How the Multi-Party Charter could make history at the 2024 polls
In August, seven opposition political parties in South Africa came together to sign a landmark pre-election coalition agreement. An eighth party later joined — but there hasn’t been much action since. We caught up with the charter’s independent chair, William Mervyn Gumede.
Remind me of the basics: what is the Multi-Party Charter?
It started off as a concept known as the Moonshot Pact, but has since been rebranded as the “Multi-Party Charter 2024”. A number of opposition parties in South Africa have come together to pledge to share power as a coalition after the 2024 elections if they cumulatively beat the ANC in the polls.
The parties that initially signed up in August were the Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party, Freedom Front+, ActionSA, Spectrum National Party, United Independent Movement and Independent South African National Civic Organisation. Since then, the African Christian Democratic Party has also joined the Charter.
Speaking to Daily Maverick on Monday, the Multi-Party Charter’s independent chair, Professor William Gumede, said two further parties were currently in discussions about joining.
What does the Charter mean in practical terms?
Gumede confirmed that the relevant political parties will campaign individually ahead of the 2024 elections. In other words, you probably won’t see street posters exhorting you to vote for the Multi-Party Charter, but the usual posters advertising the parties as separate political entities.
You also won’t get to the voting booth and be able to vote for the coalition: you will vote for one party of your choice as normal.
The power-sharing arrangement will kick in after the elections at the provincial and national levels in the event that the coalition receives sufficient votes cumulatively to take power. In other words, the votes will be pooled.
What happens in the Western Cape, where the DA still looks likely to win an outright victory? Would that province then be governed by the coalition?
Gumede says the Western Cape is a bit of a special case because it is already governed by the opposition, so the DA is likely to continue running it alone.
The assumption governing the Multi-Party Charter is that in other contexts, provincially and nationally, there may not be one outright winner. But Gumede says that in the unlikely event that, say, the DA wins more than 50% of the vote nationally — rendering the assistance of its coalition partners unnecessary — the intention would still be for the DA to include the other coalition parties in its subsequent governance.
Will the Charter have a presidential candidate?
This is unclear. Gumede stressed that it is not necessarily the case that in the event of a national electoral victory for the coalition, the leader of the biggest party — in this case, almost certainly the DA — would take power.
President John Steenhuisen, in other words, is just one option: Gumede says that after the elections, the coalition members will probably “have the option for choosing a leader among themselves who they think is appropriate for the moment in time”.
He added, however, that it is possible that the Charter could also opt for an external candidate, who could potentially be announced as the chosen presidential candidate just before the elections.
But such a person, Gumede says, would have to be an extraordinary individual: someone whose candidacy would create “shock and awe” among the South African public.
“It would have to be someone who has more support than anyone inside the group. Someone who could give an electoral bump by themselves,” he says.
Think … Desmond Tutu meets Siya Kolisi?
Some of the parties in the Charter are absolute minnows. Doesn’t it make more sense for a bigger party like the DA to duke it out alone?
Gumede, who is an internationally respected academic, says the idea that a single party can topple the ANC next year is wishful thinking.
“We are not going to have a Macron-type situation … one individual coming in on a wave of popular support because society is sick and tired: that’s not going to happen. There’s no basis for that in reality. The moment in our country is for coalitions,” Gumede says.
He points out that most of the seasoned politicians in South Africa, regardless of their political stripes, seem to be working off the same assumption. Former ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule is trying to get a coalition together; Cope’s Mosiuoa Lekota is also working on a coalition.
“These veterans of our politics understand that on their own they’re not going to win,” Gumede says.
There are two further aspects to consider. One is that some of the so-called minnows in the coalition have been extraordinarily successful on a regional basis. Isanco’s Eastern Cape offshoot won 18 seats in the local government elections.
The other point is that the mere fact of being in the Multi-Party Charter may confer an electoral advantage on the relevant parties. Gumede says there is some research internationally to suggest a 4-8% “confidence bump” from this effect.
Coalitions in South Africa don’t exactly have a stellar track record. What will hold this one together?
Gumede’s theory is that one of the major causes of coalition failure at the municipal level is policy divergence. What makes this coalition different is that a broad set of policies are being agreed on between the relevant parties in advance of the election.
Having an independent chair and negotiator, in the form of Gumede himself, is intended to be a check against any particular parties throwing their weight around.
At the same time, Gumede acknowledges that there’s not much, legally speaking, binding these parties together. He says this was one of the reasons the signing of the Charter in August by party leaders was held very publicly, to give a sense of accountability to the public.
“If you leave [the coalition], it really has to be something big, otherwise, hopefully, your own constituency will ask questions,” he says.
Also worth noting: this coalition agreement is intended to cover not just the 2024 elections, but also the next local government polls and the 2029 general elections.
Everything has gone a bit quiet on the Multi-Party Charter front. What’s happening at the moment?
Gumede says all the action is currently taking place out of sight. They are working on getting two further parties “over the line”. (He would not be drawn on which parties these are, but it is likely that one is Mmusi Maimane’s Build One South Africa.)
The leaders of the relevant parties are also working on “trust-building”, which is one of the most significant parts of the political project. They have travelled together to Germany to learn from that country’s coalition track record and were recently in Maputo to meet opposition leaders from all over sub-Saharan Africa.
Parties are also reporting back to their constituencies and structures: in effect, selling the Multi-Party Charter to a wider body which may be less enthusiastic. This was the case with the IFP, where the party’s youth branch initially rejected the coalition.
“They are currently off the political field, but when they get back on, it should be exciting for the public,” Gumede says.
How plausible is success for the Multi-Party Charter?
Some analysts have suggested that South Africa is not ready for this kind of electoral project in a country where so many people cast votes based on tradition, history and loyalty. Others have queried whether the Multi-Party Charter can gain sufficient mass support from black voters to push it over 50% at the polls.
Polling in South Africa is often unreliable, and much will come down to voter turnout. A Brenthurst Foundation poll in October put ANC support at a record low of 41% — but even that survey did not see the Multi-Party Charter coming out with more than 36% of the vote.
Gumede is, unsurprisingly, bullish. He is most optimistic for the coalition’s chances in KwaZulu-Natal, where he says that the pooled votes between the IFP, ActionSA and DA alone could be a game-changer.
“This is a critical election. It’s like 1994 but in a different way,” he says.
“This is a moment where we can still intervene in our country. Things are bad, but we can still intervene. In five years’ time, it will be much more difficult.” DM