ANC-DA government in play, a more conservative foreign policy framework is to be expected. This would reshape relations on the Continent and beyond. In this scenario, South Africa’s support of Israel is likely to tone down.

If the ANC forms a coalition government with EFF and other black political parties, this could strengthen economic possibilities across the Continent in general and within SADC in particular. Under this political configuration, one could expect a more humane and sustainable solution to African migrancy. This coalition would be a win for Russia, which is increasingly part of the new geopolitics of the Continent.

South Africa’s fate and fortune has always been intrinsically tied up with that of the Continent. When the apartheid government fell in 1994, the Continent rose up in applause. The end of white minority political rule and the inauguration of the ANC as the new government of South Africa, was a shared celebration.

Many African nations had played an instrumental role in supporting the ANC, and its cadres, in the goliath fight against apartheid. Political freedom in South Africa was a significant beacon of light and liberation in the Continent’s long crusade against colonialism, and towards self-determination.

In 1957, Ghana became the first African country to gain independence. South Africa was the last of the former colonies to attain political freedom. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s President spoke of how the independence of Ghana was meaningless “unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.” When the ANC won power in 1994, President Nelson Mandela described it as a moment of historical significance in the overall struggle for liberation against colonialism.

In 1994, hopes were high for South Africa. Hailed as a miracle nation, under the messianic leadership of Nelson Mandela, South Africa was abundant with promise and possibility. In the early years, South Africa, the last born of liberation in the Continent could do no wrong.

But thirty years later, the mythical miracle nation is the world’s most unequal country. This week, CNN described South Africa as a country that “has failed its black majority amid an unhappy combination of rampant corruption, soaring joblessness, crippling power cuts and feeble economic growth”.

Rating agency Moody’s has remarked that the new era of coalition governments in South Africa “could complicate the execution of fiscal, economic and social policies that would help address South Africa’s structural credit weaknesses, such as slow economic growth, inefficiencies in the energy and logistics sectors, and high unemployment.”

The South African election took place in a Continent which has not been well served by democracy. The era of political liberation in Africa did not wash away the legacy of colonialism. Economic plunder, deprivation and dependency continues to linger along with cultural and societal fragmentation. And the most notable transformation in Africa has been of once-upon-a-time selfless freedom fighters into greedy political despots.

The political ballot has not brought economic liberation, financial flourish, or cultural rejuvenation. Elections, often held up as a barometer of a nation’s democratic health, are increasingly viewed by ordinary citizens as unfair, ineffective, and illegitimate. Seasoned political parties and leaders who have held onto power for too long are being rejected. The era of liberation parties ‘being the only party in town’ and the reign of single party dominance may well be ending in a shake-up of democracy fashioned by both multiparty configurations and coups.

Africa is expected to hold nineteen elections this year. This grand contest for political reconfiguration provides an opportunity to reshape country democracies, shift geo-political power across the Continent and restore stability.

Citizens are increasingly cynical about elections, according to the latest Afrobarometer survey. Most Africans endorse elections as the best method for choosing their leaders and support multiparty competition. But the majority do not believe that elections necessarily ensured representative, accountable governance.

Faith in democracy and elections have plummeted in South Africa, as it has across Africa. In 2004, 63 percent felt that democracy was functioning. In 2023, this had fallen to just 22 percent, according to research from the Human Sciences Research Council.

While optics create a portraiture of a blooming democracy with fifty-two parties competing for the political prize in the recently held election, there is growing cynicism among South Africans, and lower participation in elections. Voter participation in elections fell from a high 86 percent in 1994 to 66 percent in 2019. In last week’s election, voter turnout was just 56,8 percent.

Nonetheless, for now, South Africa remains the gold standard for free and fair elections on the Continent. The country has been a bastion of stability in Africa. On the whole, elections in South Africa have been conducted without major conflict or violence, and in a free and fair manner. The latest elections were declared free and fair by the IEC on Sunday, despite objections from over 20 political parties, including the Jacob Zuma led MK party.

IEC’s CEO Mosotho Moepya, said “These elections were undoubtedly the most difficult and the most highly contested as a nation. We have emerged triumphant, having conducted these elections with the utmost transparency, with fairness and with adherence to the high standards.”

The success of the latest South African election is good for the health of democracy in Africa. If the South African election was flawed in terms of its impartiality or if its result is questionable, the currency of electoral democracy would have devalued further. This election boosts the image of elections as an effective mechanism of democracy and the will of the people.

For the African continent, the failure of the ANC to emerge as the majority party signifies more than a new mix of economic and policy shifts, or potential threats or opportunities. It also has a historical struggle dimension. The youngest child of liberation in Africa would have fallen. The New Dawn of Ramaphosa is one of coalition politics. He is likely to stay and preside over the new coalition government. But his legacy will always be stained by this electoral defeat. There is a lesson in this election. Empires can fall in a day.

Promising governments that fail to deliver to their people can and will fall. Once upon a time it would have been inconceivable to contemplate that the oldest liberation movement in Africa, the ANC, would be scorned and rejected by the very people they pledged to liberate. In the end, the South African election has shown that ordinary people have the power to vote out those who have failed them. This is democracy at work.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.