South Africa’s seismic political shift

South Africa’s pivotal election has thrust the country into uncharted waters. To navigate the opportunities and risks, South Africa will require leaders putting country above party, compromise, and adherence to democratic principles.

By Paul Nantulya

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 30 years in a pivotal election that has reconfigured the country’s political architecture.

Embarking into unchartered territory for the still young democracy, President Cyril Ramaphosa has said the ANC will seek to form a government of national unity. Coalition scenarios are likely to revolve around the “big four” parties, the ANC, which garnered 40.2 percent of the votes, the Democratic Alliance (DA), with 21.8, the new MK party of former President Jacob Zuma, with 14.6 percent, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with 9.5 percent.

With each party advocating distinctly different policies and ideologies, the composition of the new government will directly shape South Africa’s trajectory. For a government of national unity to be stable and deliver for citizens will require compromises and inter-party confidence building along the lines of President Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity, which comprised all of the ANC’s political rivals, including the National Party, following the first competitive multiparty elections in 1994.

Not to be overlooked in the scrutiny of the outcome was the evenhanded and transparent process in which the hard-fought election was conducted.

Not to be overlooked in the scrutiny of the outcome was the evenhanded and transparent process in which the hard-fought election was conducted. All parties were able to campaign freely, get their messages out to voters in person and via multiple media platforms, and maintain ongoing access to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Save for some technical glitches, the IEC was publicly accessible via its online platforms. Microphones and cameras were installed in the Results Operation Center (ROC), beaming live images of party agents, media, and observers interacting freely. A dedicated feed provided round-the-clock views of the tallies from every voting district.

Just under 60 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, with youth voters particularly engaged.  According to the IEC, voters between the ages of 20 and 29 constituted up to 77 percent of new registrations, reflecting a commitment by young people to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

The “big four” parties, with the notable exception of the MK party, have publicly accepted the electoral results.

The “big four” parties, with the notable exception of the MK party, have publicly accepted the electoral results. Setting the tone, President Ramaphosa framed the path forward: “Our people have spoken, whether we like it or not, they have spoken. As the leaders of political parties, as all those who occupy positions of responsibility in society, we have heard the voices of our people, and we must respect their wishes.”

Regardless of the ultimate configuration of the new government, South Africa and the ANC have provided an exemplary display of how a competitive electoral process can be conducted for the continent—and the world.

Not a Sudden Rupture

While historic, the results of South Africa’s 2024 election follow a pattern from previous polls. The ANC’s share of the vote had dropped steadily over the five previous elections, from a high of 70 percent in 2004 to 57.5 percent in 2019. In the 2021 local government polls, the ANC earned 45.6 percent of the vote, forcing it into coalition arrangements for the first time.

Disillusionment with the ANC has been growing for decades due to perceptions of endemic corruption and patronage, diversion of state resources, and certain anti-democratic tendencies stemming in part from fierce factional battles. South Africa also has among the world’s highest reported unemployment rates, which reached 33 percent in 2023—contributing to its alarming crime rates. Youth unemployment has ballooned to over 50 percent.

South Africa has also been gripped by debilitating power outages, reportedly a consequence of systemic graft and mismanagement at the power utility Eskom and outright sabotage by senior officials for factional political purposes. The woes facing Africa’s oldest liberation movement, which celebrated its 113th anniversary in 2024, are captured in six volumes of the 76,206-page Final Report of the Independent Judicial Inquiry into State Capture, which conducted 430 public hearings and reviewed 161,070 transcripts of testimony over two years. Its findings are grim: top party and government leaders—including former President Zuma—colluded with private interests to pilfer state institutions for financial gain. It cost South Africa an estimated $26 billion between 2009 and 2018.

The ANC’s descent into such serious malpractice was too much to bear for many, including its top stalwarts. In August 2023, an exasperated Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s immediate successor as president, asked, “How am I going to ask people to vote for an ANC led by local criminals?”

Disillusionment with the ANC has been growing for decades due to perceptions of endemic corruption and patronage, diversion of state resources, and certain anti-democratic tendencies.

The ANC’s poor electoral performance can also be attributed to debilitating internal splits that chipped away at its base over time. The first crack occurred in 2008, when senior Mbeki administration officials resigned to protest his removal as president after Zuma loyalists took control of the ANC. The new party created by Mbeki officials, the Congress of the People (COPE), which took its name from the 1959 Congress of the People that produced the renowned Freedom Charter, reduced the ANC vote to 65.9 percent in the 2009 polls.

Expelled ANC Youth League leaders then formed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in 2013 to implement the Freedom Charter, which they felt the ANC had abandoned. This further sank the ANC vote to 62 percent in 2014 and 57 percent in 2019. That year, the EFF’s share of the vote jumped to 10 percent. This support also partly came from ANC followers who wanted to punish the ruling party for cutting Zuma’s term short and replacing him with Cyril Ramaphosa.

