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Western and African diplomats in Pretoria think the ANC will squeak home on 29 May

Western and African diplomats in Pretoria think the ANC will squeak home on 29 May
ANC supporters at an election campaign event in Durban on 18 May 2024. (Photo: Darren Stewart / Gallo Images)

The ambassadors Daily Maverick spoke to think the 29 May poll will be free and fair, and that the ANC will still be in power after that. They also don’t believe there’s a chance of the ‘doomsday scenario’ of an ANC-EFF coalition.

Western and African governments expect the ANC to cling to power in next week’s elections, probably by winning at least enough votes to form a coalition with  a smaller party – or even, perhaps, on its own.

And if the ANC falls precipitously to 45% or below, as some polls predict, it could still remain dominant in government by doing a deal with the DA and IFP, either a full-blown government of national unity or by securing the support of these two other moderate parties to keep the ANC in power without them entering government.

The diplomats Daily Maverick spoke to do not think there is much chance of what some called the “doomsday scenario” where the ANC falls far enough to have to enter a coalition with one of the biggest opposition parties – and chooses the radical EFF.

All the diplomats believe the election will be free and fair. However, some have warned their capitals that they fear there could be violence, not during the voting but after the results come out. Their suspicions mostly fall on Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party reacting if it does worse than it expects. One ambassador said the flashpoint that most worried him was MK winning most votes in KwaZulu-Natal – as some polls suggest it will – but being denied power in the province by an ANC-DA-IFP coalition. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA’s elections stand out globally ‘for very real’ threat of violence — assassination report

A few ambassadors noted that “the ANC seems to be catching up” because it had “put on the big squeeze” in the last weeks of the campaign.

“It’s quite impressive. Everything seemed so lethargic. But now, four weeks to the election, everybody is out on the streets. Former presidents are campaigning, they are going house to house. There is a lot of mobilisation. Actually, you have to see it to believe it.”

Another ambassador attributed the ANC’s last-minute surge also to the party “addressing, in inverted commas” some of the people’s concerns, such as keeping the lights on for about 50 consecutive days and enacting the “nakedly political” National Health Insurance (NHI) along with all kinds of other promises, “that will probably never come to anything”.

“But will probably be enough, in our assessment, to persuade people either to default back to the ANC or indeed not to vote for anyone,” he said. 

And the diplomats didn’t see the DA or EFF reaching beyond their core support. One said the DA had scored too many “own goals” such as its ad burning the flag and party leader John Steenhuisen’s “heartless” rejection of the NHI. Most didn’t see the MK doing very well outside KZN as it was “not even a single-issue party, it’s a single-person party. And the wheels are coming off a little bit.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

Another said the EFF also seemed to have plateaued, perhaps because the MK had stolen a chunk of its support. 

One ambassador is forecasting the ANC getting back up to about 47% or 48% or even squeaking over 50% by getting out all of  its 11 million voters, as only it had the logistics to do.

Another noted that the DA believed that most of the million or so voters registered in the last registration weekends were its supporters. But even if it managed to bring them all out next Wednesday, “basically I think it is pretty safe to assume that the ANC will still be in government a few weeks from now”.

One ambassador said he – and his country’s investors – hoped that if the ANC were too small to form a government, it would form a grand coalition with the biggest opposition party, the DA – though that would be difficult because of reservations in both parties. 

“But probably it may not be necessary, at least not on the national level.”

The third scenario, an ANC “doomsday coalition” with the EFF, “would be a nightmare for us as well, particularly for our businesses. But at the moment, we think that’s probably the least probability.”

Another ambassador said South Africans should bear in mind that whatever happened, the ANC would still have a “crushing majority” – about double the nearest party – compared with most European countries where most governing parties had  far less.

He thought that if the ANC fell to 45% or below, rather than the doomsday scenario of forming a coalition with the EFF, the ANC might accept an offer from the DA and IFP to keep the ANC in power by supporting it in passing crucial legislation in Parliament where necessary – but without joining a coalition government, which both the DA and IFP had promised their voters not to do. 

