SOUTH AFRICA’s democracy seems headed for a crisis for which it is not prepared and in which its public debate shows no interest.
The crisis is an election outcome in 2024 which will make it impossible for parties to form a government – or at least one likely to last for long and to enjoy credibility among a large chunk of the public.
The immediate reason is the decline of the African National Congress, which won only 46% of the vote in last year’s local elections, the first time since democracy began that it fell to below 50%. The ANC usually does worse in local than national elections and one calculation finds that, had the poll been a national election, it would have won around 48%. But even the higher figure means it will need to win back support if it wants a majority in 2024.
The Numbers Tell a Tale
By far the most reliable guide to whether it is recovering is the outcome of municipal by-elections because they tell us how real voters are voting, not what people say to pollsters. There have been 24 of these this year and the governing party is not winning back the votes it lost. In Gauteng, its vote has fallen sharply. It has also been losing ground in parts of KwaZulu Natal and Northwest. It has mostly done well in the Eastern Cape and held its own in the Northern Cape, while its results in eThekwini (greater Durban) are mixed. In several areas, it has lost to small local parties who would probably not contest national elections and it is possible that it might receive some of these votes in two years’ time.
But, while the ANC’s fortunes have been more complicated than some of its worst results suggest, one clear pattern in the results is that it is not showing the growth it would need to win more than 50% in 2024. While much can change in two years, on the strength of current by-elections, the ANC will not win a majority in the next national election.
The fact that a governing party faces losing its majority does mean that a democratic political system is headed for rocky waters. But here, it might create severe problems. The ANC, despite its woes, is still the biggest party by far – in its worst ever result, last year, it still won more than double the votes of the next biggest party, the Democratic Alliance, and four times the next party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. Given this, the logical outcome if it sinks below 50% is a coalition with smaller parties. But the aftermath of the local elections shows that the parties which are willing to govern with the ANC are not big enough to give it a national majority if it dips much below 50%. Possible partners who have the numbers, notably the EFF and Inkatha Freedom Party, are not willing to join it in a coalition.
Since an ANC-led coalition may not be possible, what about one which excludes it? The by-elections also show that this would be very difficult. The DA has not shown strong growth. It didn’t contest 18 of the 24 by-elections which shows that there are large parts of the country where it believes it has so little support that it is a waste to field a candidate. In the six it did contest, it did not show the growth which would lift it much above the 21,5% it gained last year. At best, it may have shown that it has stemmed the bleeding – it lost more ground last year than the ANC did (a fact which has been obscured by a political debate which ignores reality as much as it can).
The EFF did better than it has ever done. It has taken three wards off the ANC this year, more than the two it won over the last five years. Where it won, it sharply increased its share of the vote, which suggests that it may be winning support which will boost it in 2024. But its overall result is less impressive than it seems. While it won some spectacular successes, in most wards it added a few percentage points off a low base, or repeated its previous result, or lost ground. On this by-election vote, the EFF will increase its vote share in 2024, could be the party which decides who governs Gauteng, but is still likely to be the third biggest party; the ANC is still likely to win three times as many votes as the EFF.
Herman Mashaba’s Action SA is often touted as a growing force but the by-elections don’t support this. In two of the 24 it increased its vote share at the expense of the DA and ANC. But it only contested these two, suggesting that it lacks a strong national presence. In the wards it did contest, it was still a good way behind the winner. On this showing, it may grow enough to establish itself as the fourth biggest party in Gauteng but will not be nearly large enough to have much of an influence on who governs.
So, the by-elections show that, while the ANC may well not have the votes to govern, there is no stable opposition coalition waiting in the wings to form a government. This is underlined by the fact that the third biggest party, the EFF, is not interested in joining a coalition. Even if it shows no growth, it is likely to win enough seats to ensure that no opposition coalition could govern without its support – and the by-election results suggests that it will grow. But it has been reluctant to commit itself to any coalition so, it would probably not be part of a non-ANC coalition, which could not then rely on the EFF to keep it in power.
Behind Voters Backs?
All this means that there is no guarantee that any government could be formed after the next election and even less that any which is formed will stay in office for any length of time.
One way for parties to avoid this possibility is to shift their current positions. But, in some cases, this could mean acting in ways which their voters do not expect. The IFP or EFF could change their stance and agree to govern with the ANC: there are also occasional claims that an ANC-DA coalition is possible although that would probably be too much for either to sell to its activists.
If the ANC cannot form a government, what about other parties? Even if it does badly in 2024, the ANC would still be much bigger than the others and the only alternative would be one of those many-party coalitions which the opposition cobbles together in some municipalities. But this could also mean abandoning what voters expect of their party. Since the EFF’s current strategy seems to be to weaken the ANC whatever the consequences, it might want to vote for a non-ANC government. But this would allow a white-led party supported by around 20% of voters to lead the national government. Would the EFF support or allow to govern a coalition which would appear to bring back racial minority rule? Would it insist that a party other than the DA lead the coalition and, if so, which one? Would the DA agree?
These are not the only issues on which parties might act in ways which contradict their public positions But neither the parties nor the one third of the public which is heard in the national debate are in any position to discuss them because attention is focused only on the fate of the ANC and not on what comes after it. Unless the discussion starts to address these issues, the people who try to decide what we should think about politics – and the electorate – may be in for a severe shock in two years’ time.
The silence also continues a damaging pattern. In the wake of local elections, parties across the spectrum engaged in deal-making in which self- interest was the only concern, regardless of what had been said to voters. There was no serious attempt to find out what voters wanted, let alone to take it into account. The parties have got away with it because very few people seem to care much whether their mayor and city government represent most voters. But will the public debate accept a national government thrown at the country by politicians in smoke-filled rooms? It may have no option unless these issues are discussed now, not when results are in and the parties take to scheming.
Whatever the result in 2024, the days of one party inevitably winning each national election are over. But there is no alternative able to offer stable and credible government. In this new environment, holding politicians to account for the governments they join will be more important than ever. It is a world for which the public debate and those who take part in it are entirely unprepared.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor, faculty of humanities, department of politics, University of Johannesburg.