Sean McLaughlin: The Battle for SA and why reason may prevail (Part 2)

Despite late 2023 power cuts and fears of a rigged 2024 election, South Africa’s transparent electoral system and efforts to address power shortages offer hope. Proportional representation prevents dominance by any single party, paving the way for potential post-ANC reforms. The ANC’s future, shaped by coalition possibilities and internal strife, remains uncertain.

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By Sean McLaughlin

I have been bullish on SA. 

That was a hard place to be in late 2023 with stage umpteen of power cuts. The election of 2024 was not going to be free nor fair, they said. The ANC would steal it and stay in power until the end of time, the argument went. I guess those conversations will be quietly forgotten – progress that is never trumpeted. The dominant party losing power is arguably African democracies’ biggest test of them all. 

Rational analysis showed concerted efforts were being made to address power shortages and that SA in fact has one of the most transparent electoral systems to be found anywhere.

***   

National politics – the devil is in the numbers.

SA has one of the most extreme versions of proportional representation (PR).   

In many African countries, opposition to the government meets with repression. In SA, there are some 600 parties on the ballot across all spheres of governance.  

For all its flaws in splintering the vote, it has prevented the dominant party becoming all conquering, and allowing for more observers on each election. No party will likely command a national majority again.

PR will have been a contributor that allowed the country to transition a post-ANC era. More meaningful constituency based political reform can then come further on up the road.   

SA 2024 National Elections results. Data provided by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

By the same token, there are certain lights at the end of the tunnel of even the worst permutation that could result from this year’s election. 

The ANC may team up with firebrand Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and / or uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), each at around (together at 24.1%). The latter is the Russian-backed breakaway party of former ANC President Jacob Zuma. But the resulting economic fallout and infighting would likely mean a centre-right opposition landslide by 2029. However difficult, this may subsequently ensure a centrist electorate for a generation (Greece post-2015).   

This would come at a time when a long list of forces are set in motion that would have the ANC fighting for survival. Among these are revelations about past wrongdoing, and members may begin turning on each other for jobs in government. 

Not many have factored in how quickly the ANC can fall over the next five years if it does choose that path. At the very least, internal strife and a weak state point to harmful policies now unlikely to be implemented.

That the ANC is a broad church is another factor in the country’s favour. It is not a uniform, Leninist machine hellbent on a Marxist takeover. Whether the party turns to the right, or the left, and if that move may split the party, is the battle for SA’s soul. I note how the decade-long held fear of a far-left takeover was not the ANC’s immediate reaction to its loss.

Read more: SA’s ideological divide: Only business can end poverty – Andrew Kenny

I am in favour of a post-ANC amnesty – coming clean in return for immunity. In my interview with Wayne Duvenage, we outline how this may happen and why it is a good idea. For me, it is largely because it may soften the ANC’s long-feared hard landing and reduce tensions. 

I also struggle to see how historical bad blood between these three parties’ leaders would be overcome. Most unlikely by now, then, is an ANC-EFF-MK-smaller parties tie-up to get a 2/3 majority and punch holes in the constitution. That was not achieved when the ANC had a near 70% majority in 2004.

The prospect of fracturing and economic folly may have the ANC turn the other way. The DA and its allies give numbers and credibility.

Hermann Pretorius points to the DA’s path to victory in an essay entitled ‘How the DA can win the May national election.’   

Pretorius states that the DA can support the ANC in a confidence-and-supply arrangement in 2024, saving the country from the doomsday tie up of the ANC-EFF-MK. In return, it can demand some important ministerial portfolios such as finance and policing. Until 2029, it positions itself as a government-in-waiting, then sits tight as the ANC takes its final plunge to a 20-30% party. 

A masterstroke, to be sure, but it must get this one right. 

Firstly, it must bring smaller allies with it. This will broaden its demographic appeal. And it will also need those numbers in 2029, if the ANC does in fact plummet to 20%.

Secondly, this needs a public relations campaign from the heavens – the brightest minds succinctly explaining what the arrangement is and why it is necessary.

National government is now coming into sight for the DA, but the last few miles are filled with landmines.

SA’s municipal level of politics has provided a training ground for opposition, with a short-lived opposition coalition in the city of Johannesburg in 2021. I hope that that will have been the right mistake. Operators within the DA are aware of certain strategic errors not to be repeated.

There are convincing arguments on both sides for the confidence and supply option: it provides a comfortable majority; with parties of a similar size, there is less risk of one devouring the other; it may provide renewal for the ANC if it can tag itself to good governance.

The 2024 election may effectively play a role of finally separating the ANC’s relative pragmatists from the rest.

To partner with ANC is not to partner with the enemy. By the standards of African liberation movements, it is one of the better ones. After having brought freedom to so many in 1994, it did not turn the country into what could have been Africa’s mother of all basket cases. 

History will judge the ANC more kindly than contemporary condemnation.  

The narrative of ‘good-guys-vs-bad-guys’ within the ANC may be too simplistic. Yet, partnering with the DA and smaller allies would soon remove its elements that do not wish to associate with that.

And the fact remains that the ANC has seen sense in policy areas when there was no alternative. Removing the cap on privately generated electricity has cushioned against the worst excesses of power shortages.

In return, the DA and allies should exercise their leverage and demand a key supply-side reform. That is the liberalisation of the labour market, as argued by author RW Johnson. Some 80.3% of citizens state that the country’s labour laws impede finding work. The fruits of reducing labour regulation would be quick for voters to see – employers taking a punt with the young to cut unemployment. 

These berg economic tailwinds blowing south bring runaway upsides – business booming, from eco-tourism in Limpopo to micro-power grids in the Northern Cape.

SA is one of the few places where a turnaround could be very quick – reversing self-imposed economic harm in the short walk to economic freedom.

Politics cascades into everything. Nothing could bring about more meaningful improvements than a few changes at national level.   

***   

SA’s deep talent pool 

That one person is too small to make a difference is the biggest delusion of all.    

In business, SA boasts women entrepreneurs such as Dineo Lioma and Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe who have thriving biotech and fashion media platforms, respectively.   

Motivated individuals such as Songezo Zibi and Mmusi Maimane began modern political upstarts that made inroads in Gauteng province this year.

News outlet the Daily Maverick remarked on a debate for the premier of Gauteng province in the recent elections,

“Very impressed with all the candidates… How fortunate we are to have this kind of talent pool waiting in the wings of our politics. Potentially the best political landscape we’ve had since 1994.”

In administration, André De Ruyter was getting very close to the source of the cartels crippling the national utility Eskom. In his book, ‘Truth to Power’, he writes on the private counter-intelligence operation he instigated against the gangs, and the funds gathered from SA’s business circles for the same,

“At times, it felt like we were engaged in low-grade civil war against criminals threatening to overrun the state… I started making the rounds to SA’s super rich … the financial tide turned… restoring my faith in the altruism of the South African business sector somewhat… Another breakthrough came when a big firm with local roots jumped in.”   

And so civic organisations should never stop knocking on doors for funds. Direct approaches are fruitful. It is never a mistake to have a conversation.

In a similar manner, the FT looks on with reverence,   

“What is it about southern Africa that creates so many moral heavyweights? It seems that adversity … stimulates rather than inhibits and brings out the best in its citizens … Hence the region’s … outspoken parliamentarians, and courageous activists.” 

Big business is the missing pillar of a formidable triumvirate with SA’s benevolent politicians, and civil society.

Rightly scrutinised, business holds levers to rework society’s architecture. The country’s monopolistic and protected markets have brought bumper profits.

Like a lot of battles in history, it is really won or lost in the supply line. The more SA’s civil society, moderate political parties, and media are well resourced, the better the chances of turnaround.

SA’s civil society provides ready-made solutions to corruption busting and interdicting racketeering schemes, armed with its ‘war chest’ in house legal teams.    

Any country is only as good as its people, not its natural resources. Ask Sweden and Singapore. This bodes well for SA: the many good civil servants in ESKOM or the police awaiting better management; the entrepreneur waiting for the day that the state will not tell her who to employ.

Like all battles, some will contribute more than others. Some will sit in New York and assert how SA is the last in a long line of godforsaken African dominos. Others will be on the front line with bodyguards as a councillor in KwaZulu-Natal.

***                                                      

Panorama   

As in anywhere, the ideological argument on the role of the state will rage. Author Dambisa Moyo argues that, 

“Ideology is the enemy of progress”.

True, SA needs a relentless focus on what’s good for the economy, administration, social cohesion, individual liberties, and the environment. Take your left-right axioms and throw them into the sea. Such a diverse country allows for a diverse scope of solutions to poverty and historic wounds. 

The forces against race-based quotes in business such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) may soon become overwhelming. Consistent research has shown that BEE is an elite obsession, and not something favoured by voters.    

Instead, the IRR’s EED (Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged) would be a scorecard rewarding firms for contributions such as schooling and training provided.

This would be another needle-mover. Business Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) budgets would shift from the dead monopoly capital of BEE to empowering economic activity of EED. The EED could include investments into a fund for disadvantaged black entrepreneurs as a prescribed asset. That is a policy of political party Action South Africa (ASA).

Education vouchers for parents to spend on children would see a rise in the number of entrepreneurial, low-cost private schools, booming across emerging markets. 

SA is both behind in some ways and advanced in others. Opposing things can be true at the same time. The state is largely damaging, but it is also retreating.Free Market Foundation CEO David Ansara asserts that,

“We do not find ourselves in a totalitarian state. The very harmful South African government is not an all-powerful institution.”

