ANC could retain a stranglehold on SA’s future even if it loses the majority in 2024 elections – Ivo Vegter

The 2024 elections may well see the ANC lose its majority in the National Assembly, meaning it would no longer be able to control the executive arm of government. In this article by Ivo Vegter, however, he points out that even if the ANC does lose its majority in the National Assembly in the 2024 elections, the party could still wield veto power over large swathes of legislation via the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The ANC would therefore maintain its virtual stranglehold on South Africa’s future as it could still use the NCOP to put a big stick into the spokes of any new government, obstructing any reform and anti-corruption agenda. This article first appeared on Daily Friend.– Asime Nyide


Depriving the ANC of a majority in the National Assembly isn’t enough

By Ivo Vegter

There’s a desperate hope-springs-eternal kind of optimism that the 2024 elections will see the end of the ANC’s governing majority. It might. But the ANC has an ace up its sleeve.

There’s hardly a place to turn without running into speculation about the possible makeup of a post-2024 government.

It is widely expected (and polls suggest) that the ANC will lose its stranglehold on the National Assembly. With that, it would lose control over the executive arm of government since the National Assembly elects the president, who in turn appoints the Cabinet.

That prospect will be a huge relief to South Africans of all stripes who either never had or have lost faith in the ANC. Some ANC voters have defected to smaller parties, but many simply stopped voting altogether.

But that isn’t the end of the matter. There’s also the National Council of Provinces to consider.

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Grip on power

The local government elections of 2021 saw the lowest voter turnout in any election since the dawn of democracy. Only about 75% of eligible voters are actually registered to vote, and fewer than half of those turned out to cast a vote.

That implies that only one in three eligible voters (or two in five, if we’re being generous) influence the outcome of elections.

The tenacity of the ANC’s grip on power is easily explained, and it isn’t just about race or loyalty to the country’s perceived liberators. Voters are rational and make their party choices based on anticipated personal benefit (will another party threaten my grant payments or my sweetheart deals?), as well as broader socio-economic considerations (will I get a job or be able to run my business?).

Even so – and despite the boost of Ramaphoria after the dismal Zuma years – voters are acutely aware of the ANC’s legacy of corruption, ineptitude, and broken promises.

This is why the ANC’s support is rapidly dwindling. Its performance in elections correlates directly with the well-being of the people. When growth was positive, unemployment was declining, houses were being built, and services extended to previously unserved areas (as was the case during the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies), ANC support rose. 

When these trends reversed (under Zuma and now under Ramaphosa), ANC support declined.

Polling

According to internal research conducted by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in 2022, which polled a representative sample of South Africans who have telephones, more than half of us feel our lives have become worse in the previous five years – that is, largely on Ramaphosa’s watch. Forty-four percent think life will get even worse in the next five years, with only a third thinking it will get better.

Survey respondents’ top priorities for government were unemployment, load shedding, corruption, and crime, while the ANC goes on and on about issues like land reform, empowerment and inequality, which almost nobody (fewer than 1%) cares about.

According to the IRR’s polling, 41.8% of respondents intend to vote for the ANC in 2024, 24.2% for the Democratic Alliance, and 15.6% for the EFF (whose name, Economic Freedom Fighters, is so pointedly Orwellian).

This concurs with an Ipsos survey conducted last year, which put ANC support at 42%, and an internal poll by the Afrikaans-language Rapport newspaper, which put it at 38%.

It conflicts, however, with a poll conducted by the Social Research Foundation, headed by former IRR CEO Frans Cronjé, who said in August last year that if an election were to be held, then the ANC would still command ‘a majority in the low- to mid-50 percentiles’.

I don’t think any of these polls should be taken too seriously. A lot can happen between now and the election, and there is no reason to assume that people will actually vote how they tell pollsters they’ll vote today.

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Interesting times

If the ANC indeed falls below 50%, the future holds many possibilities, and the further it falls, the more interesting it becomes. I use ‘interesting’ here in the ancient Chinese curse sense of ‘may you live in interesting times’.

With no party winning an outright majority, the age of coalition politics will be upon us. And it will be chaotic. Perhaps the best possible outcome would be a stable ANC-DA coalition. But it could equally likely be a disastrous lurch to the left under an ANC-EFF coalition or a hyena feast with the ANC plus some smaller parties who are in it purely for the power and the cash (I’m looking at you, Gayton), or a fragile DA-led coalition in which the tail wags the dog (yup, you Herman).

This is fertile soil for speculation about what might await us and how a Parliamentary coalition government might function or fail to function.

But, as I said, there’s more.

NCOP

I’d wager many South Africans are only dimly aware of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). Whenever there’s a joint sitting of Parliament, we hear the chairperson of the NCOP being acknowledged, and we go, ‘Oh, yeah, that exists.’

It has always functioned largely as a rubber stamp for legislative business. We know it has to approve legislation, but for the most part, it simply does and plays no visible part in the actual politics of the country.

It is constituted as a sort of curtailed ‘upper house’ of Parliament, with the National Assembly being the ‘lower house’.

The NCOP can introduce and pass legislation, which the National Assembly then has to endorse. Conversely, much (but not all) legislation passed by the National Assembly has to be endorsed by the NCOP, which may consider, pass, amend, propose amendments to, or reject it.

However, the NCOP is limited to matters that affect the provinces. It cannot, for example, second-guess a National Budget, get involved in state-owned enterprises, or influence the election or removal of a president.

The list of areas in which it can make itself felt, however, is long (see Schedule 4 of the Constitution). It includes agriculture, consumer protection, disaster management, primary and secondary education, environmental matters, health services, housing, indigenous and customary law, industrial promotion, police (to a limited extent), population development, public transport, tourism, trade, urban and rural development, and welfare services.

If it throws legislation back at the National Assembly, the latter body can only override the NCOP with a two-thirds majority vote.

The NCOP is, therefore, a powerful body, despite the low profile it has kept with the ANC in control of both houses of Parliament.

Stick in the spokes

The NCOP consists of 10 delegates for each of the nine provinces. Those delegates are selected from political parties in rough correspondence with the distribution of votes for the Provincial Legislatures.

Individual delegates do not vote. Each provincial delegation has only a single vote to use in matters before the Council, and their ten delegates must determine their single vote amongst themselves.

That means all the provinces are equal in the NCOP. Gauteng and the Western Cape, where the majority of South Africa’s economic activity takes place, have the same single vote as rural backwater provinces.

As it stands today, the ANC has outright control (six or more seats) of seven provincial delegations: the Eastern Cape (7), Free State (6), KwaZulu-Natal (6), Limpopo (8), Mpumalanga (7), North West Province (6) and the Northern Cape (6).

In addition, it has five delegates in Gauteng (with the DA having three and the EFF two). The ANC has three delegates in the Western Cape, the only province in which it is in the minority.

That means that the ANC controls 77.8% of the votes in the NCOP, a far higher controlling margin than it ever had in the National Assembly.

Should the ANC lose its majority in the National Assembly and an anti-ANC coalition form a government, the ANC could end up wielding veto power over large swathes of legislation via the NCOP.

In this way, it could prove to be a serious obstruction to the reform and anti-corruption agenda that a putative new government will no doubt adopt.

Hope

There is some hope on the NCOP front.

The IRR’s polling indicates that general election preferences in only three provinces have the ANC in the lead, by 54% in the Eastern Cape, 69% in Limpopo, and 51% in Mpumalanga. (That the ANC has more support in the poorest provinces may be ironic but is likely attributable to both graft and social grants.)

In the Free State (35%), Gauteng (38%), KwaZulu-Natal (33%), North West (45%), Northern Cape (24%) and the Western Cape (22%), the ANC’s favourability is well below 50%.

If these responses were translated into provincial votes, it would give the ANC outright control (six or more seats) in only a single province, down from seven today.

The survey numbers should be interpreted with caution, however. They indicate general election party preference – i.e. at national level – broken down by the geographic location of respondents. The question did not specifically ask respondents who they would vote for in the provincial election.

There would have to be a very large shift in provincial voting patterns to reduce the ANC to a minority party in the NCOP. The hope, therefore, that it will lose its grip on NCOP is slim, despite what surveys might suggest. It needs to win only two of the provinces the survey suggests are unlikely – say, the North West and the Free State – to return to the NCOP with a majority after the 2024 elections.

Aside from who will form a coalition government, then (IRR poll respondents overwhelmingly prefer the ANC and DA), the other big question for 2024, which isn’t discussed nearly enough, will be which party ends up with control of the NCOP.

That party could put a big stick into the spokes of any new government.

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