South Africa’s 2024 elections: Political Change and Democratic Uncertainty

Johannesburg, SA
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On May 29, 2024, South Africans will vote in the seventh national election since the end of Apartheid in 1994. This election marks a political milestone as the African National Congress (ANC) party dominating power for 30 years faces its toughest challenge. Once glamourized for its prolonged struggle for racial democracy, the ANC’s reputation has been tarnished by high unemployment, widespread poverty, failing government services, and over a decade of corruption scandals. Disillusioned voters are seeking political change, and the center-left ANC is predicted to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since the transition to majority rule. However, it will remain the largest party in the 400-seat National Assembly forced to co-govern. 

Nor are major opposition parties expected to secure a majority or collaborate to exclude the ANC after the landmark polls. South Africa’s democracy that solidified despite insurmountable challenges is entering a new chapter of coalition politics. This will have important political implications, raising concerns about the future of the country’s first non-racial democracy. Is South Africa’s democracy entering an uncharted territory? Will the ANC, a former liberation party, accept diminished power or an opposition status? What form might a coalition national government take? And how will this affect the future of democracy in a racially, ethnically, and regionally diverse South Africa?

Shifting political sands

Electoral trends indicate a progressive decline in the ANC’s influence since 2014. However, for the first time since the “liberation elections” in 1994, the party’s support is predicted to dip below 50% in this election, with the latest Ipsos poll placing the ANC at 40.2%, the Democratic Alliance (DA) at 21.9% and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) at 11.5%. The latest electioneering efforts may boost voter turnout for the party. On May 15, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed a National Health Insurance Bill to extend healthcare to all South Africans, and the ANC-dominated National Assembly adopted in the eleventh hour a long-awaited Public Procurement Bill to tackle state capture and corruption, which crippled the ANC’s governing ability for over a decade. However, this might be too late and too little to sway voters. 

This does not mean the ANC’s political dominance is over. For years, the center-right DA and far-left populist EFF have not seen significant electoral growth, stabilizing below 20% nationally. As in previous elections, extreme inequalities, high poverty, and joblessness remain the key issues shaping this year’s watershed election. Despite remarkable progress under ANC governments, over 60% of the 62-million South Africans live in poverty, more than a third now rely on social grants, while unemployment has surged to over 32% and economic growth averaged a dismal 0.42% since Ramaphosa took office in 2019. Other concerns shaping voter preferences include endemic corruption, crime, and poor service delivery, especially rolling electricity blackouts with failures at the state-run Eskom power supplier. The ANC’s inability to reform itself and state institutions has worsened service delivery, fuelling popular disillusionment among black South Africans reluctant to vote for the ANC or major opposition parties.

But this year’s national polls follow major political (re)alignments driven by structural changes since the mid-2010s. These include the rise of a sizeable black middle-class, whose confidence in the ANC was eroded by Zuma-era “state capture” and subsequent economic paralysis frustrating its ambitions. This class has become lukewarm toward the ANC under the pro-business President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has failed to end the policy of cadre deployment or decisively act on his reform promises to renew the party, root out corruption, and stimulate economic growth. 

The rise of the youthful “born free” or “The Mandela” generation, the first born after Apartheid, represents another important force. Despite being afforded the most opportunities in democratic South Africa, their ambitions remain unfulfilled with youth unemployment for 15-24-year-olds reaching a staggering 59.4% in late 2023. This has led many to challenge the notion of being ‘born free’ and turn away from the ANC, despite its enduring popularity among black South Africans. Without a living memory of Apartheid, the born frees are less swayed by the ANC’s liberation-struggle credentials and symbols, unlike older generations.

The ANC’s national decline is also related to its political regionalization and ruralization. The party’s historically limited influence in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal has diminishedfurther, and the provinces are slipping from the party’s political grip. Its influence is now concentrated in predominantly black and economically poorer regions. Like other liberation parties in the region, the ANC is becoming a rural party evidenced by its loss over main urban centers since 2016—a trend expected to accelerate with progressive urbanization. Currently, the ANC holds a minority 33% in metropolitan areas, while dominating rural areas outside the Western Cape and parts of KwaZulu-Natal.

Political coalitions and democratic uncertainty 

South Africa’s democracy will be thrust into some uncertainty. Political uncertainty is an inherent and important feature of democracy, according to the Polish-American democratic theorist Adam Przeworski. Paradoxically, due to ANC electoral dominance, South Africa’s democracy was immune to uncertainty over the last three decades. The ANC will likely lose its majority but remain the largest party, dominating national politics through coalition alliances. However, how it will form the next government, rebuild itself, and retain power in the future remains less certain. The impact of this new era of coalitions on the country’s democracy is also uncertain. 

