A high stakes make or break for SA

John Endres notes that one risk to GNU is Ramaphosa's lack of decisiveness

SA’s high-stakes opportunity

This is the text of an address by IRR CEO John Endres to the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. on 20 June 2024. (His address last week to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London can be read here.)

South Africa produced a political surprise in its elections at the end of May: the governing African National Congress (ANC) dropped far below 50% support in a national election for the first time and weakened considerably across the provinces.

Instead of opting for risky arrangements with radical parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of Julius Malema or the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party of former President Jacob Zuma to form a government, the ANC chose the safer option of a broad centrist coalition with the Democratic Alliance (DA) as anchor tenant, buttressed by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the Patriotic Alliance (PA) and some smaller parties.

Across the aisle, after initially boycotting the National Assembly, MK – the third-largest party in the National Assembly, with 58 seats – has now said it will participate as part of a “progressive caucus” that also includes the EFF, Al Jama-ah, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), United African Transformation, and the United Democratic Movement (UDM). The grouping controls 100 seats in the 400-seat National Assembly, compared with the 273 seats controlled by the government coalition at the time of writing.

This political restructuring represents a rupture in South Africa’s post-transition history. For the past three decades of ruling in solitary splendour, the ANC could straddle the moderate-radical spectrum without having to choose one over the other. But at its reduced 40% support level in the popular vote, it can no longer afford to do so, and had to make a choice about where to position itself.

Despite fears that the ANC would align itself with the radicals, it chose moderation and has thereby given political centrism a considerable boost. This presents a rare and significant opportunity for the country to reverse its downward trajectory of the past decade and a half. It also gives it the opportunity to reinforce the democratic mechanism by showing South Africans that an underperforming government is accountable to the voters and can (and will) eventually be voted out of office.

However, consolidation around the political centre has been so all-encompassing that it poses risks of its own. The GNU approach is being cascaded to hung provinces and is likely to be further rolled out to municipalities as well. The losers in this process are the radical EFF and MK, as well as smaller parties that have acted as kingmakers in various legislative bodies in recent years. For example, MK has been shut out of the KZN provincial government, thanks to a deal between the ANC, DA, IFP and NFP. In Gauteng, the EFF has been shut out by an ANC-DA coalition. In Johannesburg, the job of the mayor is on the line as the minor party he represents, Al Jama-ah, gets squeezed out.

This process of consolidation soaks up a large part of the total political spectrum. It also dampens political contestation because of the need to hold the broad coalition together. The resulting marginalisation of the radical parties will encourage them to consolidate and escalate their radicalism in pursuit of votes, while their elevation to the status of official opposition gives them a stature and credibility that they previously lacked. The process leaves the South African government without a pragmatic opposition.

On the side of the government, the broad nature of the coalition and the considerable ideological differences between its members mean that finding consensus on policy will be challenging. On matters ranging from labour legislation, the role of race in law-making, the degree of government intervention in the economy, accountability and law enforcement to the importance of property rights, members of the coalition occupy sharply diverging positions.

Perhaps the approach, at least initially, will be to freeze the status quo. The policies will at first neither be intensified nor scrapped. Instead, the parties will take some time to let a multilateral committee study them and make recommendations. The committee’s recommendations should be guided by the twofold objective of recognising political reality by not demanding the politically impossible, while nonetheless aiming for the reforms most likely to generate economic growth. This would cover the short-term objective of allowing the coalition to stay together as well as the long-term objective of producing the results that will allow it to sustain its time in office over a longer period.

A further risk to the coalition is that it is led by a president not known for his decisiveness. This means there is a risk that the administration will be more marked by talking than doing, at a time when clear leadership is needed to give the government direction and produce governance interventions that will return South Africa to a growth path.

All this provides the radical opposition with productive avenues to challenge the government’s legitimacy:

It can divide the coalition along racial lines by asserting that the DA is a white party that will undermine black interests with the active collaboration of the ANC and the IFP.

It can demoralise the coalition by pointing out its policy differences and claiming that these are irreconcilable and must perforce cause the coalition to break up.

It can instil unrealistic expectations about the government’s ability to deliver in voters and then draw attention to the fact that those expectations are not being met.

All of this will be quite easy to do and has already started. If these efforts of the radical opposition are successful, the GNU will not last and South Africa will lose the best chance it has had in decades to reverse its downward spiral and improve the living conditions of all South Africans.

The parties in the coalition – as well as the friends of South Africa inside the country and beyond its borders – should be aware of how high the stakes are and where the potential threats to success lie. For all that South Africa dodged a bullet in the 2024 elections and opted for moderation thanks to the good sense of those negotiating its new government, this is a fragile victory that will collapse unless it is vigorously defended.

On the part of the GNU, the watchword of the day must be pragmatism, incrementalism and a spirit of constructive cooperation. The partners in the venture must commit to making a good-faith attempt to make the experiment work, despite the obvious challenges. This will help build trust between them and shield them from the interventions of those who wish to see them fail, giving South Africa the chance to embark on a long-term trajectory of improvement and success in the decades ahead.