UNDICTATED: RW Johnson’s advice for Ramaphosa, Steenhuisen, Malema ahead of 2024 Election

With polls showing the ANC continuing to lose ground, the DA steady, and EFF gaining, we asked the country’s leading political scientist how he would advise the three parties. Long-time Oxford Don RW Johnson offers suggestions for the party leaders. Given the narrow gap between the two most significant groupings and well-entrenched trends, he shares what we already know and perspectives of how things may develop ahead of South Africa’s 2024 Election. He spoke to BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00- Introduction
  • 01:31 – Is South Africa heading towards a fiscal cliff?
  • 03:04 – On next years election winners’ big issue
  • 04:17 – On Argentina’s dollarisation
  • 05:54 – On the Brenthurst Foundation’s polling results
  • 07:39 – On current political trends, future projections
  • 08:49 – On the PA and ActionSA
  • 09:57 – Projected developments
  • 12:10 – Who will benefit the most from young voter registration
  • 13:24 – Advice for the ANC
  • 16:26 – Advice for John Steenhuisen and the DA
  • 17:50 – On the need to be honest to voters
  • 18:46 – Advice for Malema and the EFF
  • 19:54 – On the most likely coalition outcome in 2024
  • 21:16 – On interest in the upcoming election
  • 22:48 – On Cape Independence

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An edited transcript of the interview by BizNews founder Alec Hogg with RW Johnson

Alec Hogg: Well, it’s a little while since the favourite columnist of the BizNews tribe has been on BizNews TV, but he’s back with a bang.

Good to have you with us, Mr. Johnson. Three columns in a row for the BizNews Premium subscribers and delightful all three of them. Lovely that you’re back refreshed and certainly giving your views and perspectives to the community. The most recent of those columns though was the one that I’d like us to focus on in just a little while. But before we get there, it’s the medium-term budget in a week’s time, and many of our community have read your book about how long will South Africa survive.

When we have a look at the figures that the finance minister is going to have to present on the 1st of November, it looks like we’re getting to what economists would call a fiscal cliff. What’s your thoughts on that? And I know you have told us that the commodity boom helped South Africa to overcome where it should have been, but it seems now that that’s petered out and Transnet’s not making issues any easier for us, we’re back in a bit of a hole.

RW Johnson: I think that’s right. And I think everyone will be watching what happens on November the 1st very closely. I intend to write you something about that, by the way.

I think that one of the interesting things to me was that when I came out with the ‘How Long Will South Africa Survive’ book, a common criticism was to say, you see, we won’t ever get into trouble with the IMF because most of our debt is in Rands, and we have control of that currency ourselves and we can print more of it if we want to. And therefore none of that foreign debt problem really exists for us. And I’ve been very interested to see that as the debt situation gets worse, so the talk of an IMF intervention has come back.

And people have realised that if you get in sufficient trouble, that may still be the only lender of last resort that you have to go to. So I think that’s somewhere lurking in the background to this crisis. But we don’t know what’s going to happen on November the 1st. We’ve got to wait and see.

Alec Hogg: And of course it does give whoever takes over next year, whether it’s the ANC-EFF alliance or indeed the Multi-Party Coalition, a big, big issue that they’ll have to deal with early on.

RW Johnson: Well, I don’t notice the Multi-Party Coalition having anything much to say about this, frankly. I mean, in general, they’re very vacant when it comes to economic policy. But I’m very surprised, I would have thought that this was a very key subject for an opposition grouping. But certainly, whoever is in power is going to have to face these facts. And at the moment, there are a lot of people inside the ANC who are refusing to face these facts and who are being encouraged by a number of fairly irresponsible people who work primarily for left-wing NGOs and who basically are saying there is a magic money tree we can carry on spending as much as we like. And I mean, that way madness lies, frankly.

Alec Hogg: Quite interesting again, before we talk about our own situation, looking at what’s going on in Argentina, because it’s almost like the Argentinians have a similar approach to the world of money right now with the presidential election going on there.

RW Johnson: Well, Argentina is not a country that you want to copy in any respect at all. I remember being in Argentina not all that long ago when they simply banned all exports. Can you imagine a country doing that? And similarly, they would tax exports. Otherwise completely irrational things would happen all the time.

It’s a crazy country from that point of view. And now one of the key candidates is saying they should get rid of their own currency and simply go over to the U.S. dollar, which is a peculiar notion because you have no control over that at all or interest rates or anything to do with it. But apparently Argentinians are great hoarders of U.S. dollars since they don’t trust their own currency. And therefore people are saying, look, you know, we depend on that currency anyway, we might as well make it our currency. I don’t think that’s a sensible idea, but still.

Alec Hogg: So interesting when we look elsewhere in the world that there are also challenges going on there. But here at home, we had the Brenthurst Foundation’s poll which shows the ANC down substantially and the EFF up significantly. How much credence do you put onto polls like this?