The ANC’s worst internal split occurred in July 2021 after Zuma partisans instigated two weeks of deadly riots in Kwazulu Natal and Gauteng provinces following Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court. The ANC splinter faction that began to take root from those riots, which left over 300 dead and caused untold damage to public property, coalesced into the MK party. Born from the intense intra-ANC rivalry between Zuma loyalists and Ramaphosa supporters, the MK party has been distinctive for challenging the legitimacy of state institutions and South Africa’s foundational democratic principles. The MK party took its name from Umkhonto We Sizwe, (“Spear of the Nation”), the ANC’s former military wing. Its militaristic tactics during the campaign have been unlike anything South Africa has previously seen.

Members of the public and political party representatives record the electronic results board during the official announcement of the South African general election. (Photo: AFP/Phill Magakoe)

To appreciate the effect of this splintering, the combined vote totals for the ANC, EFF, and MK party amounted to 63 percent of the vote. The ruling party would have finished at 55 percent had its votes not migrated to the MK party.

The determination by those outside the ANC to dislodge it from its majority should also not be underestimated. A record 52 parties were on the national ballot, compared to just 16 in in 1994. The number of independent candidates on national and provincial ballots reached a historic high of 200, forcing the IEC to create a third ballot, which contributed to delays in tallying. The DA assembled 11 parties to contest as a bloc, which collectively won 119 of the 400 seats in Parliament. All told, the effort to break the ANC’s majority was unprecedented.

Fellow liberation movements and other entrenched ruling parties around Africa are closely watching these developments. Many have also been in power since winning independence, and like the ANC, they have been beset by mounting levels of discontent stemming from systematic corruption, impunity, entitlement to rule, and insensitivity to citizens’ concerns. It is unclear what lessons they will draw from South Africa. Some are saying the ANC should have had a “Plan B” when it sensed defeat, meaning rigging, switching off the internet, ringfencing the electoral commission, and pulling all the stops to dislocate, intimidate, and neutralize rivals. That is how various ruling parties have kept themselves in power. That the ANC did not choose this route is a testament to its commitment to democratic processes and the resiliency of South Africa’s oversight institutions.

Party Maneuvers and Opening Positions

The ANC has cut an image of a humbled party aware of its errors and willing to engage.

The ANC has cut an image of a humbled party aware of its errors and willing to engage in what many are calling “talks-about-talks,” a term that was used to describe the pre-negotiation engagements between the ANC and apartheid regime.

The challenges of building a government of national unity are formidable, however. While EFF leader Julius Malema has singled out the ANC as “the one party we can work with,” he views the EFF and MK party as “relatives with no policy or ideological differences.” In addition to being products of the ANC’s factional battles, they represent constituencies that feel aggrieved with the party’s failure to implement the resolutions of its 52nd National Conference in 2007, its most radical policy program of action, that includes land expropriation. Their respective policy programs are built in large part on those resolutions. Between the MK party and the EFF, the ANC has a sharper conflict with the former given the long-running tensions between pro-Zuma and pro-Ramaphosa loyalists.

The DA says it wants to prevent an ANC/EFF/MK alliance that its leader, John Steenhuisen, described as a “Doomsday Scenario.” Meanwhile, ANC senior leader, Lindiwe Sisulu, daughter of the highly revered Walter Sisulu, has called for a “Black Pact Alliance” among the ANC/MK/EFF, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and Patriotic Alliance (PA) to counter an ANC/DA coalition. Sisulu was backed by the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the ANC’s single largest organized voting bloc, which has been in a Tripartite Governing Alliance with the ANC since 1994. COSATU has warned that the DA’s opposition to major ANC policies like the introduction of a minimum wage and state-funded health insurance coverage for all South Africans would roll back workers’ rights. The National Black Business Caucus, a coalition of Black investors and entrepreneurs, has rallied around this position.

Meanwhile, the MK party has rejected the results. “Nobody must declare results,” Zuma warned a day before results were announced. He lashed out again when the IEC announced the results: “They [IEC] don’t know what MK is made of.” Former president Zuma’s daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, who does not have a formal position in the MK party but is highly influential in its inner workings, called for the formation of a Patriotic Front of “all progressive forces” including the EFF and the ANC, but “not the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa.”

Conversely, some top ANC officials, including Siphiwe Nyanda, the former Chief of Staff of the ANC’s MK military wing (not to be confused with the MK party), have called on the party not to include the MK party in a coalition. That position is backed by the other member of the ANC’s Tripartite Alliance, the South African Communist Party (SACP). The SACP holds the MK party responsible for the ANC’s losses due to its polarizing factionalism, enabling of state capture, and its resistance to the ANC’s renewal.

The MK party appears to be the primary beneficiary of targeted Russian-sponsored disinformation around the elections.

Throughout the campaign, MK party-affiliated accounts posted voluminous videos sowing doubt in the process. The MK party also appears to be the primary beneficiary of targeted Russian-sponsored disinformation around the elections. The MK party has systematically posted misleading content about the election, including a doctored photo of Ramaphosa draped in DA colors, with the message: “You can tell he was an Impimpi during apartheid,” a historical slur meaning “traitor.” This militarism pervades the MK party’s policy platform, which includes compulsory military training for everyone above 18 and scrapping the 1996 Constitution.

