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Ramaphosa has slain the Rainbow Nation After last week's election, secessionism is on the cards

A cardboard cut out of Cyril Ramaphosa stands next to ANC political party agents (PAUL BOTES/AFP via Getty Images)

A cardboard cut out of Cyril Ramaphosa stands next to ANC political party agents (PAUL BOTES/AFP via Getty Images)


June 3, 2024   6 mins

A disrespectful Afrikaans expression refers to a person seeing their gat or backside. It means to get one’s comeuppance. In last week’s South African 2024 general elections, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) saw its gat and the only remaining question is whether the country will as well. From its heady days of 72% support 20 years ago, the party slumped to 40%, losing 70 seats in Parliament and its majority, its seignorial pretentions, and its unrestricted access to the channels of corruption which has funded it and its leaders for 30 years.

Disillusioned ANC supporters stayed home everywhere. The party lost its majority in Gauteng, the country’s economic heartland, and the populous and tumultuous KwaZulu Natal Province. An avenging five-month old radical party, Umkhonto we Sizwe, headed by disgraced and deposed former President Jacob Zuma, swept the polls in the Zulu heartland and emerged the third largest party nationally.

The liberal opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) held the Western Cape and a clutch of small ethnic and regional parties also made incremental progress. Another Zulu-based movement, Inkatha Freedom Front (IFP), increased its share and held its fastnesses north of the Tugela River. The big loser was the urban radical and nativist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) which bled copiously to the even more extreme and anarchic MKP. Socialist and redistributive voters trumped free market ones two-to-one.

The architect of the ANC’s decline is its own President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected with the highest hopes in 2019 that he would be a reformer and an energiser after the eight years of plunder and decay of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. He was neither, the country deteriorating by virtually every metric possible compared with the country’s halcyon days under former ANC presidents Nelson Mandela and, to a lesser extent, Thabo Mbeki. His weakness in failing to promptly extirpate the Zuma saboteurs from within his ranks years ago, and to lead a reformist national alliance, opened the gap for the extremists such as the EFF and MKP and disheartened even his most ardent supporters. He too has seen his gat.

Few will feel sorry for Ramaphosa. Perhaps fewer still for voters who seem wholly indifferent to either the competence or honesty of their public representatives and routinely vote for their own dispossession by marauding political elites. Such is the allure of tribalism and race.

All this has brought the country to a decisive moment. Initial hopes by the ANC that it could cobble together a majority from pliant smaller parties are dashed. Will the viviparous ANC, still kingmaker after 30 years despite everything, cast towards its offshoots like the EFF (sprung from the ANC Youth League) or the MKP (the former ANC Zulu diehards) to keep power? Or towards the DA and its liberal-reformist Multi Party Charter? If the former, it brings either 51% or 55% of the electorate and what analyst Dr Frans Cronje calls the Chernobyl Option, keeping power in the short term but sowing the seeds of its own destruction. If the latter, it brings 76% of the electorate and possible economic redemption.

A pre-poll survey by the authoritative Brenthurst Foundation found that South Africans rated weak leadership as a bigger threat than crime, more than three quarters were happy with a coalition Government, and 54% were in favour of a coalition which included liberal parties or ANC and liberal parties. This public expression should guide the ANC but probably will not, which is why it is in the position it is.

The ANC has declared itself winning to form a Government of national unity but, as always, the devil is in the detail.

The positive is that despite all past and looming threats, South African democracy is alive and functioning. There was little pre-election violence and a relatively stable, albeit sporadically dysfunctional, electoral process. There are numerous challenges but none that yet appears systemically threatening. The Judiciary intervened when called to defend the process and the media and independent observers were omnipresent and unfettered.

“There was little pre-election violence and a relatively stable albeit sporadically dysfunctional electoral process.”

Vital indicators emerge from these elections. The first is the salience of identitarian or, in its South African context, tribal and ethnic mobilisation, its reality long denied or ignored by white liberals and the black elites. Black South Africans voted overwhelmingly for black parties; whites mostly voted for the DA and the Afrikaner dominated Freedom Front Plus (FF+); mixed-race people deserted the traditional parties to support “brown” and “first nation” parties, the most wildly popular headed by a convicted ex-bank robber who demands the return of the death sentence, and many Asian descended people, when not voting for the DA, voted for tiny local, religious, family and regional parties. With 54 registered parties contesting, there was an embarrassment of choice.

Zuma’s party did best in its Zulu heartland and Zulu-speaking regions in the eastern parts of the country. The ANC triumphed in the Xhosas-speaking Transkei region, its place of historic origin, and the northern parts. The DA benefitted from the huge counter-migration of whites back from the hinterland to the coast and abroad (74% of expatriates voted DA), fleeing the collapse of the northern metropolises. Ramaphosa’s indecisiveness and cowardice has thus decisively slain Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation, if it ever existed. A catastrophically failed ANC leadership through decades has ensured that South Africa is demographically and politically reconfiguring itself back into the 19th century.

