Will the ANC finally lose in 2024

Having just lost an outright majority nationally for the first time, it is entirely possible that the ANC could lose the country in 2024. But having got to this point, there are a number of possible futures for the country — and some of them are quite scary

First published in Financial Mail and BusinessLive

11 NOVEMBER 2021 – 05:00

The November 1 local government elections were the second of just two “watershed moments” in SA’s recent history, says the Sunday Times.

The first was the 1994 elections, “when, for the first time, all South Africans, irrespective of race, voted together for a common government”. This second watershed saw “the post-apartheid mould of one-party dominance … to all intents and purposes, broken”.

It’s a bold assessment — but perhaps a little hasty. More cautious observers believe a real epochal shift will not come until 2024, if at all. There is a long and perilous journey between a fading dominant-party regime and a competitive multiparty system.

After all, the ANC has been drinking in the last-chance electoral saloon for almost a decade. The party’s Gauteng result in May 2014 (54%, from 64% in 2009), and its disastrous performance in the 2016 local government elections (54% nationally, from 62% in 2011), made this long-term decline evident. It was obscured only temporarily by support for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) during Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

However, what does mark out this result as special is the breaching of the 50% threshold, with the ANC securing just 46% of the vote overall.

A paltry 36% in Gauteng, further losses in Joburg and Tshwane, the failure to turn back the tide in Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay, and the loss of eThekwini confirm the movement’s decline. The party’s once-professional campaign machinery was a shambles: little money, no message, strikes at Luthuli House, and pitiful excuses for defeat.

But it is too soon to write the ANC’s obituary, or to describe it as a party of the former bantustans and rural areas. It remains the biggest party in 161 municipalities.

Far from storming the gates, the major opposition parties have failed to capitalise on the ANC’s vulnerability.

The fact is, the DA secured around 1,400 seats, against the 1,800 it won in 2016. The botched removal of former party boss Mmusi Maimane has contributed to a collapse of black support for the party, and support from coloured voters has shrunk badly (see page 25).

While the DA may have stemmed the growth of the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus), it has failed to recapture lost support among white Afrikaners. As a result, its support in the Western Cape fell to 54%, and it lost strongholds such as Cape Agulhas and Breede Valley.

Perhaps party leader John Steenhuisen is pleased that the party got voters out at all, in an election where the genial Cyril Ramaphosa, rather than the Zuma bogey-man, served as leader of the governing party. And the party does have opportunities for anti-ANC coalitions thanks to the fragmentation created by the rise of the FF Plus, ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance.

Julius Malema’s EFF secured 10% overall. Over the past decade, the party has transformed itself from a regional and ethnic formation to an organisation with a national footprint. It has continued to perform well in Gauteng, Limpopo and the North West, but it also has a substantial presence in KZN and now, for the first time, in the Eastern Cape, where it secured 8% of the vote.

ActionSA’s targeted Gauteng campaigns brought it 16% of the vote in Joburg and 7% in the province’s other metros, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni. In KZN, the IFP secured 27%.

While these and other smaller parties campaigned strongly, and will have some leverage in specific municipalities, the three big parties will dominate coalition politics.

Maturing coalition politics

Coalitions or governance agreements are unlikely to be finalised until we approach the 14-day post-election deadline for councils to meet, in a week’s time.

But it will be tricky. In 2016 there were just 27 hung councils. Today we have 66.

The bigger parties have taken coalitions seriously and considered the permutations and scenarios. They have identified “red lines” and set out “principles” that they claim will govern deal-making.

The DA appears to be the party with the most straightforward strategy, summarised by Steenhuisen as: “No unstable coalitions!”

After a weekend of deliberation, the party has reiterated that it will not work with the EFF, but also that it is now not interested in doing any deal — formal coalition or co-operation agreement — with the ANC.

This shows it learnt from 2016, when it co-operated with the EFF and others. It was a confusing mess that tarnished the party’s image, and cost it votes.

With its clear intention to govern only where it is in control, DA leaders seem happy to act as official opposition watchdogs rather than as direct participants in local governance.
This suggests their focus is squarely on the 2024 national and provincial elections, when the party hopes the ANC will again fall below 50% of the vote nationally — and in several of the provinces. The DA is also clearly harbouring resurgent hopes that the ANC may contrive to explode, or split, as a result of continued turmoil in government and divisions between internal factions.

It’s a risky strategy for the DA, as voters might punish the party for sitting on its hands, rather than responding to Ramaphosa’s call — echoed by some DA benefactors — for all parties to work together to rescue municipalities from collapse.

But Steenhuisen’s leadership is almost certainly right that these risks are dwarfed by the dangers of participation in unruly coalitions, especially with an unreformed ANC.

The EFF’s position is equally complex. One trouble for the EFF is that many opposition parties, including the DA and the IFP, have said firmly they will not work with the red berets.

This limits its ability to play suitors off against each other.

Still, there is clearly hunger for power and patronage appointments, with EFF secretary-general Marshall Dlamini angling for control of Tshwane and stating that “we are not playing around this time”.

