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Vol 65 No 12

Published 6th June 2024

South Africa

Choices get starker after the ANC vote crash

Shorn of a majority, Cyril Ramaphosa must choose between populists or pro-business centrists in a power-sharing deal

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2024

After its worst election in 30 years of power, the African National Congress (ANC) saw its vote share tumble to 40.2% and faces choices which will usher in a new era of coalition politics. But these threaten fragile party unity while offering both opportunity and grave danger. A bad choice by President Cyril Ramaphosa could split the ANC again, perhaps terminally. Whatever the choices made before the new parliament sits on 17 June, the risks of more political and economic turmoil are running higher.

That seems to have concentrated Ramaphosa’s mind. He gave a bravura – almost Mandela-esque – performance at the results ceremony at the Independent Electoral Commission on 2 June.

‘We have heard the voice of our people, and we must respect their wishes whether we like it or not,’ Ramaphosa said. ‘This is the time for all of us to put South Africa first,’ he said.

The ANC understood the message from the voters, he insisted. The key point was to defend the country’s constitution and its institutions.

The ANC had a stake in that last issue: its two populist offshoots are calling for sweeping constitutional change: moving to ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ from a ‘constitutional democracy’. Ramaphosa’s post-election posture caught on among his leadership. Both ANC Secretary General Fikile Mbalula and Deputy Secretary General Nomvula Mokonyane admitted the ANC had been humbled by the electorate but, of course, was learning the necessary lessons.

Part of this new pragmatism among the ANC leadership is informed by its need to find partners for a stable coalition arrangement. So far most of the party’s top leadership appears to favour a deal with centrist or centre-right parties. But for the rest of the party, views are much more mixed.

The ANC’s left wing instinctively rejects any coalition arrangement with the centre-right Democratic Alliance (21.8% of votes) which it characterises as a ‘neo-liberal party dedicated to preserving the privileges of the white minority’. And some in the ANC grudgingly admit that many of the electorate see the DA as ‘delivering services effectively’.

A substantial number in the ANC ranks – it’s unclear whether it’s a majority or not – favour an alliance of sorts with ex-President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe party (14.6% of votes) and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (9.5% of votes).

‘This time there really is a fork in the road ahead,’ said an exasperated captain of industry. ‘And the left fork leads to economic oblivion.’

Under the Constitution, Parliament must elect a new Deputy Speaker, Speaker and a President within 14 days of the results being announced.

Given the tight deadlines, the most likely outcome of coalition talks already underway would be a minority ANC government with the Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) with its strong base in KwaZulu-Natal.

The arrangement would be based on a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement whereby the DA and IFP would help pass the budget and support the ANC in no-confidence motions. All ministerial posts would remain in ANC hands but the DA could nominate the speaker of parliament, allowing it to keep a grip on parliamentary business. The DA and the IFP could then divide up the leadership of the key portfolio committees which shape most of the proposed legislation before it is put to a parliamentary vote.

Under that scenario, the DA would remain the official opposition and in charge of holding the ANC to account. The MK and DA parties would operate as kind of third force opposition in parliament – launching broadsides at both the ANC and the DA.

The other options such as grand coalitions or a government of national unity would require a period of building trust before dividing ministerial posts, and chairs of portfolio committees in a formal coalition.

The MK Party of former President Zuma – now the third largest in Parliament – would stand to become the official opposition in a formal coalition or GNU giving it a ready-made platform for grandstanding and disruption (AC Vol 65 No 11, A reckoning for the Ramaphosa party).

Zuma was prevented under the Constitution from standing for Parliament because of his conviction and 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court. Combined with the ANC, the EFF and MK would represent 64.2% of votes cast. Many in the ANC caucus see such a deal as a ‘re-unification’ of the ANC with its populist breakaways.

Such arguments are expressly rejected in a position paper ‘Pathways to a viable government after the 2024 elections’ written by a senior ANC official close to President Ramaphosa’s circle. ‘Both the EFF and MK, while claiming to advance some of the policy positions of the ANC, are in fact rent-seeking parties centred on a single political leader whose values and ideals are in contradiction to the constitution,’ the paper argues.

Other ANC officials fear that the EFF’s and MK’s policies on land expropriation and nationalisation of the mines and the central bank will lead to an exodus of investors and further damage the ailing economy. Zuma’s MK wants to scrap the Constitution in favour of a system in which a council of traditional chiefs known as amakhosi would have a veto over government decision-making.

Business decision
On the other side is the pro-business DA, which supports a constitutional democracy but opposes a welfare state. A coalition between the ANC and DA would represent 62.7% of the electorate. This would increase to 66.6% if it included the IFP of Velenkosi Hlabisa who is, according to his colleagues, is far easier to deal with than Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who occupied the post for more than half a century.

Some ANC officials favour a cooperative arrangement with the DA to preserve the constitutional democracy and promote investment and economic growth. But others fear that there will be major push-back from elements in the party who see the DA of Helen Zille and John Steenhuisen as representing white interests and unable to retain black leaders despite its multi-racial rank-and-file (AC Vol 61 No 4, Opposition in flux).

Zille, who is the power behind the DA throne, is a robust liberal with a tough reputation and has long prepared for coalition politics. She and Ramaphosa have a cordial relationship. We hear they have developed an understanding that she would be open to propose DA assistance when the going got tough for Ramaphosa.

The ANC’s share of the vote plummeted from 58% in 2019 to 40.9%. The DA marginally increased its vote from 20.77 in 2019 to 21.8% and the EFF slipped from 10.8% to 9.52%.

Zuma’s revenge
Zuma’s MK was the election game-changer. It won 14.59% nationally and an astonishing 45.32% in populous KwaZulu-Natal province, which has seen the worst political violence in the post-apartheid era, knocking the ANC into third place (AC Vol 62 No 15, Who runs KwaZulu-Natal?).