Underlying these election results has also been a significant generational aspect. More than two-fifths of the voters were between the age of 18-34. Initial surveys show significant numbers voted for either EFF or MK. To these young voters, the mystique of the ANC holds little allure: the prospects of jobs and a better life do, although, tragically, their political choices last week will certainly defeat their personal hopes. More, the advent of the young disconnected radical, no different from counterparts across the developed world, diminishes the power of the trade unions, historically one of the ANC’s key support pillars but now widely regarded by many unemployed young blacks as anachronistic as the ANC itself. The real face of the ANC thus emerges. It is old, raddled and utterly bereft of ideas.

These elections have consolidated another theme of recent politics in South Africa: localism at both the regional and metropolitan level, a trend which will be hastened by the next round of municipal elections. This process has been underway for some time. As the central State withers, private initiatives move to fill the gaps in education, security, health and most recently in utilities like electricity and water. At the core of this cantonal impulse at municipal level, graced by the name of co-governance, has been the DA and some smaller parties, modest gainers in the elections. The process may promise a sunshine option to the numerous wealthy quasi cantons stretched along the Indian and Atlantic shorelines, but it presages even greater disparities in income and lifestyle chances nationally.

So too at provincial level where two powerful secessionist streams are running, one in the Western Cape, where polls suggest between 46% and 70% of the people wish to break away, and the other in the ever-volatile KwaZulu Natal where a vociferous lobby, the Abantu Batho Congress (ABC), is calling for an autonomous Zulu Kingdom. The extent to which these movements flourish depends on whether the ANC goes into alliance with one of its offspring movements (spurring Western Cape independence) or whether it does not (driving KwaZulu Natal’s simmering revolt).

KwaZulu Natal, a fiercely contested arena, faces a fraught and unpredictable future. The upstart Zulu-based MKP, patroned by the indestructible 82-year-old Jacob Zuma who is bizarrely still allowed to hold ANC membership, has made huge inroads, stripped the EFF of support (cruel, as the EFF galvanised the young who now vote against them), and annihilated the ANC in both its urban and rural strongholds, emerging with 45% of the provincial vote. The DA’s premier candidate, a presentable young, white gay man able to speak fluent isiZulu, had no chance against the flood.

Reasons for the MKP’s success is a volatile mix of blood, disillusionment and rage: Zulu chauvinism, attraction to the MKP’s policies of radical economic “transformation” (translation: expropriation of private wealth in favour of an avaricious and unproductive new black elite), a traditional Zulu respect for age, a sense Zuma has been wronged by Ramaphosa, but mostly because of an utter public weariness with the ANC’s violently factional and failed rule in the province. In the wake of the abortive insurrection of July 2021 in which the State went AWOL and left local communities to fend for themselves, a revolt inspired by some now sitting in the MKP, I wrote that this province would never forgive Cyril Ramaphosa for allowing it to happen. It did not, but incredibly, many now seek salvation from the very quarters that caused the tumult.

It is uncertain who will rule in KwaZulu Natal. An ANC-IFP-liberal alliance is still possible. If it fails we should expect an unappealing mélange of medieval kingdom (the recently anointed King Misizulu Zulu is severely miffed at the ANC for challenging his sole directorship of 2.8 million ha of communal land), a radicalised tribal party, and a shadow despot who was arguably the most corrupt President in South African history.

Zuma is prevented by law from holding public office for five years due to a recent conviction for contempt of court and this is likely to be the first violent bone of contention between the State and a party which in its short life, like its leader, trails a succession of criminal and civil litigation and has brought chaos everywhere it has gone. A second bone would be if MKP is denied power in the province by an alliance of opposition parties: the balance is knife-edge. Today, police and military reinforcements are deploying into a wary but uncertain calm. KwaZulu Natal, historically the most fought over patch of South Africa, home to my family for five generations, deserves better than this. The nation does.


Brian Pottinger is an author and former Editor and Publisher of the South African Sunday Times. He lives on the KwaZulu North Coast.


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Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
16 days ago

If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I wouldn’t like to place a bet on things, in South Africa, improving anytime soon.
My recent thoughts are that SA probably resembles post Roman Britain, it’s got the infrastructure, it’s probably got a smattering of educated ‘native’ people , who in theory, know how it all works, but ultimately it isn’t enough, the fledgling state/society lacks the cultural sophistication to pick up where the previous culture (for all it’s faults) left off.

John Pade
John Pade
15 days ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Try “ever”.

Adam McIntyre
Adam McIntyre
15 days ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Democracy does not “work” anywhere. It could never work.
However, it will degenerate even faster among people with recent hunter-gatherer ancestry, than among the descendants of northern Europeans that invented and perfected it.
It is degenerating in America, too; this degeneration was always inevitable. It is inherent in the nature of popular government. The more “popular” (democratic) the government, and the more incapable the constituents, the faster this out-of-balance wheel spins, until it flies apart.

