What’s next for South Africa after voters rebuke their ruling party?

South Africa is heading towards a big change.

The million-dollar question remains exactly what that change will look like and whether it will alleviate the many difficulties facing South Africans.

The African National Congress, or ANC, which has governed with sizable electoral majorities since the beginning of South Africa’s democracy in 1994, won only about 40 percent of the vote in last week’s election. The poor result means he is now negotiating with rival parties to become partners in forming a government.

“In their desperation, I wonder what kind of decisions they will make,” said Bhekindlela Cebekhulu, 40, a theater artist in Soweto.

Will South Africa soon have a white president, or could parties promoting socialism take over his house? asked Cebekhulu, who said he voted for the ANC after waiting in line for more than an hour. What worried him most, he said, were former president Jacob Zuma’s threats to change the Constitution.

The country’s top legislative body, the National Assembly, must meet within two weeks of the official announcement of the election results on Sunday and elect a president.

African National Congress officials have said they want their leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, to continue for a second term. Mr Ramaphosa’s fate is likely to depend on the negotiations.

South Africa appears to be looking down two paths.

The election results could prompt the African National Congress, and whoever enters the national government, to more aggressively address the poverty, unemployment, crime and inequality that afflict the country, lest it lose even more support . Or, political polarization and disputes could deepen, meaning that little is done to solve the problems.

The new government should at least take “steps in the right direction,” said Hlengiwe Ndlovu, a governance professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But if there is political dysfunction, he added, the country could “explode into chaos, into violence, into a state of collapse.”

These are the key leaders who will determine the future of South Africa and the impact they could have.

Cyril Ramaphosa and the African National Congress

The biggest question for Ramaphosa, 71, and his party is what arrangement they would prefer. All of them carry risks.

They could partner with the Democratic Alliance. But that could isolate some of his key supporters in black townships and rural communities because the Democratic Alliance has staunchly opposed policies that give preferences to blacks in employment and property.

Another option is for the ANC to reunite with Zuma, who used to lead the party but helped form a new one that ran against his former allies in this election. But bringing Zuma back into the fold could undermine the ANC’s position that he is rooting out the corruption that has been endemic within it for years. Zuma, an archenemy of Ramaphosa, his former deputy, was forced to resign in 2018 over withering corruption allegations.

The party could also turn to another former member, Julius Malema, who was a firebrand youth leader before he was expelled. Malema founded the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party, a decade ago. Although some members of the African National Congress adopt Malema’s socialist stance, he could push the party in a direction he does not want to go.

There is the possibility of simply governing as a minority government. That means the ANC would negotiate with other parties on an issue-by-issue basis. Some have also suggested forming a “government of national unity” in which all parties in Parliament participate.

All options are open, Fikile Mbalula, the party’s general secretary, said on Sunday. But he won’t be forced to make a bad deal, he said: “We’re talking, but we’re not begging.”

John Steenhuisen and the Democratic Alliance

The Democratic Alliance has been one of the ANC’s harshest critics, hurling personal insults at its members and taking it to court over some of the laws it has passed.

Led by Steenhuisen, 48, who is white, the party abandoned more diverse leadership when it lost the white conservative vote. He leaned into some themes that are championed by some on the far right: he issued a press release that lamented, without evidence, a “sharp increase” in farmer murders and advocated for the continued use of the Afrikaans language at Stellenbosch University.

Still, in some respects, a Democratic Alliance coalition with the ANC would make sense. The party received almost 22 percent of the vote, making it the second largest party. The current ANC leadership generally advocates a centrist economic approach similar to that of the Democratic Alliance. Big business would probably welcome this coalition. Analysts say this partnership would likely protect and strengthen state institutions. And the Democratic Alliance has a good record of functional governance in the Western Cape, the fourth-largest province, and could serve as a check on government corruption, analysts said.

Parties can clash over policies to eliminate racial disparities that persist since apartheid and over foreign policy. The Democratic Alliance firmly supports Western allies. The African National Congress has emphasized the importance of the West but also promotes strong partnerships with countries such as China, Russia and Iran.

Tony León, a former Democratic Alliance leader who is part of the team leading coalition negotiations for the party, said his voters would overcome their reservations with the ANC if they believed the result would be a more functional government. They would also want to keep Zuma and Malema’s parties out of power because of the left-wing economic policies they promote.

“I can absolutely guarantee that 80 per cent, maybe more, of DA voters would say: ‘Make some sensible deal with the ANC,'” he said.

Such an agreement could mean reaching a compromise on policies important to the ANC. One of the Democratic Alliance’s critical priorities is to stop “cadre deployment”, the policy of employing party members in key positions even if they lack the qualifications. The Democratic Alliance has also promised to eliminate affirmative action “because it has only enriched a small, connected elite,” according to its manifesto.

Jacob Zuma and MK

Zuma’s umKhonto weSizwe party, known as MK, was formed just six months ago and was the most surprising spoiler of the election. It finished third, winning nearly 15 percent of the national vote, the most ever by a first-time party.

MK defends a rigid platform: take all land without compensation to put it under state control; abolish the current Constitution; establish a chamber in Parliament for leaders of traditional ethnic groups; and roll back the transition to renewable energy in favor of coal and nuclear power.

But many analysts say Zuma, 82, seems less interested in politics and more interested in punishing Ramaphosa and his party. Although Zuma heads MK, he was recently disqualified from serving in Parliament due to a criminal conviction for failing to testify before a corruption investigation, a charge he claims was politically motivated by Ramaphosa’s government.

Some political analysts and rival politicians say Zuma also wants to access state power to solve some of his legal problems. He faces criminal corruption charges stemming from an arms deal when he was vice president about two decades ago.

MK officials are already demanding that Ramaphosa resign as a condition of any coalition deal, a demand that the ANC is so far resisting.

Analysts say a major concern is that if these two parties unite, it will essentially be a return to the factionalism and corruption that has made the ANC ineffective in running the government.

Voters “are looking for better functioning, they are looking for better performance of current politics,” said Ebrahim Fakir, an electoral analyst at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

Julius Malema and the fighters for economic freedom

Malema has somewhat softened his rhetoric, but he is no less bold in his demands. Last week, he laid out what he would ask of his coalition partners: take land without compensation within six months; create a state bank and cancel student debt within 12 months; free water and electricity for all welfare recipients; and a partner who “would not be a puppet or a representation of the Western imperialist agenda.”

But the 43-year-old leader has lost some influence due to his party’s disappointing results at the polls. His support has fallen by about a percentage point, to about 9.5 percent, since the last election in 2019.

Still, as a former member of the ANC, he has allies within the organization. And his brand of politics appeals to a faction of the party that believes the current leadership has not pushed aggressively enough to undo the economic disparities that afflict black South Africans.

While investors might initially be surprised by a partnership between the ANC and economic freedom fighters due to Malema’s leftist stance, such concerns are overblown, Fakir said. This alliance would not lead to the more drastic changes Malema seeks, Fakir said.

Instead, there could be “an intensification of the current welfare state,” he said. The parties, she said, would probably negotiate something like the Reconstruction and Development Programme. It was a public spending program adopted towards the end of apartheid that was “a slightly more radical Marshall Plan,” Fakir said.

Leave a Comment