After three decades in power, will the ANC keep its majority?

South Africa waits nervously for the 29th May election that could change its political history
May 22, 2024

Nervous South Africans head to the polls on 29th May for the most unpredictable national and provincial parliamentary elections since the advent of democracy in the country in 1994. Forecasts from most opinion surveys suggest that the vote share of Nelson Mandela’s former party, the African National Congress (ANC)—which has ruled for 30 years—will fall below 50 per cent nationally for the first time.

That raises the prospect that South Africa may see its first coalition government, of which the possible permutations are wide—and for some people, frightening. Years of corrupt and incompetent government have led to the steady collapse of infrastructure, including frequent electricity blackouts and intermittent train services. In an already shaky economy, some people are nervous about what a change in government might mean for foreign investor confidence. 

Polls predict the ANC, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, will win as little as 40 per cent of the popular vote, which would represent a spectacular fall from the 57.5 per cent it gathered in the last national elections in 2019. The most generous polling forecasts suggest a result of just over 50 per cent, which—if they are right—would mean the ANC could do just well enough to form a government on its own.

If the ANC vote share does fall slightly below 50 per cent, the party could perhaps form a coalition with a smaller party such as the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), established by the late Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which commands about 3 to 4 per cent of the national vote.

Such a coalition would probably not have much impact on government policy. But the further below 50 per cent the ANC falls, the greater the uncertainty about possible coalition partners—and therefore the anxiety about the likely impact on policy—becomes. 

At around 45 per cent or less, the ANC might have to form a coalition with one of the two biggest opposition parties, the centrist, liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) or the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The latest poll by the international independent polling company Ipsos gives the ANC 40.2 per cent, the DA 21.9 per cent and the EFF 11.5 per cent.

The more likely partner of the two is the EFF. It’s closer to the ANC ideologically, having been established by politicians expelled or defecting from the ANC. Since then, though, it has carved out a more radical agenda, especially economically, including demands for nationalisation and extensive land redistribution without compensation. The ANC has already entered into coalitions with the EFF at local government level, in the metropolitan areas of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni on the East Rand, in Gauteng province.

But giving the EFF a say in national government policy would be a major risk for the country, as it might shake foreign investor confidence in an already struggling economy. The South African economy grew just 0.6 per cent last year, but growth of more than 5 percent is needed if the government is to tackle unemployment—currently one in three adults is out of work. Inviting the EFF into government would very likely also accelerate the weakening of the already volatile rand, currently trading at $1=R18.8, but falling by about 5 per cent a year since 2020. 

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Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman who has prioritised attracting foreign investment to bolster an ailing economy, would probably prefer to form a coalition with the DA if he had to choose between it and the EFF. The DA is a liberal, free market party that is strongly pro-business. And in foreign policy it also pro-west. 

In theory the DA is not available as a coalition partner for the ANC as it has already formed a multi-party coalition with 10 other smaller centrist parties. But the DA leader John Steenhuisen has privately assured western ambassadors that if the election results do mean the ANC must choose between coalition with the DA or EFF, the DA would step in to “rescue” South Africa from the economic calamity that an ANC-EFF government would likely precipitate. 

Whether the ANC would back Ramaphosa in entering a coalition with the DA, though, is uncertain. Such a move would infuriate the ANC’s own leftist faction and could force a split in the party—or even the sacking of Ramaphosa as national president.   

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Ramaphosa is pulling out all the stops to either win the election outright or to come close enough to a majority that he can avoid conceding any major policy ground. His rather desperate, last-minute vote-grabbing measures include squandering an inordinate amount of money on diesel—to prevent electricity blackouts caused by faltering coal-fired power stations—and the last-minute signing of populist legislation, such as a bill to establish a National Health Insurance (NHI) policy. 

This has unnerved most analysts and ordinary South Africans. 

But Peter Attard Montalto, managing director at Krutham, a South African research-led consulting company, is less alarmed about the election than most and thinks the status quo will broadly remain. “We don’t think that there will be ‘mad’ coalitions,” he says. Specifically he doesn’t believe that the ANC will enter a coalition with the EFF. “We believe the national ANC is firmly against that, given the antagonistic relationship and history between the parties.”

Attard Montalto said he thought an ANC-DA coalition was also unlikely as it carried significant risks for the DA and might not last—both sides would avoid it if possible. And in the unlikely event that they were to form a coalition, Montalto believes that basic agreements between the ANC and DA on most important policies such as electricity, logistics and the country’s fiscal stance would help maintain stability. 

Meanwhile, far from the hustings and the macroeconomic debates, in the tiny hamlet of Vuwani in the Vhembe district in the northeastern corner of the country, fruit hawker Nelta Ngobeni told me: “Here in Vuwani, we don’t have roads or water. We have to go down to the river just to collect water. We don’t even have toilets in our houses. We don’t even have long drops [pit latrines]. We have to go into the bushes and we risk being bitten by snakes just to relieve ourselves.”

Muvhango Mphilo, a teacher from nearby Louis Trichardt said: “We feel that all parties are the same. They just want our votes. And then after getting our votes, they disappear.”