What do the South African election results mean for the country’s future?

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The South African election results have produced contrasting responses of disappointment and elation across the political spectrum. The declining fortunes of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will provide time for deep reflection, whereas opposition have been buoyed by their ability to weaken the political stranglehold of the government after its three decades of political incumbency. The election results speak volumes about the importance of accountability of politicians to voters.

Public attention has now shifted to the legislative sphere with the imminent swearing-in of lawmakers and the question of how the ANC – which only won 40% of the vote, the lowest percentage since the end of apartheid – will form a majority in parliament. The decision of President Cyril Ramaphosa to form a Government of National Unity (GNU) has produced a heated discourse about alliance politics in South Africa. Who should be included, which factors underpins its existence and what can such political cooperation between parties achieve in the long run?

This analysis briefly interrogates the implications of the election, arguing that the ANC has a particularly difficult choice to make when it comes to forming a ruling coalition. It also discusses the implications for citizens and the future of South African politics through a focus on political accountability and the role civic participation in shaping national developments.

Implications for the ANC and opposition

The role of the ANC in spearheading the struggle for freedom in South Africa is beyond dispute. Yet the party’s declining support during the past two general elections reflects just how much it has struggled to deliver on the promise of majority rule. As the 2024 polls make clear, voters are increasingly punishing the government for its economic failings and showing a disregard for public opinion and insensitivity to the widespread concerns of about maladministration, fraud and corruption as well as the breakdown of ethics that characterise its contemporary politics. The trust deficit has denuded the ANC of its leadership role and have generated the emergence of the myriad of new opposition parties which contest its authority.

The confidence of the ANC has been shaken and there will be much introspection in the months ahead, but there will be no easy answers. Most political assessments of its internal politics and state of governance tend to restate well known problems with little indication of their meaningful resolution. The party’s inability to respond in an effective way is rooted in a history of internecine political fights and ferocious leadership battles that have contributed to a form of political paralysis. The formulation and implementation of a more efficacious form of politics is necessary to extricate both party and country from the persisting quagmire. Yet the ANC’s Achilles heel has been precisely its lack of implementation, which have allowed the internal disarray within the party to fester and the socio-economic challenges to linger.

The first term of the Ramaphosa administration was largely devoted to nurture intra-party unity given the bruising battle for which leadership wherein he emerged victorious during the ANC National Conference of 2018. Now that he is entering his second term in office, President Ramaphosa will have to be more resolute and enforce political discipline within the party if he wishes to leave a lasting political legacy.

The opposition has undoubtedly been emboldened by the election result and their ability to reshape politics.  Whereas the support of the ANC declined, the support for the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have largely remained constant, the Congress of the People (Cope) and a few other parties have lost their parliamentary presence and there are lingering questions about their long-term survival. This was also true of the new Rise Mzansi party of Songezo Zibi and Build One South Africa (BOSA) party of Mmusi Maimane, which received considerable attention in the prelude to the election but failed to secure significant electoral gains.

The biggest change in the 2024 polls was therefore the rise of the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, led by Jacob Zuma, which emerged from nowhere to become the third biggest political party on the national landscape and the largest party in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, displacing the ANC. This has left the ANC in a particularly difficult position. It appears publicly that neither the ANC nor the MK are willing to be in a coalition together, but this only leaves the ruling party with two options if it is to secure a legislative majority: the DA and the EFF. The country’s other opposition parties are simply too small to provide the political ballast that the government will need.

This is a particularly challenging outcome because there is not much the DA and the EFF agree on – apart from perhaps being two of the opposition parties least hostile to immigration – and so including both parties in a grand coalition may prove impossible.If it does, the ANC faces a difficult choice. If it chooses the EFF over the DA, it will have a slim majority and would not be able to survive EFF defections on key policy issues. By contrast, if the ANC aligns with the DA and receives the support of its MPs – which make up around 20% of the National Assembly – it will enjoy a comfortable majority but would face accusations from both the EFF and the MK that it had “sold” out to conservative political forces with their roots in apartheid.

Neither of these options is palatable – which is of course precisely why the ANC proposed a GNU in the first place.

Implications for voters and society

Voters have unequivocally demonstrated their power and ability to exact accountability from their elected representatives. The reward or punishment for political parties as reflected by their increase or decrease of political representation speaks volumes about the simmering political discontent and a yearning for new perspectives and policies that will move South Africa forward.

Data of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) provide important insights into voter perceptions of the importance of elections and their role in political outcomes. In 2024, there were 27,78,081 registered voters but only 16,29,516 (59%) voters exercised their right to vote.  This contrast with the 2019 general election when 26,756,649 voters were registered but 17, 671,615 (66%) exercised their right to vote. The decline in electoral turnout is significant, because it indicates that while many of those who went to the poll were displeased with the government, many others did not vote at all because they have lost faith in the political system.

This disturbing picture that emerges of an incipient electoral decline, or disinterest, in politics should be of concern to all parties, whatever their stripes. It is possible that the rebuke given to the ANC by the electorate will reinvigorate participation – but this is only likely if the new coalition government delivers meaningful change. Otherwise there is a risk that participation levels will fall again next time around. There are a number of things that can be done to reverse this, including enforcing ethical standards, engaging in outreach programmes with younger citizens, and avoiding the kind of “punch and judy” politics that undermines the credibility of the whole political class. One of the most dispiriting aspects of the coalition negotiations so far, however, has been the failure of many parties to put the national interest before their own in the way that they engage with the process.

Addressing the malaise of South African politics

The recent election results have the potential to redress the malaise in South African politics, of which a great deal can be explained in terms of the uninterrupted incumbency of the ANC for thirty years. Voters have demonstrated to all political parties and their elected representatives the high costs of ignoring and disappointing them. Yet there is no guarantee that South Africa’s political parties will get the message – or that coalition government will see an improvement in either economic policy or ethical standards.

Lawmakers therefore have a duty to remain alert to the concerns of voters, and to demonstrate that the system is capable of responding. A robust political culture that is characterised by a high level of civic participation, and the ability of voters to exact accountability from their elected leaders, is critical to prevent further public disengagement, which would undermine the foundations of the country’s democracy.

Graham Burton Joseph is doctoral candidate in Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is a former Fulbright scholar at Ohio University, USA.

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