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Defeat of ANC has left South Africa more divided than ever

The ANC's grip on power has finally been relinquished. Credit: Getty

June 1, 2024 - 5:08pm

On Wednesday, South Africa took a big step into the unknown. For years, the ruling ANC (African National Congress) had been the devil the country knew. Although it had strayed far from its idealistic origins and became mired in corruption, cronyism and incompetence, at least it gave the country a certain stability. Businesses could plan their investment decisions secure in the knowledge the party would still be in office when they came to fruition, and you could leave the country for a few years of study and know that you’d return to find it much as you’d left it, if a little more pot-holed.

Not anymore. In an election that ended 30 years of ANC hegemony, the party lost more than a quarter of its support and will hold a minority of seats in parliament, forcing it into some kind of coalition with one of three smaller parties. Two of them, Jacob Zuma’s MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) and Julius Malema’s EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), sprang out of dissent movements ejected from the ANC. The third, the DA (Democratic Alliance) and the biggest of the three, emerged from the liberal opposition to the old apartheid regime and was long seen as the white party, though in fact most of its support now comes from black voters.

If the ANC can be thought of as social democrats with a penchant for state intervention in the economy, it is nonetheless a classic congress party with different factions, including economic conservatives. The EFF and MK, however, are openly radical. The DA, which runs Western Cape Province, one of the country’s three major provinces, favours a broadly conservative approach to the economy, including limiting affirmative action and reducing spending.

Although together the three opposition parties will comprise a majority in the new parliament, their ideological polarities make it inconceivable they could band together. The ANC and EFF could just about get along, but they’d have a fragile majority nationally and fall short in Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal, the other two big provinces of the country’s nine. If it’s to retain its place in all eight provincial governments outside the Western Cape, as it’s certain to want to, the ANC will have to partner with either MK or the DA.

Either promises instability. The first option would probably require the resignation of President Cyril Ramaphosa, since he and Zuma detest one another. Zuma was pushed out of the country’s presidency by Ramaphosa and his allies in 2018, and has been angling to get even ever since. Moreover MK is, notwithstanding its claims to the contrary, a personal vehicle of Zuma’s, so it’s unclear how long it will last in its current form. But it’s a safe bet that seeing Zuma back in power, after he was toppled for corruption scandals that brought the economy to its knees, would panic the markets.

A partnership between the ANC and the DA would create a strong government nationally and, along with the DA’s partners in Kwazulu-Natal, probably enable it to prevent that provincial government falling into MK’s hands. Business would cheer, and the markets would rally. But the government would almost certainly be rattled by constant infighting, as the DA and ANC dislike each other.

Coalition negotiations will have begun in earnest. However, what seems clear is that South Africa will probably be headed for a period of instability, and possibly revolving governments, as it experiments with this strange new beast of coalition rule. In the long run, consensual rule may be good for South African democracy. But in the short run it’s likely to give the country’s citizens vertigo.


John Rapley is an author and academic who divides his time between London, Johannesburg and Ottawa. His books include Why Empires Fall: Rome, America and the Future of the West (with Peter Heather, Penguin, 2023) and Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a religion (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

jarapley

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Stephan Le Roux
Stephan Le Roux
23 days ago

Cyril Ramaphosa sacrificed South Africa in order to keep the ANC united, only for Zuma to move in and split ANC support in the election. Maybe the ANC will now move on and do what it best for the country and not what is best for the party. But it will be a painful, protracted exercise given the number of greedy snouts that now will have no trough to feed from. At least, to date, it seems to be a peaceful transfer of power which is unique in Africa.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
23 days ago

I think the author would do well to read what Frans Cronje has to say on the way forward.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
23 days ago

Remember when the RSA was a modern country that could boast of things like Dr. Christian Barnard doing the world’s first successful heart transplants there? Then we had those wonderfully cathartic years when western liberals virtue-signaled endlessly about apartheid until they finally put the ANC in charge. Mandela, Tutu, the end of apartheid; wasn’t it all grand!! Apparently it is easier to destroy something than to build something better in its place.

Martin M
Martin M
21 days ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

Surely you are not actually saying that apartheid was a good thing?

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
20 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Oh for God’s sake, of course not. One can deplore an injustice and also recognize that ending it is only half the game. The people of S.A. are by all significant measures worse off today than 20 years ago. Clearly, by itself, the elimination of apartheid has been insufficient to ameliorate the prospects of the S.A. people. Its new freedoms rapidly devolved in keeping with the script that dominates most of the continent, which is to say violence and kleptocracy.

Sophy T
Sophy T
23 days ago

Let’s revisit this in 5 years time. I’ll bet good money that the standard of living for most South Africans won’t have improved.

Martin M
Martin M
22 days ago
Reply to  Sophy T

Indeed. The government needs to ditch this “State intervention in the economy” stuff. Socialism is the bane of Africa.

R Wright
R Wright
23 days ago

Pot holes are the least of their issues. Copper thieves have done more damage to SA’s major cities than bombing raids.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
22 days ago

Some sort of confidence and supply arrangement with the DA is the only good outcome for SA and the ANC. Anything else spells doom for all.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
22 days ago

When apartheid ended in SA, so did the years of happiness, peace, and prosperity, for black and white alike. The new black communist leadership was clueless when it came to leadership and sound financial management. They spent the next 30 years sucking from the built-up wealth of a century of hard-working white Boers and Englishmen; now that built-up wealth is finally running out.

Martin M
Martin M
21 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Are you advocating the re-introduction of apartheid?

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
21 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

When the experienced and capable leadership of SA were forced out (due to “Democracy”), the new communist leadership spent their time distributing the goodies, the built-up wealth of centuries of those who had come before, black and white. Now we’re nearing the end of the pile of goodies, and their utter incompetence is displayed.

Martin M
Martin M
22 days ago

Excellent article. Explains things very well.