🔒 RW Johnson: As GNU euphoria dies down, where to now for SA?

The recent GNU victory brings significant expectations for change. Election surveys reveal the public’s desire for a new government, as dissatisfaction with the ANC’s handling of education, health, and infrastructure grows. The ANC’s hold on power is weakening, with internal strife and corruption trials looming. As the DA joins the government, the composition of the new cabinet and the ANC’s internal dynamics will shape South Africa’s political future. Uncertainty and potential unrest lie ahead.

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R.W. Johnson

The euphoria over the GNU leaves the question: where do we go from here? ___STEADY_PAYWALL___ One has to start with deciding what the election meant. Sifting through the responses to the election surveys which I helped run for ENCA left me in little doubt. A large majority said they didn’t want government to continue in the same way that it had for the last thirty years: they wanted a real change and a new government. When we asked questions about the education system, health services, the collapse of infrastructure or the growth of inequality the answers were always the same: the ANC simply didn’t care about these things. The political elite was selfish and was interested only in its own welfare. And the verdict was that ANC government had failed: things no longer worked and there was no “better life for all”. Given how pervasive and deep this mood was it was no mean achievement for the ANC to hang on to 40% of the vote. 

The country has got its new government and expectations are high. A great deal will now depend on the performance of its DA ministers. They will be the new faces who are supposed to make a difference, to make the rest of the country work as well as the Western Cape. But of course, not everyone is happy. Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, who took a quarter of the vote between them, find themselves out in the cold both nationally and, perhaps, also provincially. Neither of them is likely to take this lying down. There is a possibility of serious trouble in KwaZulu-Natal. Malema, for his part, will attempt to become the Leader of the Opposition (a role really belonging to Zuma but which he seems unlikely to play), accusing Ramaphosa and the ANC at every turn of being sell-outs and attempting to divide and embarrass the government by every means available.

A lot depends on the internal dynamics of the ANC. An apparent majority in the NEC were more inclined to seek a deal with the EFF than with the DA. That majority is still unhappy but will go along with the leadership’s choices provided that it remains a reliable source of jobs, patronage, contracts and corrupt opportunities. But there is the rub: the party has been shattered by its huge losses of seats and patronage and by the sight of both the former Speaker and Zizi Kodwa facing trial for corruption. Many within the NEC fear they too could end up in jail or, at the least, lose access to the corruption networks from which they currently benefit. They would have felt far safer with an EFF deal: the EFF is nothing if not understanding about the special needs of tenderpreneurs. The pro-EFF faction centres around Paul Mashatile, which is why his opponents in the NEC are quietly feeding the media with titbits about his corruption.

It’s a very messy picture and a lot depends on how Mashatile behaves. In effect the pro-EFF section of the NEC will want him to be the intra-party leader of the opposition to Ramaphosa. But that is a dangerous role for Mashatile to play. He has many enemies and already there are many voices saying that the notion of him ever ascending to the presidency is unthinkable. 

The first great battle is about to begin: the contest for the composition of the new cabinet. Ramaphosa originally wanted a much smaller cabinet but had to give in to patronage-hungry ANC factions all demanding more ministries and deputy-ministers, it being understood that each of these positions not only carried handsome salaries and perks but also all manner of corruption opportunities. Nonetheless, every objective observer agrees that the cabinet is far too big, unwieldy, expensive and dysfunctional: by 2023 there were 31 ministers and 35 deputy-ministers, which is either a world record for government size or close to it. Ramaphosa is fully aware that this is a ridiculous situation. The very fact that he has had to take so many key tasks and set up Operation Vulindlela inside the presidency in order to carry them out, is a testament to the fact that most ministries simply don’t work. The civil service has been ruined by cadre deployment and the calibre of most ministers (let alone deputy ministers) is extremely low.

According to the DA-ANC agreement for the GNU, cabinet appointments will be “broadly proportional” to the vote shares of the various parties in the election. The ANC received 40.2%, the DA 21.8% and the IFP 3.9%. If one translates that into seats in a 24 member cabinet (which is still probably too big) that would mean 15 ANC ministers, 8 DA and 1 IFP. A reduction in the number of ANC ministers from 31 to 15 would be painful indeed and there is bound to be extreme pressure within the ANC to avoid or at least minimise such an extreme reduction of patronage. Already the Sunday Times has quoted senior ANC leaders as suggesting that the DA should only have five – or even as few as two – ministers. This would presumably be a make-or-break issue for the DA since such numbers would mean that the GNU agreement had been completely negated. Similarly, there are already demands that the ANC must retain every ministry with any economic role plus defence, finance, foreign affairs, security and social development. Such extreme demands are merely a sign of how hard the ANC will find it to cease being a hegemonic party. Not surprisingly, there are already rumours that the cabinet may actually be further enlarged – a preposterous notion. 

The ANC faces many problems, perhaps the chief of which is the loss of its sense of hegemony, of being the inevitable and permanent winner. Already splits have spawned the UDM, the EFF, Cope, MK and the ATM. And no matter how often the party splits, its divisions still remain. Indeed, now that it is down to being a forty per cent party it is more divided than ever. Moreover, Cosatu and the SACP both furiously tried to stop the ANC deal with the DA and found themselves just brushed aside and ignored. This was not only a terrible revelation of their weakness but has left them wondering if the tripartite alliance still exists. Never in the whole period since 1985 have the three partners been so far apart. And ever since the 1950s the ANC has relied on the SACP’s intellectual guidance. Now that guide is gone, discarded. Cosatu has always claimed to represent the working class and to be essential to the ANC’s electoral success. That bluff too has now been called.

For the DA this is a moment of euphoria – though that may not last. What is extraordinary is the DA’s journey from a 1.7% party in 1994 to a party constituting a third of the government in 2024. It is a triumphant moment in the two century history of South African liberalism. From being a persecuted fringe group liberals have grown into a movement which has seen off the Nats, the United Party and pretty clearly the Communist Party too. It may yet see off the ANC. Two people are principally responsible for this triumph: Tony Leon, who took the party from the edge of extinction to being the official Opposition, and Helen Zille, who completed the party’s ascent. 

Ahead lie the 2026 municipal elections. Given that the ANC has been steadily losing ground in urban milieux it seems only too likely that it will suffer further losses then. In the 2021municipal elections its score fell by 8.32% to 45.59%. If, as seems all too possible, it falls under 40% in 2026 it will confirm the impression of a declining and perhaps dying movement. This too will create further agitation and division within the ANC.

Ramaphosa will almost certainly bow out as ANC leader at the party’s 2027 conference, but the manoevering and factional campaigning for the presidential succession have already started. There will be no smooth or easy succession, like that from Mandela to Mbeki. Many people regard Mashatile as irredeemably corrupt and assume that his presidency would be a replay of state capture under Zuma. Given that the party has never recovered from the damage inflicted by Zuma in that period it is by no means clear that it would survive such an ordeal. But for the moment the significant thing is merely the extra turbulence and uncertainty which this open succession creates. 

Until now the Ramaphosa era has been dull and drifting, with little movement or development and many broken promises. Now, however, the log-jam has broken and all manner of uncertainties, opportunities and new developments are possible.

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