RW Johnson: Quite a lot, with of course always a proviso that they are still photographs of a moving picture. So that poll is telling us what the state of opinion was more or less a little while back, and things can continue to change and evolve. The thing that’s really striking, I think, about many of the recent polls, not just the that the ANC vote is clearly no longer as solid as it was. It’s now liable to much greater swings than it was before. And I mean that swing from 48 to 41 in a quite short period, that’s an enormous number of votes, you know.

It’s clear that this fundamental fact of the solidity of the ANC vote has changed. And one of the interesting things is that we are close now to having a two-party system in the sense that the Multi-Party Coalition is running at around 36% and the ANC at 41%, which is close to being even-steven.

Alec Hogg: In the world of investments, we talk about the trend being your friend. Now, what is the trend then in the political scene, given that the, for instance, the Brenthurst Foundation’s latest research comes a year before previous research and so on, so there should be some kind of a trend that we can look at. And maybe even how would you project that into the future?

RW Johnson: It’s very difficult to do that given what I said before, that the ANC vote is no longer a solid vote. Of course, you’re right to link the ANC fall in the vote to the rise of the EFF vote, but it’s important to see that the two things are not the same. That is to say that the EFF has gained about 6.2%, but the ANC compared to 2019 has lost about 16%. So 10% of the ANC vote has gone elsewhere. And as far as one can see, it spread itself all over the place. There’s no particular group that is winning.

Alec Hogg: Something that I found interesting, given the good performances in the by-elections, is that neither the Patriotic Alliance nor Action SA showed up much in the latest Brenthurst poll. Is that perhaps the narrative or is the by-election not giving us an accurate indication, or might the poll be doing so?

RW Johnson: I think that both of those parties are fairly new parties. They’ll take time to establish themselves. It’s clear that the Patriotic Alliance is exploiting a sort of coloured nationalist vein, which has always got a following of some sort, particularly in the Cape.

And ActionSA naturally having been launched by a former mayor of Johannesburg is stronger in Gauteng than elsewhere. And I think that we’ve been struck by municipal results coming from those areas, and that’s given us a potentially misleading picture of the overall national picture, because those parties are not strong outside those strongholds.

Alec Hogg: How do you expect things to develop from here, given that we’re, who knows how long, but probably a year away from the big election?

RW Johnson: I think one of the big things is that Ramaphosa’s popularity has fallen to a point where he’s just about as unpopular as he’s popular. And of course, that was a major support for the ANC vote before, and that’s gone. And I think that releases a lot of ANC voters who will be wondering what to do and will probably be very uncertain about it all.

I think that where they go will depend quite a lot on what the local alternatives are. So for example in KwaZulu-Natal, some will probably go to the IFP. Down in the Western Cape, probably some will go to the DA, some will go to the Patriotic Alliance. So it’s difficult to know depending on what’s locally important.

But I think that the fall in Ramaphosa’s popularity is a major factor. When I was doing the data for the 2019 election, it seemed clear that Ramaphosa was worth about 11% of the vote to the ANC, a very large margin indeed. He was then very popular, he was 60/65% popular. And now that’s down to 40-odd.

So that was a major support which is gone. Otherwise, I think that the EFF vote is always difficult to forecast because they depend so much on younger voters who are often very bad at registering to vote, let alone voting. So they can do better in polls than they do on election day, very often.

Alec Hogg: And that younger voter registration is something that the Multi-Charter Coalition has been promoting quite aggressively. Who will benefit from that if you were to have many new voters in the 2024 election?

RW Johnson: Well, you’re bound to have some that I must say impressionistically – if I speak to young people, say school children or people that are teenagers, I’m very struck by the fact that you’ll get a complete sort of blank out when it comes to politics and people say, “I’m not voting, I don’t want to vote.”

And every election, you always hear politicians say, “This time it’ll be different, we’re going to get lots of young voters to vote.” And I never really believe it because the data always says that young voters are the least likely to vote and I don’t expect that to change really. But of course there will be some new voters. That’s always true. The electorate is continually renewing itself or our society is.

Alec Hogg: So if we look ahead now and let’s just say that each of the political parties had the opportunity of asking you to guide them, if the ANC were to give you a call, Ramaphosa himself and say, “Mr. Johnson, what would you advise me to do in the next 12 months?” How would you respond?

RW Johnson: Well, I think that although it wouldn’t appeal normally to ANC activists or strategists, what I would say is look, I think you really have to level with the country and say that the situation is extremely serious and that’s in good part our own fault. We now face an absolutely difficult situation. We’re going to have to make some very difficult choices. But what I can say to you is that the ANC is still the biggest party, that we are inevitably going to be part of the solution, as well as if you like part of the problem, and that we think that you should listen very carefully to what we’ve got to say. Because there’s been too much happy talk and not enough realistic talk. But now I think we’ve really got to level with you. I think that would get people’s attention.

Unfortunately, I think it would also create a certain amount of cynicism. But I think that people tend at election time to go in for fairly crazy. They want to promise the moon, as it were, and the ANC version of that is of course NHI, where they are selling to ordinary voters the idea that everybody, without paying any money at all, can enjoy private medical care in effect. And this is of course nonsense and completely impossible. But that is the idea being sold.