This militaristic rhetoric has, at times, translated into violence. A South African Human Commission investigation into the July 2021 unrest, the worst since the end of apartheid, described the violence as an effort to overturn democracy itself. It found that Zuma-Sambudla’s X account was the  most engaged in celebratory posts encouraging and applauding violence.

Potential Paths and Scenarios

The effort to create a government of national unity aims to replicate the Government of National Unity created by President Nelson Mandela to promote racial reconciliation after the ANC’s landslide victory in the first democratic election. This government allowed its members to retain their identities and programs, even when they differed from government positions. Hence, they avoided sacrificing their principles or angering their supporters.

There are risks and rewards at play for all sides. The negotiations are shaping up into a battle between the far left, represented by the EFF, MK party, and their ANC constituents, the centrist DA and its allies like the IFP, and the far right, like the Patriotic Alliance, which wants to deport illegal African immigrants. These strongly opposing positions will have to be managed and balanced in ways that encourage economic and market stability and find an acceptable model to tackle the problems of land, housing, and income inequality.

Guests waiting for the South African election results in the IEC National Results Center. (Photo: AFP/Phill Magakoe)

All these must be anchored in a clear vision to protect and preserve South Africa’s democratic state and institutions. This will require putting country above party. Fortunately, the parties can draw lessons from the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), a broad-based multi-party and civic process that negotiated the transition from apartheid to democracy, ushered in broad and inclusive constitution-making process and a Government of National Unity that was supported by all.

The political players then were as sharply divided as today but found a way forward. They did so by agreeing to a minimum program of action, identifying core guiding principles, submitting themselves to accountability and public scrutiny, and creating enforcement mechanisms. Drawing on these lessons, negotiators from post-apartheid South Africa went on to mediate political conflicts in other parts of Africa and the world.

Translating a Milestone into a Path for Reform

Many South Africans believe they have reached another milestone in their democratic journey, one that could strengthen accountability and incentivize the storied but now humbled ANC to self-correct. According to prominent activist Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, “it is a strong statement South Africans have made [to the ANC], that you can push us far, but no further and there is no automatic right to power and a majority. Any government that holds power after this will know that this can happen to you too. This is a profound moment as no other government has known this in South African history.”

South Africans believe they have reached a milestone in their democratic journey, one that could strengthen accountability and incentivize the storied but now humbled ANC to self-correct.

During his address on coalition scenarios, President Cyril Ramaphosa—who it should be recalled was Mandela’s chief negotiator at CODESA—laid out common principles that should guide the talks, including fidelity to the rule of law, condemnation of violence, and preservation of the Constitution as immutable requirements.

The election is also a testament to the integrity of the IEC and South Africa’s democratic institutions and the strength of public vigilance and engagement. Going forward, the parties will be expected to allow independent institutions to do their work, oppose efforts to undermine South Africa’s democratic fundamentals, engage civil society, and craft a minimum program of action. Some civic voices are invoking CODESA by calling for a National Dialogue that can accompany the transition process and build popular ownership and buy-in. South Africa can thus draw on its rich historical experience to navigate this pivotal moment.

*As a research associate at the Africa Center, Paul Nantulya researches and prepares written analysis on contemporary Africa security issues. His areas of expertise include Chinese foreign policy, China/Africa relations, African partnerships with Southeast Asian countries, mediation and peace processes, the Great Lakes region, and East and Southern Africa.

Prior to joining the Africa Center, Mr. Nantulya served as a regional technical advisor on South Sudan for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) from 2009 to 2011, where he supported crisis mitigation for the Government of South Sudan including writing policy analyses for the Ministry of Peace and Comprehensive Peace Agreement Implementation. In this role he worked closely with South Sudan’s external partners, particularly Japan’s International Cooperation Agency, on conflict prevention.

In 2005-09, Mr. Nantulya was CRS/Sudan’s governance manager in Juba. In this capacity he coordinated technical assistance for the Office of the President on establishing functional systems of state and local government. Mr. Nantulya previously worked for the South Africa-based Africa Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), coordinating ACCORD’s participation in the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, the preeminent forum for Japan/Africa relations. He also worked on civilian and military peacekeeping in the Southern African Development Community. Additionally, he was part of the ACCORD team that worked with President Nelson Mandela on the Arusha Peace Process on Burundi (1999-2001), President Thabo Mbeki and Deputy President Jacob Zuma on ceasefire talks (2001-03), President Ketumile Masire on the Inter-Congolese Dialogue (2002), and Dr. Nicholas Haysom on the Sudan peace process (2002-03)

Mr. Nantulya holds a B.A. in international relations from United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, a Graduate Certificate in Japanese from the Japan Africa Interchange Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and an M.S. in Defense and Strategic Studies from Missouri State University in Springfield, MO.

Source : Africa Center

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