🔒 RW Johnson: Election’24 will be SA’s showdown of all showdowns

Political scientist R.W. Johnson delves into the potential scenarios post-Election’24, exploring viabilities and implications for South Africa’s political landscape.

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By RW Johnson ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The opinion polls published in South Africa’s election run-up concur on one thing, that this is a period of unprecedented political change. Jacob Zuma’s MKP has risen from nothing to around 13% in just a few months, the ANC is showing a gigantic slippage of 15%-20% and it seems likely that things are still in motion. This has greatly complicated calculations of possible governing coalitions. There has, for example, been much talk of an ANC-EFF coalition and Julius Malema has gone so far as to try to nominate Floyd Shivambu as Finance Minister in such a regime. But if one goes by the latest SRF poll, showing the ANC at 37% and the EFF at 11%, such an alignment would fail to reach the key 50% mark. 

In fact we are heading to the showdown of all showdowns. Things are doubtless still in flux but let us assume that the present polls are roughly correct, with the ANC in the 37-40% range, the DA 20-25%, the MKP around 13% and the EFF around 11%. True, Ramaphosa continues to deny gravity by insisting the ANC is aiming at 57% but this seems no more real than his smart cities and bullet trains. The more likely result is that  the ANC will face a choice of coalitions; either with the DA – giving a comfortable parliamentary majority around the 60% level – or with the EFF and MKP (who are now publicly allied), which would produce a parliamentary majority of 60-65%.

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The two options are chalk and cheese. An ANC-DA coalition would mean a government of national unity, bringing together what would still be the biggest black party with the liberal Opposition, representing mainly the racial minorities, and the business community. It would undoubtedly represent South Africa’s best chance of digging itself out of the hole that thirty years of ANC rule has dug. The alternative would be an ANC-MKP-EFF coalition, in other words a reverse takeover of the ANC by its two populist breakaways. Ramaphosa would either resign or get thrown out and would be replaced either by Zuma or the EFF-friendly Paul Mashatile. 

A mere glance at the manifestoes of the EFF and MKP is enough to scare any rational person. What the two parties share is an entire lack of any knowledge of economics. They make huge populist promises with no idea of how they would pay for them. In practice they would have to just print more and more money. They also both want to nationalise and expropriate all farmland, a move which would quickly result in mass starvation. The result would be an apocalypse with huge capital flight, the collapse of the Rand and the emigration of all manner of skilled personnel. Even before such a government began to legislate its populist programme the economy would come to a standstill, unemployment would soar and the Western Cape might attempt to secede. 

As may be seen, a great deal will depend on Ramaphosa. He is, unwisely, punting the idea of the ANC retaining the whole of its 2019 vote, when it achieved 57%. In fact it will lose heavily, perhaps as much as 20% below that level. Ramaphosa could easily take such a result as a vote of no confidence and resign – though that would mean handing the country over to Mashatile and the EFF. Alternatively, he could dig his heels in (something he has not hitherto done) and make a deal with the DA. No doubt he will vacillate like Hamlet but he will know that if he hands over to the MKP-EFF and Mashatile he will be consigning to the scrap heap the entire constitutional order and the Mandela inheritance. He would also go down as a weak man who helped destroy the country, not an inheritance any politician wants.

Alternatively Ramaphosa might dig his heels in, refuse to resign and make a deal with the DA, claiming, correctly, that this is the very last chance of turning the country around. This would, of course, outrage the EFF and MKP who would have already begun to count the ministries they would take over. Their anger at being displaced by the DA would be fierce. They would launch an all-out attack on Ramaphosa for “selling out the revolution” and quite probably they would take violent action to demonstrate their displeasure and to show that no government could rule without their consent. Zuma would doubtless call on MK veterans of all stripes to rally to his cause and restore the revolution. It is unlikely that Ramaphosa will have prepared for such an eventuality – he is a ditherer – and the loyalties of the police and army will be in doubt. The position of Bheki Cele, the Minister for Police, will be difficult. As a Zulu he will be conscious of  Zuma’s huge following in KwaZulu-Natal, let alone the still-present remnants of Zuma’s network in the security and intelligence services. 

It is likely that between them Zuma’s MKP and the EFF will have gained as much as 45%-50% of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal and that they will either control that province or be in a position to make that province ungovernable without them. Thus they are likely to make that their base for action against the Ramaphosa government. They could, for example, blockade the ports of Durban and Richards Bay, effectively bringing the national economy to a halt. In such an eventuality only firm action by the SANDF would ease the situation but, as the 2021 riots showed, both the national government and the SANDF are liable to go missing in such a situation. 

However, the SACP and Cosatu will feel equally threatened by an ANC-DA coalition. These are now weak organisations but the Congress Alliance has enabled them to continue playing a far more influential role than their strength really entitles them to. They too will feel that they have now lost position to a liberal bourgeois group and that this is the long-dreaded counter-revolution. On the other hand they will not want to make common cause with the EFF and MKP. They are more likely to make their voices heard through the ANC’s national executive. 

And the ANC itself will be in two minds. If it has lost as much as the polls suggest is likely, the party will be shell-shocked and around one third of its MPs and provincial representatives will have lost their jobs. In addition many ANC municipal councillors will be aghast at the results, realising that their own positions are now vulnerable. Already, Ramaphosa on the campaign trail has publicly castigated members of the ANC’s executive who have gone missing and failed to campaign for the party. This is not just a sign of low ANC morale but, quite probably, of ANC place-holders wanting to hedge their bets with the Zuma faction. 

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Within the ANC at large there would be a strong instinct of racial solidarity which would dictate a coalition with the other black parties, the EFF and MKP and, of course, many ANC politicians will be influenced by whether their home base is controlled by an ANC-EFF municipal coalition. And both the SACP and particularly Cosatu will have factions favourable to Zuma. It should not be forgotten that when Zuma mobilised large numbers of Zulus to join the ANC, thus giving KwaZulu-Natal the largest bloc vote within the ANC, the SACP (then under Zulu leadership in the shape of Blade Nzimande) followed in Zuma’s wake, also enrolling a large Zulu membership and Nzimande was particularly reluctant to criticise Zuma, his Zulu elder. Nzimande remains the SACP chairman, though its new General Secretary, Solly Mapaila, is an outspoken critic of Zuma. All in all, the SACP will oppose Zuma and the EFF but it will have its full share of misgivings and mixed feelings. 

The key tactical question the SACP and Cosatu will face is whether to join in with the MKP and EFF in attacking the Ramaphosa government if it does indeed choose a coalition deal with the DA. They will certainly feel that any such deal is a “betrayal of the revolution” (and, more particularly, that it threatens their own position within the Tripartite Alliance) – but they will not want to be junior partners in a campaign which the MKP and EFF are likely to dominate. Moreover, if it looked like such a campaign might topple Ramaphosa, the SACP and Cosatu would probably vote to keep Ramaphosa in place, for a President Mashatile and a coalition deal with the EFF would suit them even less.   

Moreover the older and wiser heads in the ANC are all well aware of how dangerous Malema is and of how much damage the Zuma presidency did both to the ANC and the country. And virtually all ANC place-holders feel extremely nervous at the thought of an MKP-EFF reverse takeover of the ANC. In addition the business community is exerting maximum pressure against any idea of an ANC deal with the MKP or EFF. It has placed its entire weight behind the notion of an ANC-DA coalition. So let us now look at how that alternative might work*.

* R.W. Johnson will examine the prospects for an ANC-DA coalition in a subsequent article

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