🔒 FT: Can the party that liberated South Africa still hold it together?

As President Cyril Ramaphosa grapples with the looming deadline to form a new coalition government, South Africa teeters on the brink of economic uncertainty. With the ANC’s power waning, Ramaphosa’s proposed Government of National Unity faces scepticism and internal opposition. Amidst political turmoil and the spectre of identity politics, the nation stands at a crossroads, where alliances formed, and fractures deepened could shape its future for years to come.

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By David Pilling and Rob Rose in Johannesburg

Facing a Friday deadline to create a new coalition government, President Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to prevent economic chaos while avoiding new splits in the ANC ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

South Africans have been treated in recent days to a series of cartoons depicting a gnu, a notoriously ungainly creature also known as a wildebeest. With its boxy head, heavy-built front half and spindly hindquarters, it is said to resemble an unfortunate composition of several animals.

The gnu of the cartoons also takes its name from the acronym of the Government of National Unity, proposed by President Cyril Ramaphosa as a solution to the dilemma posed by last month’s election: that the African National Congress, the party that brought liberation from white minority rule 30 years ago, no longer has enough seats in parliament to govern alone.

“We are now in the era of coalitions,” says William Gumede, chair of the Johannesburg-based Democracy Works Foundation, who predicts a new pattern of deeply unstable politics, akin to Italy. “This is likely to last forever.”

At municipal level, where ANC dominance slipped earlier than on the national stage, coalition politics involving the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema and the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, has been messy, with a series of administrations forming and collapsing as parties with different ideologies and political interests clash.

Many wonder whether the GNU proposed by Ramaphosa — a creation formed from the union of wildly different political animals — can possibly stand. It is somehow meant to incorporate both Malema’s EFF, which advocates the expropriation of land and the nationalisation of the central bank and mining industry, and the DA, a party that wants to carve out more space for the private sector and to prioritise growth-enhancing pro-business policies over redistribution.

A new political landscape

Jacob Zuma, the former national and ANC president who now leads a breakaway party called uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), is demanding Ramaphosa’s head and the scrapping of the constitution as the price for his participation.

One senior ANC figure tells the Financial Times that the proposal for a government of national unity is a “non-starter”. Another ANC insider, pointing to the split within the party over potential coalition partners, adds: “The battle lines are clearly drawn.”

Coalition governments “can work in a place like Germany where there is a history of it, the civil service has relative autonomy and inequality is not as deep”, says Adam Habib, a South African academic who is now director of London’s SOAS university. “But in a place like South Africa, where the trade-offs are horrendous, coalition governments are particularly difficult.”

Time is running out to forge a new coalition. The constitution demands that a new government be formed within 14 days of the declaration of the result, which the chief justice said had to coincide with the opening of parliament this Friday. By that time, Ramaphosa needs a majority of the 400 delegates to re-elect him as president in a chamber where only 159 members will be from his own party.

To his critics, Ramaphosa’s coalition proposal is evidence of weakness, typical of his inability to take hard decisions and his desperation not to split his party.

But others see it as a clever strategy to overcome opposition within the ANC to an alliance with the DA by flushing out the unwillingness of the EFF and MK to join. Malema has already said he won’t be part of any coalition with the “enemy” DA and has declared his intention to eat the “ANC animal piece by piece”.

“This may be a way for the ANC, and particularly Ramaphosa, to get the option they want,” says Sithembile Mbete, who teaches politics at the University of Pretoria, referring to a deal with the DA.

For business, financial markets and prospective foreign investors, an ANC-DA combination, almost certainly in conjunction with the Inkatha Freedom party, would be the best outcome. In this view, the DA could tame ANC corruption and bring a pragmatism to national government of the sort it has exhibited in the Western Cape, which is generally considered to be the best-run province in the country.

Such an alliance between the ruling party and the DA could take the form of a full-fledged coalition, in which the DA would get some cabinet positions, or it could be a looser agreement, a so-called confidence and supply arrangement. “If you’re interested in growth and service delivery and if you’re interested in stable politics, then the most sensible coalition partner is the DA,” says Habib.