The EFF has set the bar for coalition or co-operation agreements very high, however, by including demands for national policy shifts — specifically, land expropriation and the creation of a state bank — that seem unrealistic. This suggests the EFF, too, would ideally prefer to wait for 2024, when it hopes to use its leverage to secure major policy concessions and ministerial appointments from a floundering ANC.

Voters queue outside in Macassar, Khayelitsha to cast their vote during the 2021 Local Government Election. Picture: Esa Alexander
Voters queue outside in Macassar, Khayelitsha to cast their vote during the 2021 Local Government Election. Picture: Esa Alexander
The ANC, for its part, is in the most difficult position. As soon as the results were announced, Ramaphosa called on party leaders to work together.

“If we are to make this a new and better era, we as leaders must put aside our differences and work together in a spirit of partnership, of co-operation, of collaboration and common purpose in the interests of the people,” he said.

From the ANC’s point of view, agreements with the DA could bring stability to the hung metros, while parallel pacts with other parties, including the EFF, could reduce factional outrage about such deals with the official opposition.

In other words, responsibility for the ongoing chaos in municipal government would then be spread among all the ANC’s major competitors.

Yet the messages about potential partners from those involved in ANC coalition planning (including acting secretary-general Jessie Duarte, treasurer Paul Mashatile and policy head Jeff Radebe) have been inconsistent.

But the DA’s refusal to play ball makes it hard for the ANC to avoid deal-making with the EFF — especially when it comes to major centres such as Ekurhuleni and eThekwini, that it desperately wants to control.

Three possible futures

The era of ANC dominance has been drawing to a close over many years.

One-party control brought many positive consequences, as the ANC was able to take some unpopular economic policy decisions, keep a lid on ethnic and racial mobilisation, promote gender parity, and entrench the institutional preconditions for democracy and constitutionalism.

But these gains always co-existed with negative features of party dominance: the blurring of party-state boundaries, the looting of state and parastatal resources for party and personal gain, and arrogance based on leaders’ ability to ignore electors.

In the end, these negative features began to decisively outweigh the positive and, indeed, to undermine the gains of the first decade of ANC rule.

As its dominance began to fade, the ANC tried to listen to voters more attentively, and where other parties gained power, it began to restore the lines between party and state.

Equally, the end of ANC dominance will come at a cost. This may include the rise of populist economic and social policies (as the ANC tries to retain supporters), racial and ethnic mobilisation as the party fragments, and increasing chaos in its system.

None of these changes is inexorable or pre-ordained, however.

We tend to believe one-party dominance is an abnormal product of the politics of liberation. Many assume it will follow a well-trodden pathway through corruption, intolerance of opposition and economic imprudence, only to collapse into factionalism and recrimination, and replacement by a “normal” multiparty system.

The rosiest scenarios envisage the emergence of a centre-right party — perhaps a merger between the DA and “respectable” elements of the ANC — together with a centre-left party that brings together the proponents of redistribution, state-driven development and liberation ideals. These parties could then alternate happily in power.

But there are three alternative pathways into the future.

First, it is a mistake in today’s world to rule out the possibility of authoritarian rule.

Democracy is in retreat, and many in the ANC find more inspiration in the Chinese party-state than in the liberal and social democracies of Europe, Asia and the Americas. The continued fall in electoral turnout is a matter of pressing concern. Of 39-million eligible electors, just 26-million registered to vote, and 12-million actually cast a ballot. When people do not vote, they stop fighting for the free media and effective electoral institutions that democracy requires.

Second, the reality is that dominant parties in middle-income countries rarely disappear when they fall below 50% of the vote. They typically survive, and sometimes they thrive, in more competitive party systems.

Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled from 1929 to 2000, when it inadvertently lost a presidential election. By 2012 it was able to recapture the presidency, and has since gone back into opposition.

The United Malays National Organisation, similar to the ANC in its empowerment ideals, dominated the Barisan Nasional coalition that ran Malaysia from 1957 to 2018. It was ousted by its own former leader, Mahathir Mohamad, in 2018, after major corruption scandals unfolded — but it returned to power again in 2021.

Parties — even once-dominant parties — can lose and then win again. Though large organisations find it hard to change because of entrenched interests, they can also be shocked into reform — and it is electoral defeat that is the most common precipitant.

It will be interesting to see if Ramaphosa uses his window of opportunity for internal party reform at, and after, next December’s ANC conference.

Third, a “secret” ANC fallback position has always been to embrace the return of the EFF to the mother body after a national election defeat. With the ANC down to, say, 40%, and the EFF on 15% — and the rest of the opposition itching to bring the ANC down — the red berets would have unprecedented leverage. Jobs and patronage could be shared, and the liberation project would live on for another day.

Perhaps the most important outcome of these local government elections may be that most opposition parties are refusing to deal with either the ANC or the EFF. In this way, they are driving those two parties together before they are ready.

Much depends on who voters will punish in 2024 for whatever now follows.

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