South Africa's challengesVoting and campaigning in South Africa in 2019. [photos by Martin Plaut]

[This article has been written for the Round Table website. Opinions expressed in articles do not reflect the views of the editorial board.]

South Africa is on the cusp of major change. It could be about to elect a government without an absolute majority, which will have to look for coalition partners to run the country.

A general election is due for early 2024 – the date has yet to be confirmed. Past elections have been generally well run by the Independent Electoral Commission. We should assume this one will be too – loadshedding permitting – although the international community should encourage President Ramaphosa to invite international observers to monitor the process. This includes the Commonwealth which last sent a Commonwealth Observers Group to South Africa in 1999.

The outcome of next year’s poll promises to be contentious and fascinating. The latest polling suggests that no party will win overall control, although the ANC is likely to win the largest share of the vote.  The ANC is predicted to win just 50% with the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), likely to pick up around 25%. This could be significant at state, as well as national level.

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Alliances forming?

With neither major party likely to be able to rule on their own, both are looking around for allies. Neither find their potential partners particularly attractive. The ANC could turn to the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by the firebrand former leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema. Malema’s most recent mass rally reminded some of staged fascist events in the 1930’s, with Malema’s chants of “shoot to kill” and “kill the boer, the farmer” whipping up the crowds in the packed stadium.

The DA is attempting to launch a pre-emptive coalition of its own. Described as the “Moon-shot” pact for its ambition, a multi-party convention is due to meet over the weekend of 16th and 17th August. It will be chaired by Professor William Gumede, of the University of the Witwatersrand, supported by a team of specialist mediators.

The DA will be joined by the Freedom Front Plus (representing mainly Afrikaners), the Inkatha Freedom Party (supported by the Zulu community) and ActionSA, which has backing in the Johannesburg area. Thrashing out a common platform will be no mean task, since their representation is so diverse. If achieved, it would pit the ANC and EFF (who together are supported by most black citizens) against the DA with predominantly white, Indian and coloured (or mixed race) backing, and their partners.

Unstable coalition politics

South Africans’ experience of coalition government at a local level in recent years is not promising. Because the parties are now neck and neck across the country, they have come to rely on politicians who have local appeal, but only a handful of seats. (This has given significant political leverage to minor parties.) Some of the coalitions governing the most important metropolitan areas are exceedingly unstable.

Nelson Mandela Bay – which incorporates Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) – had a DA-led government until May 2023. Reforms were being implemented after years of corrupt and inefficient ANC administration which ran the city into the ground. In May this year the DA coalition collapsed, leaving the largest metropolitan authority in the Eastern Cape with its third mayor in a year. A similar pattern can be seen in Johannesburg. Here unstable coalitions could result in the city having its fourth mayor in a year. The current mayor is under investigation by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority for allegedly running a Ponzi-like funeral scheme, and it is not clear how long he can remain in office.

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Impact on the public

The failure of government at national and local level is being felt across the country, as South Africans grapple with a ‘poly-crisis’ of poorly maintained or collapsing infrastructure and public services. Perhaps the most severe effect is on unemployment, which is among the highest in the world. A third of adults have no work; youth unemployment currently hovers at 60%. This has led to despair, rising criminality and spiralling violence.

A report by Bloomberg in July summarised the situation.

Power cuts of as many as 12 hours a day have driven schools, hospitals and businesses to generators. Water in some communities is unsafe to drink. A dilapidated sanitation system triggered a recent cholera outbreak near the capital, Pretoria. Outside of some national highways, paved streets have more potholes than road. Poorly maintained state schools are keeping a whole generation from access to a decent education. Theft of everything from copper cables to solar panels are common, and crime has soared to such an extent that the private security industry now employs more people than the police force and military put together.

‘We are indeed, as many have said, running the risk of becoming a failed state because we’re already on borrowed time,’ said Daniel Mminele, chairman of Nedbank Group Ltd. and a former deputy central bank governor, in April.

So far, the country’s democratic institutions (a vibrant free media, robust civil society and the independent judiciary) have withstood the corrosion of the political process. South Africans are also remarkably resourceful and resilient; for example, there has been ‘privatization through incompetence’ of electricity supply. This has eased the pressure on the beleaguered national power provider ESKOM, struggling to recover after years of poor management, lack of maintenance and grand corruption. But the level of social discontent and distress is very real, together with the ANC’s evident failure to address endemic corruption. These mounting problems, when combined with rising voter apathy and the lack of a political culture of stable coalitions, are hardly a propitious backdrop to next year’s election.

Martin Plaut is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Sue Onslow is Visiting Professor at the Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.