Melanie Verwoerd on the ANC post-2024: Shifting political landscapes in South Africa

As the ANC faces declining support due to corruption, economic troubles, and crime, predictions of its fall below 50% in the upcoming national election loom. While opposition parties struggle to provide an alternative, challenges within ANC’s ranks and ideological differences among opposition parties complicate the landscape. A coalition strategy to prevent an ANC-EFF alliance seems uncertain. The nation’s political future remains uncertain as ANC’s dominance wavers, but stability and urgent action on key issues are crucial for any party’s success.

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2024 Won’t Be the End of South Africa’s ANC Party

By Melanie Verwoerd

(Bloomberg Opinion) -Last month, on July 18, the world celebrated Nelson Mandela Day, but many South African commentators predict that next year’s national election will see support for Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) fall below 50% — a drop that hasn’t happened since the party took power during the first democratic elections in 1994.

Many even predict that it would spell the end of the ANC. There’s still time to go before the next vote, but this outcome seems very unlikely. Because despite the opposition parties’ best efforts, there is still no viable alternative for the majority of Black voters.

Disillusioned by the abuse and capture of state institutions by corrupt politicians, as well as the country’s disastrous economic performance, rolling blackouts and rampant crime over the last decade, many voters are indeed turning their backs on the famous liberation movement-turned-government. Opinion polls differ on the impact this will have. While some predict that the ANC’s current 57% support could be slashed by as much as 20%, the majority agree that its share of the vote will more likely end up between 45% and 51%.

To achieve even this, though, the ANC has to convince the 10 million voters who supported them in the 2019 general election to turn up on the day next year. The 2021 local government elections saw the party’s support drop to an all-time low of 47.9%, but research has shown this was not because ANC voters chose another party – they simply stayed home.

Since then, the ANC has experienced organizational difficulties, such as declining membership, internal violence and the collapse of many branches. They’ve also suffered a shortage of money and have over the last year struggled to pay their R18 million ($938,292) monthly salary bill and tax liabilities, making voter mobilization even more difficult.

But although disillusioned with their party, people aren’t convinced that the current political landscape offers any credible alternatives. The second biggest party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) led by John Steenhuisen, is perceived as too white and too pro-business by the majority of Black voters. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), under populist firebrand Julius Malema, are popular with younger voters — but for those over 35, they are far too radical and unpredictable.
Historically, the electoral influence of those between the ages of 18 and 30 has been limited due to low registration and poor turnout. In 2021, of the 15 million young voters eligible to register, only 4.6 million did, and of those, only a very small percentage voted. The impact these voters might have on the upcoming election remains one of the biggest unknowns.

Those born after the dawn of democracy in 1994 favor the anti-white and pro-nationalization policies of the EFF, such as the expropriation of land and the nationalization of mines and the Reserve Bank. Polls currently predict only around 10% support for the EFF, but if the party succeeds in registering and mobilizing the youth, it could change things dramatically, with the EFF (which has 44 seats in parliament at the moment) possibly replacing the DA as the official opposition, which currently occupies 84 seats.

Many middle-class voters fear that a coalition between the ANC and EFF, would be disastrous for the economy and racial cohesion in the country. The DA has embarked on a campaign among these more conservative voters to exploit this fear. DA leader Steenhuisen recently proposed a so-called “moonshot pact” between other opposition parties to prevent the ANC and EFF from getting a combined vote of more than 50%.

This seems doomed to fail. Apart from the EFF, there are already 12 opposition parties in parliament. Any coalition between them would have to overcome significant ideological differences around the economy, cultural rights, Black empowerment and foreign policy. Yet, last Wednesday, “The Multiparty Charter” — an alliance between the DA and six other small parties — was launched. With a combined support of around 32%, these parties would have to massively increase their total support to reach the 51% needed to form a government. “Moonshot” sounds rather appropriate.

Among South Africa’s local governments, where coalitions have become more commonplace over the last decade, such pacts have repeatedly broken down, resulting in ongoing instability. The City of Johannesburg, for instance, has had four mayors in 18 months and the delivery of basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity in the nation’s financial capital has all but collapsed.

Despite the fears that drive Steenhuisen’s plan, the fact is that unless it became the only way to stay in power, the majority of ANC leaders would much rather form a coalition with parties other than the EFF, including the DA, since the EFF is seen to be too volatile and unpredictable. If the ANC succeeded in keeping their support above 45%, they would most likely turn to some of the other smaller parties and independents. Fikile Mbalula, the ANC secretary general, last week said that they would even consider a coalition with the DA, their long-time adversary, should they need a bigger party.

So it’s unlikely that we have seen the end of the ANC. Even after its dismal failures, it will probably be considered a better option than a fractious, unstable group of divergent parties who could spend more time disagreeing than governing.

But one can only hope that in the months leading up to the election, we will see more focus from the governing party on urgent issues such as the electricity crisis, the repair of key infrastructure and better cooperation with the private sector. Because even if the ANC stays in power, business as usual won’t be tolerated for much longer.

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© 2023 Bloomberg L.P. (edited)