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South Africa’s Faustian bet on everything from electricity to Israel

South Africa goes to the polls tomorrow. The results are likely to reinforce the ANC’s decline but do nothing to tempers its hostility to Israel.
Ivor Chipkin
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Posters with the words Vote ANC and a person in a camoflauge hat peaking between them

Supporters use ANC posters to shield themselves from the sun as they listen to President of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa speak during the ANC Siyanqoba Rally (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Published: 28 May 2024

Last updated: 27 May 2024

South Africa is days away from what many believe will be a historical election. For some time now polls have been predicting that the African National Congress, the ruling party since 1994, will get less than 50% of the vote. In the last few days, some surveys have posited a further decline in ANC support to around 40% and a rise of the opposition, Democratic Alliance, to near 30%.

South African polling, however, has come in for some heavy criticism so these figures may signal an election becoming more and more competitive or they may reflect a polling industry whose methods are opaque and sometimes downright unprofessional. The election will be held on Wednesday 29 May so we will soon find out.

Either way, it is apparent that an important political change is underway.  

A key issue is voter turnout. In 2019, the last national election, turnout was 66%, a near 10% decrease from the national election before. If this trend continues, then polls based on a 60% or even 58% voter turnout seem likely.

The combination of fewer voters and declining vote share means, the ANC can expect between 9% and 17% fewer votes. This will represent not so much a rupture but a steady pattern of ANC decline that started in 2009.  

Ministers function autonomously and in some cases operate as states within the state, often producing contradictory policies.

ANC is still highly likely to be the winning party. But, in addition to the established Democratic Alliance, a centrist party that has strong support amongst the country’s minorities, including Jews, it faces opposition from the newly formed MK party, a break-away party from the ANC, founded by the former President of the ANC and of the country, Jacob Zuma.

Remarkably for a party formed only a few months ago, it is already expected to be the majority party in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and to pip the Economic Freedom Fighters for third place nationally. If this happens, the EFF and the MP party may merge – they are both authoritarian, nationalist parties, though the MK party appeals to a strong Zulu ethnic base. If not, the EFF will gradually become irrelevant. It styles itself as a revolutionary movement being carried ineluctably to power. If it stagnates and declines, much of its bravado will burst.

Beyond the election, a fierce drama is playing out in the ANC. Since narrowly winning the Presidency of the ANC in 2017 and becoming the President of the country in 2019, Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to reverse the economic and institutional decline associated with his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Jacob Zuma’s time in office, known in South Africa as the years of ‘state capture’, was associated with mass corruption, an assault on the constitutional framework and the hollowing-out of key state institutions, including the state electricity company (Eskom) and the state logistics company (Transnet).

These ‘lost years’ left South Africa with risible economic growth, electricity blackouts and a political culture increasingly hostile to constitutionalism and democracy. (Zuma’s MK party proposes scrapping the constitution and returning South Africa to a situation of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’.)

The department of international relations and cooperation has radicalised exposing the country as a political ally of Hamas

Ramaphosa’s ‘new dawn’ has changed very little at first glance. Those implicated by the judicial enquiry into state capture (the Zondo commission) have not been charged. Political stability has deteriorated, culminating in a violent, armed rebellion in June 2021 that killed hundreds of people. Electricity blackouts (known euphemistically in South Africa as ‘loadshedding’) became acute after 2018. In 2023, parts of the country were without electricity for up to 12 hours a day on a rotating basis.  Unemployment rose to 33%.

Yet behind the scenes Ramaphosa’s administration has achieved several important structural reforms. South Africa’s electricity sector has been opened to competition. Loadshedding has come down dramatically, not because government-owned electricity provider Eskom is working better, but because middle class households and private companies have turned to solar and renewables. In 2024, a major reform of the public service passed in the National Assembly. The amendment to the Public Service Act will go some way to limit the politicization of administrations and curtail Tammany Hall practices. Hilary Joffe reports that the joint presidency-Treasury unit, Operation Vulindlela, has made significant progress in driving reform in energy, freight logistics, water, telecommunications and visas. The fundamental conditions for rapid and long-term economic growth are being put in place.

There is a relationship, however, between the lack of action on state capture and the quiet progress on fundamental reform. The reform agenda is dependent on ANC unity to pass. This, in turn, has required a Faustian pact with powerful stakeholders.

ANC politicians implicated in fraud and corruption have been retained as cabinet ministers and/ or as senior party officials. Ministers function autonomously and in some cases operate as states within the state, often producing contradictory policies. Gwede Mantashe, a key ally of Ramaphosa in the ANC, was tolerated in the Ministry of Minerals and Energy, where he worked hard to keep South Africa’s energy sector grounded in coal. The Minister of Police has overseen the deterioration of basic policing and security.

Of particular interest to those following South Africa’s leadership in attacking Israel at the International Court of Justice, the department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) has radicalised under Minister Naledi Pandor, exposing the country as a political ally of Hamas. Within the country, the ICJ case has helped the ANC reposition itself as a party of principle rather than of corruption and incompetence. If on Wednesday the ANC’s decline is merely routine rather than catastrophic, it will likely strengthen the hand of Minister Naledi to pursue even more vigorously her support for Palestinian armed groups.

If there is method in South Africa’s madness, then fundamental reform requires keeping potentially disruptive political actors acquiescent. Ramaphosa has done this by protecting some of them politically and by giving them free rein in government. If the ANC secures 50% of the vote on Wednesday, or slightly below that, Ramaphosa will likely get another five years to try and reconcile his project of fundamental economic reform with the politics of chaos, corruption and radicalisation. A dramatic decline in the ANC’s fortunes on Wednesday would likely upend these plans. This election is historic, not because the ANC may dip below 50% but because an uncanny model of development is at stake.

About the author

Ivor Chipkin

Ivor Chipkin is the Director of the New South Institute, a global think tank based in South Africa and with offices in Sao Paulo and Belgrade. He also teaches public policy at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) at the University of Pretoria.


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