🔒 Five years of economic, political uncertainty ahead for South Africa: Justice Malala

In the looming South African election, the African National Congress (ANC) faces the prospect of losing its three-decade-long grip on power due to economic woes, corruption, and failing infrastructure. A post-apartheid boom period gave way to stagnation and mismanagement, with Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency failing to deliver promised reforms. The upcoming polls offer a chance for political and economic renewal, but a fragmented opposition and potential ANC coalition with the radical Economic Freedom Fighters party could prolong South Africa’s period of uncertainty and dysfunction.

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By Justice Malala

As any observer of the South African political economy will tell you, Nelson Mandela’s country is long due a lucky break.

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But it won’t get that break in the upcoming election, in which the governing African National Congress is expected to lose its majority after 30 years in power. Plagued by “unimpressive” economic growth, one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, corruption, and failing infrastructure underlined by crippling power blackouts, the country is instead set for at least another five years of political uncertainty, dysfunction and poor economic performance. 

How did we get here?

For 15 years after apartheid fell in 1994, South Africa was a mini boomtown. Gross domestic product, under the guidance of the pragmatic Mandela and the economically savvy Thabo Mbeki, grew to 5.6% in 2006 from -2.14% in 1992, touching quarterly highs above 7% in 2005.

Then, with the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma in power from 2009, the economy slumped under the weight of mismanagement and corruption, registering average growth of 2.1% in his nine-year tenure. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, a billionaire darling of the business community who promised a “new dawn” upon taking over as South Africa’s president in 2018, failed to clear out corruption and has overseen a stagnant economy, record-high unemployment, and a steep deterioration in government finances.

The upcoming general election, likely to be held between May and August, presents an opportunity to break the ANC’s hold on power and offer a bold new political and economic direction for the country. Unfortunately, no party is likely to score a decisive victory, and power will be dispersed and contested for another five years. Virtually all polls conducted over the past two years point to a likely ANC defeat, taking it down from 57% in 2019 (it scored 69.96% in 2004) to anything between 34% and 50% in 2024, forcing it into an uncertain coalition or into the opposition benches.

Political uncertainty in South Africa was high before 1994, subsided thereafter, and returned with a vengeance in the Zuma years. Investors now fear an ANC tie-up with the radical, leftist Economic Freedom Fighters party of populist firebrand Julius Malema, which would push the ANC to revisit expropriation of land without compensation, mine nationalization, fiddling with the mandate of the central bank, and other policies.

An ANC-EFF coalition is not an outlandish idea: The two are in coalition in the key cities of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, for example, and ANC regional leaders there have balked at terminating relations with the EFF.

A bloodied ANC that scores a result in the 42%-49% range could also build a coalition with smaller parties. In such a scenario, making decisions will need maturity, dexterity and patience — a commodity that’s been sorely lacking in the nation’s coalition politics.

Unless the opposition ousts the ANC comprehensively, coalition permutations after the election hold a significant risk of dysfunction. Opposition coalitions in the cities of Johannesburg, Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) and Tshwane (Pretoria) have been plagued by dysfunction and collapse since 2016. Internal opposition polling shows the main coalition of opposition parties (the Multi-Party Charter for Change) making progress in the key provinces of KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng, but do not indicate an ANC ouster — yet.

Thus, the ANC, along with its failure to implement, is here for another five years.

Not to be ignored is the (distant) specter of post-election violence brought on by Zuma’s entering the election race under his new party, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). In July 2021, 354 people were killed in riots that were egged on by his daughter and associates after he was imprisoned for contempt of court. Zuma thanked the rioters for standing by him. Zuma has normalized violent imagery, constantly singing his signature song Awulethe uMshini Wami (isiZulu language for “Bring Me My Machine Gun”). In January, he claimed, falsely, that votes are counted in secret in South Africa. Should he lose, the conditions are set for him to falsely claim: “We wuz robbed.”

It’s most likely that the ANC will build the next governing coalition, but it will have suffered a bloody nose. Its leader, Ramaphosa, will face pressure to account for the loss. He will be in the crosshairs of his comrades, triggering a succession battle in the party for a new leader and president of the country.

South Africa’s breakthrough will thus most likely only come in 2029, when the electorate comprehensively abandons the ANC and chooses a new party. In the meantime, it’s a country caught in the headlights of its second transition.

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