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
15 days ago
Reply to  Adam McIntyre

Your thesis, under these “race-realist” euphemisms, is that democracy is stupid but is even stupider in a country of blacks?

Rob C
Rob C
15 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

And that is perfectly true. Democracy is based on liberalism, which few believe in, especially those who aren’t of northwest European ancestry and male. Liberalism and leftism (universalist equitarianism) and tribalism have been in conflict since liberalism was invented, and it has just about been defeated.

James Hartley
James Hartley
15 days ago

First things first, free and fair elections were held without significant violence and with a wide range of options available.
The next best option would be for the ANC to enter a coalition with the DA, thus representing a significant proportion of the electorate. Sadly this won’t happen.
the worst option is an ANC led coalition with the racist, Marxist, far left kleptocracy, this is far more likely and should presage the break up of the rainbow nation, which was always largely illusionary.
My father said it would take 25 years, he was wrong on that as SA limps on, but its integrity as a functioning state is hanging by a thread.
I remember speaking to friends in Zim back in the 90s about voting for Mugabe, their justification was “better the devil you know”. Which is fine, until the devil turns out to be, well, the devil.
Between the ANC, EFF and MKP, South Africa is about to pick its poison.

Adam McIntyre
Adam McIntyre
15 days ago
Reply to  James Hartley

To the extent that “democracy” everywhere is a charade, the South Africans are miming it pretty well.
However, it ought to be obvious what monster is lurking behind the curtain. The veil will be thrown off shortly.

David Harris
David Harris
15 days ago
Reply to  James Hartley

“My father said it would take 25 years, he was wrong on that as SA limps on”
As Adam Smith once said, “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.”

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
15 days ago
Reply to  James Hartley

This kinf of abtract wishfull thinking usually leads to a shitty future.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
14 days ago
Reply to  James Hartley

Kinda almost by definition, democracy is capable of redefining itself. I don’t think we’ve seen that ye, much, in the world; we have seen changes in voting system and in decentralisation/secession/regionalisation. And we haven’t talked about the role of the AU in perhaps managing some forms of change.

So I think we have to give more time and patience to the process, and admit that we don’t have much in the way of good precedents or believable advice, but we have to encourage the long and tedious process of talking, negotiation, and not just step back. It’s not interference, it’s just humanity.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
15 days ago

The unfortunate truth is democracy as we like to imagine it, only works where there’s a diversity of political opinions against a background of a common ethnic / religious population.
It doesn’t work where the voters are naturally split across tribal, ethnic or religious lines.
It doesn’t work in Northern Ireland, It doesn’t work in Zimbabwe and no doubt countless other nations I’m less knowledgeable about.
It doesn’t work where one group of voters can never win an election.
South Africa has always been tribal, it would be ironic if it’s ultimate fate was to disintegrate into tribal countries in a form of modern day apartheid!

William Cameron
William Cameron
15 days ago

This was the best and richest country in Africa. Now look at it.

Adam McIntyre
Adam McIntyre
15 days ago

Viva universalism!
Hatred of hierarchy, especially any race-based hierarchy, doomed South Africa, as it has doomed America. The fact that one “experiment” blows up faster than the other is a quantitative, not a qualitative difference.

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
15 days ago
Reply to  Adam McIntyre

Enlighten me. Would you, yourself, be in the upper caste of your ideal “race-based hierarchy”?

Adam McIntyre
Adam McIntyre
15 days ago

The idea that democracy could have ever worked in a place like South Africa is preposterous.
It is as preposterous as America’s nation-building in Iraq or Afghanistan, which was also always doomed.
The seminal mistake of progressives and other universalist types since the beginning has been to insist upon, without evidence, the tabula rasa view of humanity that suggests all social constructs are purely social and have nothing to do with biology.
This ridiculous view, that a continent that (below the Sahara) never invented the wheel and cannot build structures taller than two stories are “just the same as us” since we are all “one humanity,” and that therefore, with proper inculcation, “democracy” or anything else created by White northern Europeans could work just as well with the African indigenous, is the cause of all SA’s troubles.
Apartheid was the only way to keep order. There will eventually be genocides in South Africa, and the blood will be on the hands of the universalists that would prefer disorder to hierarchy.