That deal would allow the DA and IFP to keep the EFF out of government but also to avoid being contaminated by complicity with an ANC government – biding their time to oust the ANC completely at the next elections in 2029. The ANC could be amenable because it would not have to give up Cabinet posts as it would for the EFF, for instance, which has already demanded the Ministry of Finance. Also, a deal with the EFF or MK had a greater potential to destroy the ANC in the long term than one with the DA.

The other big plus for the ANC would be that “laws passed by the ANC plus IFP plus DA would bring on investment and economic peace to this country and attractiveness as opposed to what would happen if the alternative was the opposite one with EFF and MKP”.

But another ambassador said he thought it was more likely that, if ANC support plunged to the low forties, it would be a government of national unity with the DA and IFP.

For another ambassador the only really scary scenario would be if the ANC fell well below 45% and Ramaphosa felt honour-bound to resign (as he had nearly done over the Phala Phala scandal) to be succeeded by Deputy President Paul Mashatile, who would be more likely to form a coalition with the EFF.

Clearly this would be disastrous for business. One recalled that EFF leader Julius Malema had said in a newspaper interview that if in government the EFF would “want to throw out all Western companies and only deal with companies from China and Russia. However, he reminded Malema “that our companies can do business elsewhere if they are thrown out, it’s really going to be to the detriment of this country”.

Another ambassador recalled that Malema had told diplomats that the party would only accept investment on its own terms. He in turn reminded Malema that “he doesn’t get to tell foreign investors where to put their money… it’s up to them whether to invest more or even leave.”

And another said Malema had told the BBC’s HARDtalk that an EFF government would supply weapons to Russia. “That’s a really bad signal.”

One ambassador asked whether the election would bring about more conviction in dealing with major challenges like the just energy transition,  unemployment and inequality.

“I’m afraid I’m a little bit sceptical because I just think all the issues that have bedevilled implementation of their very fine strategies for all this stuff will still be in place.”

He thought that the election would not change South Africa’s main foreign policy positions much because on Ukraine, for instance, Pretoria’s posture had become relatively centrist since the ANC had course-corrected last year and joined Ukraine’s peace process. 

And on Gaza he said that whatever Western governments thought about South Africa taking Israel to the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, “I think South Africa is pretty firmly in the middle of the pack on expressing concern about the Palestinian people”.

Another ambassador said his country’s business leaders sometimes said that “given the alternatives, maybe it’s good to have as much continuity as possible”.

“So in a way, that’s true. But, you know, just continuity may be a little bit too little for this country. Some fresh impetus might be helpful as well because governance hasn’t been that glorious over the past 18 years.

“So, you know, some kind of reforms and renewal would be good.”

“South Africa’s democracy has come a long way since the end of the apartheid,” another ambassador said, adding that there had been no major doubts expressed about the country’s democratic process.

He added that although the polls had indicated a decline in the ruling party’s support, “it is clear that they will still be in the lead, whether as an absolute majority or the largest minority, but they are still going to be in the lead”.

He said the attempts to try to form coalitions after the municipal elections in 2021 had clearly demonstrated that coalitions were a “novelty” in this country and that South African parties were on a “learning curve” about them.

“Now, whether that learning curve would suffice at the national level, after the national elections, should the ANC move from a leading majority to a leading minority, still remains to be seen.”

But what mattered in the end was voter turnout “because it signals how much of the electorate are willing to continue abiding by the rules of the game, which is important”. He added that he didn’t see anyone reneging on that. “Everybody is still willing to abide by the rules.” So there was no problem with the process.

He suggested though that the election might show that the electorate was more concerned about their day-to-day lives, about service delivery, about unemployment and other economic factors than about the role which any party had played in ending apartheid 30 years ago.

Regarding the likely impact of the elections on relations with other countries, this ambassador said that it depended on which country and what aspect of relations.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, it would not have much impact on South Africa’s strategic relations with other countries, since these broader and deeper relations did not depend on which party was in power.

But the election could affect what he called “transactional” relations with other countries.

Other ambassadors worried about the negative impact on investment of the ANC going into a coalition with the business-unfriendly EFF, for example. But this ambassador suggested that was a “transactional” concern.

“But if you’re talking about a relationship with a country as a whole, it’s not only about investments. It’s about political matters, economic matters, people-to-people relations, social matters. It’s a much broader perspective.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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