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Vol 65 No 1

Published 4th January 2024

South Africa

Tumbling support for ANC ends liberation era

With forecasts that it will win under 50% of the vote in this year's elections, the ruling party prepares for a sea-change

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2024

The African National Congress (ANC) will be gravely weakened in this year's national and provincial elections with its share of the vote likely to fall below 50%, but it will not be forced out of government. The fate of President Cyril Ramaphosa depends on how far the ANC vote falls; if below 45%, there will be a concerted push for a new leader.

Rejecting the findings of multiple opinion surveys showing the party will lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since 1994, ANC leaders insist they won't need to join a formal coalition to stay in government (Dispatches 1/11/23, Polling hints at opposition breakthrough & Vol 65 No 1, The ANC hones its strategy for election survival).

Some of that is desperate bluster. The party's internal polls suggest its support will fall to between 45% and 49% of the vote. Insiders think the party could offer jobs to some of the smaller parties in parliament, perhaps setting up a confidence and supply mechanism without giving much away on policy and patronage.

Yet this could undermine the party, destroying its sense of invulnerability, if not political entitlement. What's left of the ANC's political security is due less to it residual strength and more to the fractious opposition.

If the ANC vote falls well below 50%, it may have to choose a coalition partner – between the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA).

The EFF is led by former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema. Ramaphosa is unenthusiastic about the ANC partnering with the EFF but his deputy Paul Mashatile backs the idea. He and Malema have a strong personal friendship despite being overt political rivals.

The EFF has set out conditions to the ANC of what it wants in an alliance. These include Malema becoming Deputy President and securing an economic ministry – development or trade and industry or public enterprises. Its other demands include the ANC nationalising the central bank, the South African Reserve Bank, and other industries, and to change the constitution to make expropriation of land easier. Ramaphosa regards such conditions as unacceptable.

Ramaphosa at risk
If the ANC loses badly at national and provincial levels, party plotters, ostensibly from the populist left, will try to force out Ramaphosa. As ANC and national president, he would be the first leader under which the party loses its majority since the end of formal apartheid in 1994.

We hear that Mashatile has a shadow cabinet in waiting but he will have to tread carefully as he has his own enemies, such as ex-President Jacob Zuma (AC Vol 64 No 24, Advisors abandon ship amid poll storm). And a leadership struggle could reopen all manner of fissures in the party.

The constitution allows for 14 days for a new president to be elected in the National Assembly after an election. Changing the president could involve the party calling a special conference and for a vote to be taken by members, all of which would be difficult within 14 days.

Even if Ramaphosa chooses to quit, Mashatile could face challenges from other quarters. Some in the Mashatile camp are sure there is a plot to undermine his succession with media reports on his opulent lifestyle.

Ramaphosa's backers haven't yet agreed on a fall-back strategy, should the President quit or be pushed out after the elections. But most of them oppose a Mashatile succession, given his closeness to the EFF.

Split over deal
The ANC's rickety alliance with the EFF and smaller parties, such as Ganief Hendricks's Al Jama-ah and Gayton McKenzie's Patriotic Alliance, in Johannesburg, could be the blueprint for a deal at the national and provincial level. But it would risk making government even more dysfunctional.

For that reason, many ANC leaders and members may rebel if the party tries to negotiate an alliance with the EFF at national level. For different reasons, many senior EFF activists aren't keen about a deal with the ANC.

We hear the EFF is split between Malema, who wants tough conditions for a deal with the ANC, and his deputy Floyd Shivambu, who opposes any deal at all with the party. Some in the EFF expect this dispute to escalate. Malema is seen as keen to get back into the ANC – if he can find a way in at the highest level.

The Patriotic Alliance, which targets the mixed-race ('coloured') vote, could have been another partner should the ANC need an extra 2% or so of the vote. Yet the two parties have fallen out over the PA's support for Israel in the Gaza conflict. The ANC says it will not go into any alliance with the PA unless the party renounces its support for Israel.

A more likely partner is the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). It controlled KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) between 1994 and 1999, after which the ANC boosted its support in the province, helped by Zuma's wooing of the Zulu vote.

Current ANC leaders in the province have been working with Thabo Mbeki, who struck an alliance in KZN with the IFP then led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to charm the IFP into a future alliance.

But for now the IFP is a key part of an anti-ANC alliance, known as the Multi-Party Charter (MPC) – the country's first pre-election coalition between ten opposition parties, including the IFP, DA, ActionSA and Freedom Front Plus. The MPC coalition agreement  is due to last until the 2029 elections (AC Vol 64 No 25, Growing dissent pressures ANC from all angles).

ANC opposition unlikely
Most of the ANC's top leadership is determined to avoid going into opposition at national or provincial level without trying to secure an accommodation or coalition first. Becoming the opposition would deprive the party of the state patronage, resources and influence that its leaders, members and supporters expect.

If the MPC opposition was to come to power, several senior ANC officials could risk being prosecuted for corruption or fired for incompetence.

Many state and business deals involving ANC leaders and members, wrapped in secrecy until now, will come under scrutiny. All this reinforces the sense that the ANC has too much to lose and will do everything it can to stay in power.

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