Neither the incumbent ANC nor an anti-democratic populist opposition poses major threat to South Africa’s democracy. There is minimal risk of an electorally diminished ANC rejectingelectoral results, which analysts have long feared if—and when—the ANC faces this danger. Unlike other liberation parties in the region, the ANC has shown exceptional democratic tolerance and restraint over the past three decades, sharing power with former foes at the dawn of democracy in the 1990s and allowing opposition rule at municipal and provincial levels in recent years. Moreover, ANC leaders have so far refrained from anti-democratic rhetoric or tactics despite the expected electoral blow. Instead, recently President Ramaphosa signed a National Health Insurance Bill and the parliament passed a long-awaited Public Procurement Bill to combat corruption and restore voter confidence.

Besides, the ANC faces little political threat even without a national majority. The leading opposition parties, the DA and the EFF, each barely poll more than a fifth of votes and cannot collaborate to eclipse the ANC. Presumably, a game-changing “moonshot pact” of 11 smaller parties, the Multi-Party Charter (MPC), spearheaded by the DA against the ANC has lost momentum. In short, no other political party can contest the ANC’s political sway or legacy ofstruggle for racial emancipation and equality. Without such a challenge, the ANC will honor the electoral process at least for now, averting a long-feared democratic backsliding or breakdown. 

Despite grounds for optimism, concerns persist about the functioning of South Africa’s multiracial democracy post-election. Looking back at the past seven years, the ANC will try to avoid a national alliance with the biggest opposition parties (the DA and EFF) and breakaway populist factions (the EFF and MK Party). It will seek an alliance with malleable smaller parties, such as the IFP, Congress of the People (COPE), and the African Transformation Movement(ATM). However, an ANC-DA national government is probable due to shared incentives and pressure from business, which views such partnership as the only realistic DA strategy to dilute“social democratic” ANC policies. ANC leaders recognize that a national alliance with the DA could stimulate economic growth, reduce inflation, and boost privatesector investment. 

Increased power-sharing could be a political facelift for South Africa’s disfigured democracy.Political consensus, tolerance, and power-sharing deals are vital for democracy, especially in highly unequal, divided, and deeply polarised societies like South Africa. Diminished ANC power and renewed national power-sharing are significant, given the tendency of liberation parties in neighbouring countries to cling to power through undemocratic means. Additionally, a national coalition government could help stabilize democratic institutions corroded by cadre deployment and State Capture, while fostering national dialogue, democratic inclusion, and state-building as in the 1990s. In fact, electoral defeat can force the ANC to enact institutional reforms to improve service delivery, expand the economy, and combat crime and corruption. 

However, short of a democratic breakdown, unstable party coalitions could threaten democracy by worsening poor governance, high social polarization, and dismal service delivery. Research has shown that, while having a positive influence on democracy, political coalitions can undermine democratic quality and stability. Coalition governments tend to be costlier and less efficient, leading to legislative deadlock, political instability, and poor policy implementation that erode trust and participation in democracy. Achieving electoral accountability is more challenging in coalition governments, compared to single-party majoritarian systems, due to blurred lines of policy responsibility among the governing parties.

Recent experience in South Africa highlights the pitfalls of coalition politics. After the 2016 local elections, the DA and EFF formed coalitions with smaller parties to keep the ANC out of power in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay, and Ekurhuleni Metros. Following the 2021 local elections, which resulted in 70 “hung councils”, the EFF allied with ANC to oust DA-led coalition governments in Gauteng metros. Local coalitions in South Africa have been characterised by conflict, government dysfunction, and constant leadership changes, notoriously compromising service delivery and local governance. Therefore, the prospect of increased coalitions is less reassuring, potentially worsening existing conditions and aiding the ANC to regain a majority as voters become disillusioned with policy and government instability. This situation could further undermine the foundations and trust in democratic institutions. 

The instability of coalitions in South Africa partly stems from their informal nature, lacking a national legal framework. Observers, like Professor William Gumede, suggest new national laws governing coalitions can prevent the replication of municipal instability at provincial and national levels in the upcoming era of political coalitions. The municipal coalition instability since 2016 is attributed to major parties failing to achieve significant vote shares. However, genuine concerns about the effectiveness of national and sub-national coalitions after the polls persist, given the spectacular failure of recent coalitional experiments at the local level.

Salih O. Noor is a Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Division at The University of Chicago

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