South Africa tiptoes towards coalition politics

ANC would need help from other parties to reelect Cyril Ramaphosa for a second term.

4 mins read
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his 2023 State of the Nation Address in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo by Xabiso Mkhabela/Xinhua)

The results of the election to the South African parliament on Friday confirmed the widely-held belief that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) which spearheaded the country’s liberation from apartheid in 1993 and since dominated the political landscape like a banyan tree is in steep decline. ANC’s vote share plummeted from 57.5 percent in the 2019 election to around 40%.

ANC’s halcyon days are ending but then, all good things come to an end, finally. ANC could at least hang on for thirty years tapping into the legacy of the freedom struggle, which is not an easy thing to do as politics gets more and more competitive and along with empowerment comes the challenge of accountability. In comparison, India’s Congress Party lost the majority in the parliament in less than 2 decades.

Broadly, outside of some largely rural provinces, support for the ANC is now in general decline with a strong undercurrent of anti-incumbency sentiment working against it on account of massive unemployment, extremely high level of interpersonal violence, collapsing social services, and brazen corruption.

ANC would need help from other parties to reelect Cyril Ramaphosa for a second term. The three other major parties are the liberal-oriented Democratic Alliance [DA], the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters [EFF] and the new MK Party [MK] led by former President Jacob Zuma, who once led the ANC.

DA, which polled over 21% votes, is an established liberal party, white-dominated and also funded by white capital. EFF, on the other hand, is an authoritarian  populist party, non-ethnic in its support base and orientation and polled a little over 9% of votes.

The big winner seems to be MK, a breakaway faction of ANC, which entered the electoral fray for the first time and surged on a tide of Zulu nationalism to garner 14.83% of votes.

The likely character of the incoming ruling coalition is not yet clear. Unsurprisingly, the western media is rooting for a ANC-DA coalition. DA has plateaued and is eager to align with the ANC despite its ideology of national liberation to share power.

The massive investments by the white billionaires in a set of new liberal parties failed to produce the desired results in Wednesday’s election. None of those parties gained traction. The DA is the solitary exception but even in this case, the mediocrity of its leadership and its inability to distinguish differences in pitch in the complex race politics puts inherent limits to the potential for growth beyond its current limits. Many black South Africans mistrust the DA, believing it favours the interests of white people.

Therefore, there is bound to be resistance within the ANC to a tie-up with the DA  under white politician John Steenhuisen, whose free market programme of privatisations and an end to black economic empowerment programmes sits at odds with the ruling party’s traditions.

Nelson Mandela’s grandson and an outgoing ANC lawmaker,  Zwelivelile Mandela told AFP, the DA held “different ideals” making it too difficult to partner with. He predicted that the radical left groups led by former ANC figures — firebrand Julius Malema’s EFF or Zuma’s MK — were more likely bedfellows for the ruling party.

But then, arguably, these radical options might also meet resistance within the more moderate sections of the ANC. Besides, the rift between Ramaphosa and Zuma — who has long been bitter about the way he was forced out of office as president in 2018 — remains to be mended.

Amidst all this maneuvering within the political class, it is difficult to gauge the popular mood, given the vice-like grip of the white liberal media over the national discourse. Thus, the gravity of the deep sense of political alienation driving many voters into forms of anti-liberal and at times anti-democratic populism is being blithely overlooked in the obsession to undermine the ANC’s towering presence on the political landscape.

Without doubt, the ANC has become an eyesore for the Western powers. South Africa’s active role in the BRICS and advocacy of multipolarity and “de-dollarisation”, its audacious move in the ICJ against Israel’s war  crimes in Gaza, its closeness to Russia and China and so on are hugely consequential to western interests in the contemporary world situation.

The hold on the digital media in South Africa by white capital gives it significant power to shape the national discourse, but there is no attempt to understand the deep alienation of deprived sections of society, leave alone address it critically. Suffice to say, this is fertile soil for ethnic politics to strike roots. The paradox is, the legacy of one of the most progressive movements in the history of anti-colonial liberation may turn out to be the rise of ethno-nationalism and populism under darkly comic political personalities similar to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro or Javier Milei.

The crux of the matter is that the left has failed to present a credible alternative to the predatory form of ethnic nationalism and populism spawned by the terrible circumstances of poverty and deprivation in which most South Africans struggle to live. Not a single leader in the manner of Lula da Silva or Jeremy Corbyn is to be seen who could unify the left. All this leaves the field open for the predatory and kleptocratic political class to unleash the demons of ethnic politics.

Come to think of it, Zuma convinced 2.3 million South Africans to vote for MK Party. The MK wants to increase the power of traditional leaders, nationalise banks and expropriate land without compensation, dating South Africa’s “prolonged period of national shame” back to 1652, when the first Dutch settlement was established.

As for the EFF, it describes itself as anti-imperialist and inspired by Marxism. EFF also advocates taking land from white farmers and nationalising mines, banks and other strategic sectors, without compensation. It says that apartheid did not end in 1994, arguing that the democratic settlement left the economy in the hands of “white monopoly capital”, a message that resonates in a country where four in 10 adults are unemployed.

The bottom line is that as with the mainstream Congress Party in India, there is no real alternative to the ANC as a unifier, which still retains the loyalty of many voters for its leading role in overthrowing white minority rule and its progressive social welfare and black economic empowerment policies are credited by supporters with helping millions of black families out of poverty.

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog