Editorial: Why South Africa’s political landscape is changing

by Chris Matthews

Cape Town City Hall lit up ahead of Ramaphosa’s annual SONA in front of parliament. Featured in article by the Mail & Guardian “State of the Nation Address to be held in historical Cape Town City Hall”. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images)

Not too long ago American football fans were treated to the annual Super Bowl halftime show. The performance was somewhat of a deviation from the status quo, featuring a host of throwback legends like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and Eminem amongst others. The atmosphere was visibly electric, and the average American could probably be forgiven for being thrown back into an age of roaring millennium parties, ‘harmless’ subprime mortgages, and country-wide nationalism in the face of the war on terror.

Closer to home, us South Africans were recently treated to a half time show of our own in that of the local and municipal elections. In what continues to be the ultimate political-litmus test, municipal elections provide valuable insight into what may soon come to follow in the national elections. Much like the Super Bowl halftime show, our own halftime show was seemingly reading from a different script.

The first and arguably biggest takeaway is that for the first time in South Africa’s democratic history, the ANC fell under 50% of the national vote amassing only 48% of the vote and left governing only four of the country’s 8 metros. The DA and EFF stabilized at more or less 20% and 10% respectively. The IFP showed it was ready to yet again rear its head in South African politics, and the VF+ saw marginal gains. Perhaps the biggest revelation in these elections however, was the exceptional performance of election debutants ActionSA, who after only choosing to contest a handful of metros in Gauteng landed up finishing as the country’s sixth biggest party. For context, had they received similar results contesting nationwide, they would now be the country's fourth biggest party by only a slim margin behind the EFF.

While on paper these results leave much to be interpreted, it is crystal clear that the dominance of the ever popular ‘centre field’ ANC is nearing its end. A party divided and battling internal conflict, amidst left leaning radical socialists and free market loving conservatives, many believe the ANC is quickly losing its own identity. The South African voter now appears to be turning to parties united behind their manifestos. It has been debated for some time at which point South African politics will reach a point of a realignment, that is to say a clear left and right, and how this might shape up in a national election. It is the argument of this article that this point may be arriving sooner than expected.

Crucial to the beginning of this realignment was the birth of the EFF in 2013. For the first time voters were provided with a clear voting alternative to the ANC and the DA, a party firmly founded in radical economic reform and one that could genuinely challenge in elections and find seats in parliament. Since then, the party has gone from strength-to-strength, climbing to the country's third biggest party. Fast forward to 2021 and the birth of ActionSA brings another element to South Africa’s electoral roster that, although not unique in terms of its beliefs, has a leadership cohort that many believe can implement policies more effectively than their DA counterparts.

And so we return to the question of the 2024 elections. What does this all actually mean, and what can we actually expect? If we are to presume that the ANC continues to trend downwards, then the possibility of a coalition government effectively enters the chat - albeit mathematically. A coalition with enough magnitude to topple the beast that is the ANC, would require a great deal of commitment across some deep party lines, such as the EFF working with the DA and ActionSA. With such instability in this scenario it could easily be argued that such an arrangement would be detrimental to the country.

There is of course the opportunity for the ANC to share power, however, an ANC with President Ramaphosa at the helm would much prefer to see a coalition with the DA than the EFF, in contrast the DA have chosen to dig their heels in by openly refusing to work with the ANC in the most recent elections, effectively putting us back at square-one. Should this be the case we may be dealing with a situation where minority governments come into play, a game of who has more as opposed to who has the most - which brings a host of potential complications in its own right, with complete stagnation in parliament becoming a real possibility.

The truth of the answer as to what South Africa’s political arena may or may not look like come 2024 rests almost solely in the hands of the ANC, and which direction the party chooses to take. Many are looking for a more clear and decisive ANC, and a ruling party that leads with a single vision so as to not lose votes to both the left and the right. It is also, however, a reality of politics that no train can run forever. One needs not look further than Shakespeare’s Marcus Brutus, who in coalition with his fellow leaders took arms against Caesar, and when his former emperor was no longer in command, stated: ”If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more."

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