🔒 The Economist: South Africa’s future is in the hands of a divided ANC

The ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, grapples with internal materialism and narcissism. Facing declining electoral support, it must choose between pragmatic coalition options or riskier alliances with populist factions. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decisions on forming a government will impact South Africa’s future stability and reform progress.

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From The Economist, translated by BizNews, published under licence. The original article, in English, can be found on www.economist.com

© 2024 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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Meetings of the African National Congress (ANC) are a mix of materialism and narcissism. The fancy SUVs parked outside any gathering hint at the spoils of office enjoyed by South Africa’s ruling party. Inside there will be a selfindulgent atmosphere: regalia and songs that hark back to the anti-apartheid struggle; discussion about the meaning of transformation, liberation, revolution and renewal. There are few things that the ANC enjoys more than talking about the ANC. There is enough navel-gazing to require an army of chiropractors.

How the ANC sees itself—and its self-interest—will determine the future of South Africa. On June 2nd electoral officials announced that Africa’s oldest liberation movement had taken a licking at the election four days earlier. The ANC won 40.2% of the vote, down from 57.5% in 2019. It has until June 16th—the deadline for parliament to elect a president—to cut a deal to stay in power. On June 5th, an ANC spokesperson said the party had approached all the major opposition parties and sought a “government of national unity”. But in the end it will almost certainly have to make a choice. It will need to decide whether to lean towards pragmatism, by working with the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (da), which came second with 21.8%—or to team up with a dangerous populist party.

Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, struck the right notes after the results were announced. “Our people have spoken, whether we like it or not,” he said, praising the elections as “free, fair and peaceful”. He added that South Africans “expect the parties for which they have voted to find common ground”.

The contrast with his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, was stark. The former president’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party came third with 14.6%, the highest share for any new party in a post-1994 election. But he still pushed his own version of the big lie, saying “the results are not correct” and warning that the independent electoral commission was “provoking us”. The sinister implication was that his fans might cause violent riots, as they did in 2021 after he was imprisoned for contempt of court.

Allies of Mr Ramaphosa suggest that the president would prefer to do a deal involving the da. They argue that any agreement with MK, which wants to undo the constitution that he helped negotiate in the 1990s, would undermine his legacy. They add that a deal with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), another ANC offshoot, which came fourth with 9.5% of votes, would undermine his agenda. In recent months there has been some progress on economic reforms.

The eff, which sees “white monopoly capital” as the cause of South Africa’s problems, and wants to nationalise swathes of the economy and erode the independence of the central bank, would quash any hope of further progress. A deal with the da, Mr Ramaphosa’s camp believes, could lead to improvements in the economy and public services—and therefore give the party its best chance of regaining votes at the national elections in 2029.

An agreement with the DA could take several forms. The most minimal would be a “confidence and supply” deal whereby the da supported Mr Ramaphosa at the head of a minority government (the confidence bit) and backed certain things like budgets (the supply). The most extensive would be a full-blown coalition, either between the ANC and DA or, more likely, one involving other parties as well, such as the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu nationalist outfit. In return the DA could ask for cabinet jobs or a greater say in parliament, for instance by having the speakership.

Any alliance with the ANC has risks for the DA. The closer it gets to the ruling party, the more it might horrify its own voters. They might have to swallow being in a government that endorses race-based policies such as affirmative action that are cherished in the ANC but opposed by the DA. It might also have to work with figures it distrusts; the DA recently asked the police to investigate corruption allegations against Paul Mashatile, Mr Ramaphosa’s deputy.

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But DA insiders believe there are ways of minimising the damage. For example Afrikaans-speaking da voters might be less liable to defect if their most logical destination, an Afrikaner party called the Freedom Front Plus, were also part of any government of national unity. Ultimately those at the top of the DA believe that having the EFF or MK in national government is a sufficiently atrocious prospect that it has to try to keep them out.

The biggest obstacle to a pragmatic government is not the DA but the ANC itself. The obstacles are both material and ideological. Some figures at the top of the party, such as Gwede Mantashe, the energy minister and ANC chair, might fear that the DA would either want them out of cabinet or block their pet projects. Other bigwigs, including several regional power-brokers in the party, reportedly worry about what ANC voters will think if the party does a deal with the “white party”, as the da is often viewed. The leader of Cosatu, a federation of unions allied to the ANC, has said he opposes a deal with the DA because it is critical of a minimum wage.

For many in the ANC, there is a natural affinity with the eff, which is seen as part of the broad church that is African nationalism. Mr Mantashe suggested that the votes awarded to mk and the EFF in fact demonstrated how the ANC’s legacy remained attractive. There is some logic to this: the combined share of the three parties (64%) was roughly the same as what Nelson Mandela’s ANC got in 1994 (63%). There will be many within the ruling party who see a coalition with the eff or mk as a prelude to reuniting these breakaway elements with the ANC. By this argument the best way to regain ANC voters is to absorb other parties, rather than improve its record in office.

That misses the obvious lesson from the election: that the ANC has been punished for governing badly. In his six years as president, Mr Ramaphosa has tried hard to keep his party together. His desire for consensus within the ANC has slowed his stated efforts to end graft and promote reform. He focused on party unity because he felt it was the best way to keep the presidency and for the ANC to stay in power. The election results suggest that his softly-softly approach has failed. The next week will show whether he has learned his lesson—and finally stops indulging his party’s worst instincts.

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