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
13 days ago
Reply to  Adam McIntyre

Are you serious? This reads like a parody.
You may be interested to know that on almost every measure, South Africa improved by leaps and bounds on measures like GDP, life expectancy, and crime, immediately after the demise of apartheid. Life expectancy was then hit by HIV/AIDS after 2000 and that is partly what was Mbeki’s downfall – his failure to embrace ARVs. SA now has the largest ARV programme in the world.
The country managed to get Zuma out of the Presidency without significant violence and within a decade – i.e. democratically. He is currently facing prosecution for his arms deal crimes, which he has been able to keep at bay with the Stalingrad tactics of his (white) lawyer. Zuma’s state capture was aided and abetted by companies like Bain and Mckinsey and a family from India (the Guptas) were the masterminds.
Apartheid the only way to keep order? I despair.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
15 days ago

If nothing else, SA should be applauded for running a free election and having a ruling party that accepts defeat. A good example for some of its fellow BRICS nations.

Adam McIntyre
Adam McIntyre
15 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yes, I suppose as long as there is voting, there is “democracy.” And “democracy” is all we really care about.
They hold elections in North Korea too, you know. That the deception is more apparent in places like North Korea than in the United States should not deceive the perspicacious among us — if there yet are any among us.

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
13 days ago
Reply to  Adam McIntyre

Are you seriously suggesting South Africa’s election was a sham? Why then didn’t the ANC win? A peaceful election where the ruling party accepts not winning a majority? And it is a sham?

CP Pienaar
CP Pienaar
15 days ago

I am wondering why so few comments. Then it struck me- we are waking up from a very deep and bad dream, starting to smell the coffee. I am left without words..
42 Million could register as voters, only 27 million did of which 17 million casted a vote.. 40% of the possible voters have enough trust and confidence in democracy to cast a vote- the rest stayed home. It took 30 years of ANC rule to cause major destruction to the hope many possible voters had that democracy will improve their lives. This is also reflected in the number of voters that jumped ship to the MKP.
The Multi Party Coalition (MPC) what Brian refer to as the Liberals (?) could only get 31% of the votes. Same as previous election. The deck of the Titanic is re-arranged.
The very, very confused ANC and their completely incapable leadership- has one of two roads to take- the high road (forgive the pun) option where ANC ( moderates) joins up with MPC to form a Government of National Unity- verse2 or the low road option where ANC (not so moderates) teams up with the MKP and EFF to destroy what is left… In neither of these choices will the ANC continue to exists in its current form. They have truly sien hulle gatte.
The fantastic news however is that the ANC members that do not make the list of the first 73 members for Parlement are 79 Bheki Cele, 83 Thandi Modise and 86 Naledi Pandor.. chaos at Shell House!

Gordon Beattie
Gordon Beattie
15 days ago

A superb article, A very tragic situation.
But I would say that the architect of the ANC’s decline was Mbeki. Zuma should have been in the dock with Shaik. And then both of them could have served their time together

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
13 days ago

Pottinger says: “mixed-race people deserted the traditional parties to support “brown” and “first nation” parties”
This is totally incorrect. There is no way the DA could have won the Western Cape with 55% of the vote without strong support from this community, who make up 60% of the population there.
In addition, they are the majority in the Northern Cape, where the ANC got 49% and the DA 21% – both traditional parties.
As to the secessionist angle, explicitly secessionist parties were on the ballot paper and received poor support in both Western Cape and KZN.
Election results have always swung wildly in KZN, and IFP-ANC coalitions are common.
The National Freedom Party (NFP), an offshoot of the IFP, with a single seat (IFP+ANC+DA = 40 seats, MK+EFF = 39 seats, NFP=1 seat), will determine whether there is stalemate.
What seems most likely in KZN is an IFP-led government, and that Pappas of the DA will have a role in it. However, this is closely tied to what happens at national level, and also in Gauteng, where ANC+DA = majority but ANC+EFF does not.
The parties are likely negotiating all these together.

Angus Douglas
Angus Douglas
15 days ago

Great piece, but KZN is not the most fought over patch. The prize for South Africa’s most fought over patch goes to the Eastern Cape frontier area, around the Fish River, which saw 9 Frontier Wars in the 19th century.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
11 days ago

A good piece but serious errors, especially the ‘analysis’ of the Coloured vote which in fact substantially supported DA in Western Cape and ANC and DA in Northern Cape.

Last edited 11 days ago by Martin Smith
Angus Douglas
Angus Douglas
15 days ago

(28) How the Elections Broke Our Ideologies – by Angus Douglas (substack.com) Not sure you are allowed to do this, but here is a supporting article to this brilliant piece by Pottinger.

Chipoko
Chipoko
14 days ago

That South Africa is a disaster of a nation and deteriorating comes as zero surprise. The Continent’s destruction commenced with the independence of Ghana in 1957. Since then the formula for destruction has been implemented with remorseless progress, ending with the release of South Africa from its colonial shackles.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
14 days ago

Article needs a bit of spell-checking

Martin M
Martin M
6 days ago

Socialist and redistributive voters trumped free market ones two-to-one.
That is the problem, not just with South Africa, but with Africa generally. The continent is not going to move ahead unless it abandons socialism.