Zuma accused the IEC of vote-rigging and, unsuccessfully, demanded a recount. The election was peaceful and declared free and fair by observers.

Former President Kgalema Motlanthe has publicly urged the ANC not to engage the MK in the search for coalition partners.  General Siphiwe Nyanda, former head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC military wing in exile, who became a General in the SA National Defence Force, took up the issue in an impassioned letter saying it would be ‘outrageous’ to contemplate the MK as a coalition partner after the damage that Zuma had done to the ANC.

Zuma appears to be largely driven by revenge against Ramaphosa for having ousted him. For now, his party is a personal vehicle but one which has exploited the organisational expertise of Zuma’s fellow intelligence operatives. Within six months they have undermined many of the ANC’s branches in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, capitalising on aggrieved and disillusioned ANC activists. It may lack policy and structure and would naturally compete with the EFF in the longer term, but the MK has some clear strengths in the short term.

Telling people that it is the ‘real ANC’ , MK has become the dominant political force in KwaZulu-Natal and the third biggest party nationally. In the midst of the country’s toughest economic conditions for decades and with an uneasy coalition administration trying to stabilise the political scene, Zuma’s MK is in a uniquely powerful position.


South Africa’s security chiefs have mounted a sweeping security operation in KwaZulu-Natal province to prevent  post-election violence in the wake of former President Jacob Zuma’s stunning election victory.

On 31 May, the security cluster of Ministers held a rare joint briefing of defence, intelligence and police chiefs who warned that any attempt to disrupt proceedings in the post-election period would be met with full force. Defence Minister Thandi Modise recalled the uprising of July 2021 when crowds rioted and looted for 10 days and left behind 300 dead and more than R50 billion ($2.5bn) in damage. The looting continued for days with no security presence.

Police questioned a dozen or so people at the time but no significant figures were arrested, let alone prosecuted. Modise conceded that the law enforcement authorities were late in responding to the 2021 uprising. ‘No such mistake will be made this time,’ she said.

The failed insurrection began as a protest against Zuma’s 15-month jail sentence for a contempt of court conviction after refusing to testify at a state commission investigating state capture.

Modise disclosed that she and her colleagues had not engaged Zuma or his uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party directly but had left that up to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) governed by the powers of the Electoral Act. On the evening following the security briefing on 31 May, Zuma arrived at the national results operation centre near Johannesburg and he was followed through the centre by a surging entourage.

In a short and rambling address from the stage, he insisted that the results ceremony could not go ahead until his party’s objections of vote rigging had been dealt with. ‘This is  serious… very serious,’ he said repeatedly above the din.

But when he arrived the following evening with an entourage the doors were locked and the perimeter of the Gallagher Convention Centre had been secured on police instructions not to let anyone in while President Cyril Ramaphosa was speaking. Zuma, who had just won 45.32% of the popular vote in KZN and bumped the ANC into third place, was clearly incensed.

All attempts to contact Zuma or his MK Party on 4 June for coalition talks failed, according to ANC spokesperson Makhengi Bhengu Motsiri. She disclosed that the ANC’s National Working Committee had held talks with five political parties and the SA Communist Party and trade union federation Cosatu, the ANC’s alliance partners. We hear Zuma insists that he will not speak to the ANC as long as Ramaphosa is leader, and has instructed his party members not to talk to the ANC under any circumstances.

ANC chairman Gwede Mantashe said in a media interview that while the break-away trend concerned him it also demonstrated the ability of the ANC to generate leaders who believe they can attract substantial support. ‘The ANC is multiplying itself,’ he said. Mantashe is the only senior ANC official to have met with Zuma since the election.

Security chiefs fear that following Zuma’s success at the ballot box, his party could trigger national disruption. They fear his extensive network of operatives in KwaZulu-Natal could block the arterial roads that link the industrial heartland in Gauteng with the strategic port of Durban and the coal terminal at Richards Bay. Government has deployed thousands of police backed up by the military at strategic points in the province.



Governments of national unity are typically formed during times of crisis, with the aim of stabilising a country. Yet many GNUs have exacerbated the very issues they sought to resolve.

A prominent example is Zimbabwe’s GNU, established in 2009 between President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). 

Intended to address political violence and economic collapse, the unity government faced persistent power struggles. Mugabe retained significant control, undermining the MDC’s efforts to reform governance and the economy. The coalition’s failure to implement substantial changes led to continued economic decline and political unrest, ultimately collapsing in 2013 and wrecking the MDC.

In Kenya, the administration formed in 2008 after post-election violence between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader turned Prime Minister Raila Odinga was marred by infighting and a lack of coherent policy direction. Yet many Kenyans now refer to it as a ‘golden age’ compared with its successors.

Lebanon’s repeated attempts at GNUs underscore the challenges. The 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the Lebanese Civil War, created a sectarian-based power-sharing system. While it temporarily stabilised the country, it led to chronic political paralysis. Subsequent GNUs have struggled to govern effectively, with frequent resignations and political deadlock.

In South Africa, the GNU formed after apartheid in 1994 included the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party. While it succeeded in ensuring a peaceful transition, the coalition was fraught with tension and disagreements over policy direction. The National Party eventually withdrew in 1996, citing irreconcilable differences.

The long-term positive was the brief period of the GNU gave South Africa a breathing space to come to terms with the new political era after its first free elections in 1994.

And the ensuing ANC-led government under President Thabo Mbeki, which was elected in 1999, saw the country’s highest level of economic growth for decades. Mbeki brought together some of the country’s most talented professionals and steamrollered through his post-apartheid economic reform strategy – despite heavy opposition to the right and the left of the ANC. Yet it was then that the seeds of the ANC’s fracturing were sown.

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