Yet many ANC members, including in the National Executive Committee, the main decision-making body, remain staunchly opposed to dealing with the DA. Much of the movement regards the party, most of whose senior officials are white, as a vehicle of “white monopoly capital”, one that seeks to preserve the unequal status quo through the abandonment of progressive measures and capitulation to market forces.

“A strong line of thinking in the ANC is that financial markets and the western governments behind them are holding them to ransom, that they are essentially being blackmailed into going into a coalition with their enemy,” says Jonny Steinberg, a prominent South African author now at Yale’s Council on African Studies.

One outcome, he says, is that, “the ANC potentially goes into some sort of arrangement with the DA and IFP but it does so with a bad heart. Whatever relationship they go into with the DA is going to be very fragile.”

The ANC, says Nhlanhla Shezi, a 50-year-old businessman who used to support the party, has become a “coconut”, supporting “white” policies. “This talk of a coalition with the DA, the ANC has been wanting that for ages, long before the election,” he says.

Last week Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s powerful minister of mines and energy, told the FT that while there was “this talk of trying to push us into a collation with the DA”, the ANC needed to “consider our options”.

Some ANC members are pushing, instead, for an alliance with the EFF and possibly Zuma’s MK party, in what would essentially be the reassembly of the party before it split into three parts.

Lindiwe Sisulu, a senior ANC leader and former minister, leans towards this option. She told SABC, the public broadcaster, that a deal with a “Black” party would be preferable, a clear swipe at the DA. “We have many Black parties in parliament that are able to form the majority of parliament, as required by the constitution. They cover a wide spectrum of our people,” she said.

Two weeks after the election, the blow suffered by the ANC is still being absorbed. In a racially divided nation where more than 80 per cent of the population is Black, the party that purports to represent the majority’s interests contrived to muster only 40 per cent of the vote, an electoral verdict more damning than some of the ANC’s worst fears.

“From the results of these elections, it is clear that South Africans expect their leaders to work together to meet their needs,” Ramaphosa said of a result that party insiders described as catastrophic. “They expect us to find common ground, to overcome our differences, and to act and work together for the good of everyone.”

In one sense, Ramaphosa’s magnanimity was a reflection of South Africa’s remaining institutional strengths, which have endured in spite of attempts by senior figures within his own party — former president Zuma chief among them — to whittle them away. In a continent where very few liberation parties have willingly given up power, or the money-making opportunities arising from it, Ramaphosa was acknowledging the truth of any authentic democratic process: that his party needed to obey the will of the people.

Yet the verdict of the electorate on 30 years of ANC misrule is not straightforward. On the one hand, it was an indictment of the party’s inability to fix deep social and economic problems over the six parliamentary terms during which it had a commanding majority. Despite the creation of a Black middle class, South Africa is as economically divided today as it was during apartheid, making it the most unequal society in the world as expressed by the Gini coefficient.

Crime and unemployment are sky high and the ANC has consistently failed to deliver basic services like electricity, drinking water and social housing. The public school system, the best way of helping disadvantaged children escape poverty, is in a dire state.

“We all love to believe a good story, and the ANC looked like a good story for a long time,” says Moeletsi Mbeki, a political analyst, referring to the early years of ANC rule. “But it has failed on so many counts — like education, public health, housing and the economy. Like many liberation parties in Africa, they became more nationalist in their thinking, hoping that Black people wouldn’t see their failure, but they miscalculated.”

According to Mbeki, the past 15 years of corruption, collapsing infrastructure and economic stagnation have shattered belief that the ANC has the wherewithal to run the country. That is quite an admission for an ANC “blue blood” whose father Govan was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island for 24 years and whose brother Thabo was president after Mandela from 1999 to 2008.

Yet, despite the apparent seismic shift, in some ways the electorate has remained quite stable. Although the ANC got only 40 per cent of the vote, the two ANC splinter parties — Zuma’s MK, and Malema’s EFF — mopped up nearly 25 per cent between them.

“The ANC lost to the ANC, it didn’t lose to any other party,” says Mbete of the University of Pretoria.

Added together, the ANC and its breakaway parties got 64 per cent of the vote, virtually the same as the tally gained by Mandela in the first triumphant democratic elections of 1994. Meanwhile, support for the market-oriented DA barely budged from the past two outings, settling on just under 22 per cent.