This has created an array of self-sustaining, intentional communities, also known as ‘enclaves’ or ‘citadels’. These are libertarian, off-grid, sub-national districts, far away from the reach of government, in which life can be very good. In a discussion with an individual involved in affairs of one of these areas in Gauteng,

Read more: Author who in 2017 projected Election’24 outcome, warns against ANC dithering, esp. on KZN 

“We’re not technically supposed to cordon off the area, as it’s not a private estate, but the government is nowhere to be seen. Private security guards and advanced cameras keep the area safe…children play freely in the streets and people leave their motorbikes in driveways overnight.” 

Referring more generally to these communities, the person continued,

“A lot of people have rooftop solar as power, back-up generators, bore holes for private water supply, swimming pools, along with sophisticated water treatment processes … There are private schools, private fire engine services and world class private medical care, golf courses, equestrian centres… In time these will have vertical farming and floating airports.”   

Insulated, individuals can weather instability in these bubbles, with funds offshore and a foreign passport: Fight for plan A to remain in the country until the enemy really is at the gates, in the knowledge that you always have a plan B. 

Worlds away, enclaves allow people to keep going and arrive at the period of progress on the other side of the unrest of the ANC’s implosion. They also provide mini-economies and create assets that people will fight hard to protect.

Whilst timing has been on SA’s side in some ways with modernity checking regression, there are also robust structures in place.

In authorRichard Dowden’s book ‘Africa: Altered States Ordinary Miracles’, he assessed SA’s future, opining that,

“The future of South Africa now lies in the hands of its institutions, mainly the courts …” 

By that measure, taking the higher courts, post-Apartheid SA is functioning precisely as it should, even if some court rulings lack implementation.

Rather than preparing for President Ramaphosa’s son to take over for a generation, the courts are ruling in favour of strengthening SA’s democracy. 

Chief Justice Zondo’s report of 2022 named or implicated 200 officials that allegedly perpetrated ‘State Capture’. Independent candidates were permitted to run in this year’s election for the first time. Another step forward is the electoral court’s recent ruling for more polling booths abroad. This could increase the opposition’s vote by up to 5% by 2029.

On institutions, liberty’s bastion is the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) – the ballot box. 

International and domestic observers have repeatedly classified SA’s elections as free and fair. The last one was no different.

When questioned on election integrity in April 2024, at this time when it matters most, IEC chairperson Mosotho Moepya listed the protections in place: counting takes place at the polling stations, rather than an undisclosed location; disputed results are uploaded to an API for examination; AI is used to simulate mocks to test staff proficiency; three unconnected data processing centres defend against cyber-hacking.

Moepya elaborated,   

“So, I want to completely say that the notion that an election can be rigged in this country simply doesn’t exist…” 

If often feels as though SA’s banks, institutions, businesses, and families have war rooms.

Ratings agency S&P global explains that, 

“South Africa’s political structure is clearly defined, and checks and balances are strong, with division of power and an independent judiciary.”  

There are other factors. 

Among them, Zimbabwe’s political economy was unique. The economy was dependent on one source – agriculture. Similarly, the farm owners and labourers overwhelmingly supported the single opposition party.

The farm invasions, then, in one swoop, emigrated the political opposition.

There may not be such an equivalent single tool to bring politically and economically diverse SA to its knees.

Geographic-political diversity is fragmenting the ANC. Data provided by the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) and prepared by the author using Datawrapper.

Forward  

This is not the first time SA has stared at the abyss and stood back.

I will concede that narrow margins may account for SA still standing.

The race-based war destined to consume the entire country in 1990 never was.  

Justice Malala’s book ‘The Plot to Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted a Civil War’ is a phenomenal account of the 10-day crisis in 1993 when the transition was on the brink.

Later, many state that SA nearly sleepwalked into a police state under President Zuma from 2009-2018.

The malign forces of Zuma were narrowly defeated at the ANC’s Nasrec conference in 2017. Of the 4700 total votes cast, Ramaphosa was elected leader by a whisker of 3.8%.

Whilst Ramaphosa turned out not to be a liberal reformer, he would at least not lead the country on a road to abdication and suicide. And it would then be under his non-oppressive watch that the ANC’s majority would slide away, forever.

We now find ourselves past all these checkpoints.

Unthinkable some years back, an ANC-DA coalition of sorts is on the table now in 2024, with surplus analysis as to how it could work. 

Unity would make everything easier – a humble figure to bring together SA’s kaleidoscope of entities that ultimately, want the same thing.  

Maturity and understanding beats bickering and retribution every time. Now is the time for that. 

Throughout history, combatants turned politicians have later in their lives noted their opponents to have more in common with them than they earlier understood. 

Coalition politics may force consensus-building by necessity. And the penny will drop when these actors realise the power of the collective, the next frontier to finding our way.

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*Sean McLaughlin has worked in market intelligence on Latin America and Spain between 2016 and 2020. He wrote extensively on the issue of Northern Ireland in the EU-UK Brexit negotiations for think tank VoteWatch Europe. Since 2021, he has been working as a data analyst for a data provider in the energy industry. He is an associate of the Free Market Foundation.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.