South Africa

ANALYSIS

Post-election blues – the future may look distinctly different for some of SA’s top politicians

Post-election blues – the future may look distinctly different for some of SA’s top politicians
Julius Malema (President of Economic Freedom Fighters. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle). John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images). South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images). Former South African president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart).

The upcoming elections have often been described as a watershed, with the potential to break with our political past and open the door to something new. While those bold predictions now appear a touch less likely than they did just a few weeks ago, it is clear that there will be important ramifications for political leaders after the polls.

While we are still roughly two weeks away from knowing the results of this year’s elections, there is an emerging consensus that the ANC may do better than previously predicted and will probably get more than 45% of the vote, the DA may be stuck at just above 20%, while uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) and the EFF hover at around 10%. (NB: These percentages are based on polling that has been contested.)  

However, much can still change, turnout could be decisive and politicians are right to remind us that the only poll that matters is the election itself.

That said, there are likely to be major political changes after the election, particularly inside several parties.

First, an election result that allows the ANC the luxury of not having to enter a coalition or to play with smaller parties will be a boost for President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

ANC leaders are unlikely to base their decision on whether to support him just on the result, but on what their expectation was before the result. So, if the ANC gets 48% but the expectations were higher, his enemies could move against him. But if the expectation was for below 45% and the party gets 48%, then he will be more secure.

At the same time, research from the University of Johannesburg showing how closely tied a voter’s belief in Ramaphosa is to whether they will support the ANC demonstrates, again, how important Ramaphosa is for the party. (It also reveals that the party may well have a succession problem.) 

While Ramaphosa could be in a stronger position after the elections, it is still not clear whether he has the energy or the appetite to pursue reforms more vigorously than he did in this term.

At the same time, any window he has to push reforms will be limited to just several months — the result of this election is likely to fire the starting gun for campaigning to succeed him in the ANC at its next conference in 2027.

Gauteng and KZN

However, the consequences for ANC leaders do not stop there.

In Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC will surely fall significantly below 50% and the provincial leadership in both provinces is likely to come under pressure.

While some in the ANC have praised Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi for being energetic during the campaign, he could well find himself in a difficult position. 

Just two years ago, former Gauteng premier David Makhura was moved to describe the Ekurhuleni regional ANC conference as a “war zone”. This kind of violent politics, or the threat of violence, could intensify after the election.

This is likely to be amplified by a heated debate about who to form a coalition with — and both the national and the Gauteng ANC may be divided on that issue.

In KZN, if MK does do better than the ANC, the still-new ANC leadership there is likely to come under strong pressure too. While the national ANC is surely unlikely to want to work with MK, some in the provincial party may want to strike a deal. Again, the tensions over this question could become intense.

Serious rethink

Should the DA fail to make progress in this election (and current polling suggests this will be the case), it could be a sign that the party needs a serious rethink of its entire positioning to attract a greater following. DA leader John Steenhuisen could come under great pressure too.

The 2019 result, which saw the DA lose ground, led to the election of Helen Zille as chair of the Federal Council and was soon followed by the resignations of Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba and Athol Trollip, among many others.

All three could now eat into the DA’s support through ActionSA and Bosa.

However, Steenhuisen may not be under much pressure to resign, because the dynamics in that party are different this time around.

He was elected as party leader with an overwhelming mandate just over a year ago. Presumably, the party’s election campaign was the result of a mandate from its full leadership — giving Steenhuisen and other elected leaders a sense of security even after disappointing election results.

A one-man show

The EFF too could lose support, if the current polling is accurate.

While its leader, Julius Malema, is still a hugely significant figure in our politics, his refusal to allow other leaders to shine in the party means that its election result will be a reflection of him and him alone.

Should the EFF do poorly (and it could still surprise on the upside), he will have no one else to blame.

However, even if he does less well than initially expected, the key moment will be how he plays his hand after the elections. If he can force the ANC to form a coalition with him — in Gauteng, for example — he could still project that he has important political power. But the days of him boasting, as he did in Parliament, that “I’m in charge … I’ve got you by the scrotum” could soon be over.

He appears to have complete control of the EFF’s internal machinery, though — he will not be removed as leader no matter the results, or even face a challenger during the party’s next conference.

The Zuma factor

While the arrival of MK and its repeated demonstrations of strength/violence (including during its manifesto launch at Orlando Stadium on Saturday) have shaken the expectations of this election, it is not clear what the party will do after the polls.

It has had no conference and no internal elections and revolves around one person — former president Jacob Zuma.

At the age of 82, Zuma may not have a firm grip on the party’s internal machinery, or reality, which means a repeat of the disputes around its leadership could occur.

It is likely that the ANC and the members of the Multi-Party Charter will refuse to form a coalition with MK.  

At some point, it will become clear that Zuma is no longer playing a formal role within the party, which could well see the party dissolving. It seems impossible to believe it will last long enough to contest future elections.

While the results of these elections will be hugely significant for our country, the outcome could well be the beginning of a series of processes that will change the internal dynamics of SA’s political parties for some time to come. DM

Gallery

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