Of the 17 percentage points the ANC lost between the elections of 2019 and 2024, 15 points went to uMkhonto weSizwe, a party that has only existed for six months. “I’m not sure how decisively we’ve moved into a new era,” says Steinberg. “That makes the coalition politics of the next five years really, really difficult.”

Ramaphosa’s attempts to bring the country towards the centre ground are being undermined by another force — the rise of identity politics in a nation that, under Mandela, became a byword for optimism about the prospect for a non-racial “rainbow” society. This year’s election produced a plethora of parties appealing to voters almost exclusively on the basis of identity.

Zuma’s MK party, which won 45 per cent of the vote in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, has widespread support among the Zulu people, while the EFF and, increasingly, the ANC itself, present themselves as parties of the Black majority. Other parties that gained parliamentary seats include the Patriotic Alliance, which canvasses votes from those who identify as “coloured”, many of whom do not feel represented by the ANC. Separate parties explicitly target the Indian, Afrikaner and Muslim vote.

“What Hendrik Verwoerd [the founder of apartheid] tried to do many years ago was divide people along racial lines,” says Herman Mashaba, a businessman and leader of ActionSA, one of more than 50 parties on the ballot. “This election has done that all by itself, with people now looking at coalitions purely based on identity. We now have people saying they won’t be in a government with someone based on their race,” he says, adding that the new reality “scares the hell” out of him.

Mmusi Maimane, a former leader of the DA who quarrelled with its leadership and left to form his own Build One South Africa party, also bemoans the fact that politics has shattered along identity lines. The duty of politicians, he says, is to steer politics back to the middle ground where the majority of voters can meet. “It’s the only way we’ll get through this storm.”

Identity politics is most pronounced in KwaZulu-Natal where the Zulu majority has often felt out of step with the largely Xhosa leadership of the ANC, represented by people like Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Many Zulus feel slighted by what they see as the persecution of Zuma, a prominent Zulu. That sense of grievance was only heightened last month when the constitutional court barred Zuma from running for parliament because of a 15-month prison sentence he received for contempt of court.

Despite his party’s spectacular showing, Zuma has called the elections rigged and demanded a rerun. If his demands are not met, he has threatened “trouble”, triggering memories of the nationwide violence in 2021 in which 354 people died after he was jailed.

“Zuma wants to go back to his old formula: ‘I will create mayhem unless you allow me to be free of all charges’,” says one senior ANC insider. 

The threat of what Moeletsi Mbeki calls “insurrection politics” reminiscent of Latin America goes beyond KwaZulu-Natal. Ralph Mathekga, an independent analyst, says South Africa’s polarised environment is ripe for populism, with what he calls “a sinister new brand of parties based on ethnic nationalism and radicalism”.

Gayton McKenzie, a reformed bank robber and leader of the Patriotic Alliance, is unapologetic about his party’s platform, which includes reintroduction of the death penalty and bussing undocumented foreigners out of the country. “The voters tasted what we were offering and they liked it,” he tells the FT. “So I’ve got no problem if people think that we’re right wing or populist. We’re not appealing to the centre.”

As much as the ANC pretends to represent the working class, Mbeki says, it is really a party for the Black middle class, evidenced by its championing of the rights of those in work over the third of the working-age population — and half of youth — with no job. Despite the party’s emphasis on industrial policy and a plethora of Black empowerment policies — designed to build up an entrepreneurial and manufacturing class — industrial output has collapsed as a proportion of GDP and the economy has failed to grow in per capita terms for 15 years.

“What has to happen is that the ANC needs to be removed entirely, so that policies can be implemented that favour building up the country’s productive capacity again,” Mbeki says.

In such a febrile social and political environment, some analysts are deeply pessimistic about the future. For Habib, the prospects of stability are slim. “I think the track record of coalitions in this country is horrible and it’s dangerous what we’re going through.”

Habib believes that an era of political volatility, with what he calls the dangers of slipping into Zimbabwe-like dysfunction, has been made all but inevitable given the evident failings of the ANC. “It may be we need to go through this,” he says. “But it’s also possible we will never come out of it.”

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