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Cyril Ramaphosa, president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and of South Africa, speaks at the official election results announcement. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Image

South Africa’s election results present 3 options for government: all are fraught with danger

South Africans do not have a deep culture of coalitions. There have been a few coalitions at provincial and municipal levels but most of these were quite unstable.

The outcome of the 2024 national election up-ended 30 years of electoral dominance by the African National Congress. The party garnered only 40.18% of the vote while the Democratic Alliance got 21.81%, the uMkhonto weSizwe Party 14.58% and the Economic Freedom Fighters 9.52%.

That means that the country will need to learn to dance the coalition dance, a dance that under the best of conditions is fraught with partners stepping on each other’s toes.

And all of this happens in an economy that is not in good shape. South Africa has an economy with negative per capita growth, high and rising unemployment, poverty and inequality, a government deeply in debt, and 26 million people – 42% of the population – on grants.

One possible outcome from ongoing talks is that the African National Congress partners with the radical Economic Freedom Fighters led by Julius Malema and with former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party. After 30 years of promises of a better life for all, millions of people feel excluded, left in poverty, with little means to take care of themselves. Zuma and Malema have shown that they know how to capitalise on this sense of exclusion.

The second option is that the ANC partners with the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

Lastly, it could opt to run a minority government.

All three options are fraught with difficulties and dangers.

Disillusionment on the part of former ANC members who joined the Economic Freedom Fighters and uMkhonto weSizwe makes coalition formation with the political left quite difficult. And should it succeed, the economic consequences would likely be quite negative. The Economic Freedom Fighters and the uMkhonto weSizwe Party are not business-friendly parties. A coalition with them would likely result in the alienation of investors, a further drop in economic growth and consequently a lack of job creation.

On the political right, coalition formation between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance would be no less difficult, especially given their significant philosophical differences about the role of government and on how to overcome economic and social challenges. Even if they were to succeed in cobbling together a coalition, it would cause serious instability.

Such instability would not be conducive for investment. Investors would prefer to stand on the sidelines and observe how such coalitions shaped up.

The third option, of running a minority government, presents another set of challenges – in particular the prospect of a very unstable government in a permanent state of gridlock. (Examples of minority governments can be found in Canada and a number of European countries.)

The possible partners

A coalition between the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters or uMkhonto weSizwe is not as straightforward as it might look.

Founded a decade ago, the Economic Freedom Fighters has represented alienated, excluded youth, who feel the deal struck in 1994 doesn’t benefit them.

Malema was brilliant in mobilising large numbers of young people. Although his vote in this election waned somewhat, he still, broadly speaking, represents a cohort of younger people disillusioned with ANC policy. And these voters will not necessarily like a coalition with the very same ANC unless it brings them a demonstrable benefit. Anything less will cost the Economic Freedom Fighters support in future elections.

In the case of Zuma, it is a little more complex. To understand his influence, we need to understand the man and the role he played in KwaZulu-Natal over almost 40 years. In the early 1990s, before the first democratic elections, he played a key role in pacifying the bloody conflict between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC. And, from very humble, rural beginnings, via the anti-apartheid struggle and prison, he made it to deputy president of both the party and the country. And then President Thabo Mbeki axed him as deputy president of the country following his implication in a corruption scandal.

But Zuma fought back. And once back, this time as president of the party and the country, he mobilised KwaZulu-Natal in support of the ANC. He remains hugely popular in the province, as the recent election results show. The uMkhonto weSizwe Party garnered 45.9% of the vote.

His lifetime achievement was inspirational to many, because, if a man from such humble beginnings could become president, then anything was possible for everyone.

As in the case of the Economic Freedom Fighters, it would not be so easy for the ANC to go into a coalition with uMkhonto weSizwe. They represent groups of people seriously aggrieved by the ANC. They are angry and disgruntled. If the ANC wants a coalition with these parties, it will have to offer them something that addresses their anger and disgruntlement.

But doing that would probably result in rising government expenditure and debt levels. And if that coalition had to raise taxes to deliver on all the promises it made, investors would be likely to run away.

Given the leftist, statist views of both the Economic Freedom Fighters and uMkhonto weSizwe, we might also see more interventionism, regulations and unwise political support to state-owned entities.

South Africans have recently seen the private sector assisting the government in resolving the electricity, transport and harbour infrastructure bottlenecks. That would probably all come to nothing with this type of coalition.

Read more: South Africa: coalition government won't fix past failures – expect the private sector to play a bigger role in delivering power, transport and security

Financial markets would probably not look favourably on a coalition with populists.

A coalition between the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters or uMkhonto weSizwe would likely be an economic disaster. Either the ANC delivers on all the promises such a coalition will entail, which will be fiscally unaffordable and economically counterproductive, or if they try to contain the fiscal cost, and therefore not deliver on their promises, the coalition will fall apart and introduce further instability.

However, there are some clear heads in the ANC who would not like to go down this path.

The Democratic Alliance

A coalition with the Democratic Alliance could take two forms. One is a real coalition with the ANC and the Democratic Alliance, and possibly other smaller parties like the Inkatha Freedom Party, sharing cabinet positions.

However, for a party like the Democratic Alliance this would hold the serious danger that if things were to go badly over the next five years, it would be seen as complicit and lose votes in the next election.

Should the Democratic Alliance nevertheless enter such a coalition, government’s economic policy would pivot slightly more pro-market and possibly include a greater focus on frugality and efficiency in government.

But it would be difficult and time consuming to carry out these sorts of measures with a reluctant senior partner. The resulting frustration on the part of the Democratic Alliance would then likely cause the end of the coalition.

Such a coalition would be inherently unstable because the parties are philosophically quite far apart. Foreign policy in just one example.

Read more: Uncertain times for South Africa's foreign policy as country heads for coalition government

The second form of coalition between the ANC and Democratic Alliance entails the ANC running the executive branch of government and the Democratic Alliance running parliament – the so-called “supply and confidence” model. Thus, the ANC leader would be president and appoint the cabinet with ANC appointees, and the Democratic Alliance might appoint the speaker or deputy speaker, and chairs of parliamentary committees. It would presumably also include an agreement that the Democratic Alliance would support the budget and not introduce a no-confidence vote in the ANC-aligned president.

The ANC would have to negotiate support for each piece of legislation it brought to parliament. This would result in very little being passed.

Without an agreement to support the budget and confidence in the president, the ANC would have little incentive to support such a coalition and might prefer to form a minority government.

Going it alone

A minority government would be very unstable as getting anything through parliament would be almost impossible.

If the annual budget isn’t passed, spending becomes unauthorised – a messy situation politically and economically.

None of the options on hand would be easy. South Africans need to hang on to their seats. It’s going to be a rocky five years.

This is an edited version of a talk delivered at a webinar hosted by the University of Free State Centre for Gender and African Studies and Institute of Race Relations on 5 June 2024. The opinions expressed in this op-ed represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the institution.

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