And of course it’s a very attractive idea, but it’s fantasy. It’s complete and utter fantasy. The reality is that even on the lowest estimate, NHI would cost hundreds of billions of Rands a year extra. There’s no way that we can raise that sort of money from taxation.

And the whole point of what Godongwana is saying is there simply isn’t money for big new projects of that sort. And of course the ANC is now stuck because they want to come out with that as their big appeal for the election. But it’s a dream. It’s a fantasy. And I think it would be far better if they just faced reality and spoke the truth. I think it would get people’s attention.

Alec Hogg: Sober up and level with the population, and who knows, you might get the votes that rationality would prevail over promises. And what about Steenhuisen? If John Steenhuisen phoned you up and said, “Mr. Johnson, what would you advise us to do for the Multi-Party Coalition in the next 12 months?”

RW Johnson: I have to say that I did advocate something like the Multi-Party Coalition quite a long time before the DA started to come up with that idea. So in that sense, they are doing partly what I had advocated anyway. Obviously, and I think it follows from what I was saying before, I think they have to talk far more about economics than they’re doing and they also have to level with people.

At the moment the DA is promising that don’t worry if we are elected we won’t cut any social grants and all social spending will be sacrosanct and so on. I don’t think this is realistic any longer. I think it’s quite clear that very difficult choices are going to have to be made and that everyone ought to face up to this. I think that if the DA is going to be taken seriously as a party of government, it’s got to have a much stronger and clearer economic policy.

Alec Hogg: I guess the dilemma there would be, if they are honest about social grants, it might alienate a big sector of the population, 19 million, I think, who are receiving social grants, not all of them voters, of course, but it’s a big chunk of society.

RW Johnson: That’s absolutely true. You can see why politicians don’t want to offend such a large block. Although I’m not sure how many of that block are voting DA, by the way.

That’s just one example that we are trying to run the only welfare state in Africa. And yet we’re doing that without the sort of income which Scandinavian welfare states have. The whole thing is bound to come apart in the end. We cannot give people free health, social grants and all the rest of it. We don’t have the means to do it.

Alec Hogg: So your third phone call, once you’ve recovered from hearing Julius Malema on the line, would be from the EFF. How would you advise them?

RW Johnson: Well, it’s difficult to do that because in a sense they are gaining ground. And you can say what they’ve been doing is succeeding. They are gaining, and it looks like they’re going to become the main opposition party in the Western Cape, for example. And I think that they’ll probably be the main opposition party in a few other provinces as well.

There’s no doubt that great chunks of the ANC vote are now hesitating on the brink of going over to them. And, as much as I don’t particularly like it myself, what you seem to have been doing up till now is paying off. So don’t stop.

Alec Hogg: And your projection or your view some time ago when you felt that the ANC and the EFF are the most likely partners after 2024, is this still your opinion?

RW Johnson: It depends so much on what proportion of the vote the ANC gets. If they were to get 41% and the EFF were to get 15% or thereabouts, then there’s a certain logic to that. I think that actually if the ANC had the choice, I think it would like a deal with the IFP. I think that would be much easier, safer, more moderate, and they would feel more comfortable with that than they would with the EFF.

But of course the IFP is in a very difficult situation because they’re part of the Multi-Party Coalition and they want to remain loyal to that. But what they’re frightened of is that the ANC will come along to them and say, well look it’s up to you. We either have to have you as partners or we’ll have to have the EFF. Do you want to be responsible for forcing us to make a deal with the EFF? And I think the IFP would find that very hard.

Alec Hogg: Such a fascinating country that we live in and the times that we’re living in right now. And I guess it could get even more interesting over the next year, Mr. Johnson.

RW Johnson: I think that’s right. Elections are always interesting. And the fact that the sort of solidity of the previous blocks seems to have gone, and that opens up all sorts of things to change. We don’t know. I mean, a year is still a long time. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But it seems quite likely that the opposition is going to win the three biggest provinces, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. I think that would be a very important factor – the three most urbanised provinces. It would show that the ANC is retreating and become a more rural party. And of course, it would put the ANC in a difficult situation in that those are the economic heartlands of South Africa and if they’re going to shrink where that is then that’s got its own importance.

Alec Hogg: And just as the final question, given the possibility of an ANC-EFF alliance, we’ve seen in the Western Cape great momentum in the Cape independence movement, or certainly it seems so on the ground. Do you think they’ve got any hope of, especially if that kind of a national coalition were to be cobbled together in convincing the people of the Western Cape, to take that route?

RW Johnson: I don’t really think so, no. I think that it’s too difficult even to imagine how that could work. But certainly the sentiment in favour of that would be strengthened considerably if you face an ANC-EFF government. A lot of people living in the Western Cape would say, I don’t want anything to do with that. I want out of that. And it would strengthen that sort of feeling.

But how that feeling would then express itself and how it would go from there is a different question. But I agree with you, the question will get put more and more.

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