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After the Bell: So … the May 29 election. What just happened?

After the Bell: So … the May 29 election. What just happened?
Gwede Mantashe and Mondli Gungubele examine the election results at the IEC ROC. Richard Stupart

The final election results are not out yet, but by Thursday afternoon we already knew five important things.

1. The ANC fell below 50%

The most obvious and the most predicted — the ANC failed to obtain a majority of the vote for the first time in 30 years of ruling the country. Frankly, this was not only well anticipated but well deserved. It’s not just Eskom; it’s everything from the increase in the unemployment rate, the continuing low level of business confidence, the lack of substantive corrective action on corruption and the overall sense of inertia.

The consequences of the decline are quite dramatic because (at the time of writing) the level of ANC underperformance is a little worse than anticipated. And so the decision about how to form a government when no party has the majority vote will be complicated. However, the level of underperformance is not so bad that it will necessarily force a coalition. There is going to be a period of horse-trading and, therefore, uncertainty before our future is clear. 

What is the most likely outcome? I might be wrong, but I suspect that a coalition with either the EFF or the DA is unlikely. I think there are enough sensible people in the ANC to realise that a coalition with the EFF would mean the end of the ANC. The party would be forced to give up its grudging respect for fiscal probity, money would flood out of the country, interest rates would increase and the whole Venezuelan disaster would be upon us. 

By the same token, a full coalition with the DA would not be possible for the opposite reason: it would be the end of the DA. The DA has built its national identity essentially as an opposition party; its whole raison d’etre is geared towards this end. Often, critics consider the DA’s rejection of the latest ANC legislative outrage to be a knee-jerk reaction, but I’m pretty sure the ideological gap is truly wide and the DA is not just acting in fealty to its opposition branding. Anyway, a formal coalition with the DA is unlikely.

For the ANC, the key question is this: If not the DA or the EFF, then who? Until the election, it was widely thought that this problem would be easily solved in a “slightly below 50%” scenario because surely the IFP would make up the numbers, or even a few of the smaller parties. But as of Thursday afternoon, it looked as though the IFP had not performed sufficiently well for that to happen. The surprise success of the MK party has drawn support not only from the ANC but also from the IFP, so that simple solution is, at least partially, off the table. 

Fortunately, for the ANC, there is another option, which is the emergence of the Patriotic Alliance (PA). Together, they might just cross the line and, if not, then the PA plus the IFP might get it there. That, by the way, is my explanation of why the markets have not panicked more than just the little wobble we have seen so far: only if it becomes clear that the ANC’s only path to power is through the EFF, will we see a big market reaction. 

2. Failure of the ANC’s blandishments

The second key issue is so important that I’m pretty sure it will be ignored: the ANC’s extraordinary blandishments leading up to the election didn’t work. 

The ANC’s approach to this election (as it has been in others) was to carefully mete out entirely unaffordable programmes to try to prevent dropping below 50%. 

First, there was the National Health Insurance (NHI) legislation (cost: let’s call it R400-billion). Then, it was the Social Relief of Distress grant (current cost: R33-billion a year, but it’s intended to grow until it reaches the upper boundary of the poverty line, which is currently R1,558. That compares with the R350 the grant is at present, so let’s call it R150-billion). And to top it all, there was the signing of the Cannabis for Private Purposes Act, which legalises the possession and cultivation of marijuana. (A Marie Antoinettesque “Let them eat dope cookies” panacea?)

But none of this worked. Why? Handing out grants and gifts, and populist measures, have usually been a tried-and-tested way for the ANC to bolster its support. There is some evidence that the passing of the NHI Bill, far from underpinning ANC support, actually negated some of it. Almost a million civil servants are members of the state medical aid scheme Gems; the idea that they should give that up is probably not the vote-catching instrument the ANC imagined. 

The failure of this transparent payola strategy illustrates something about the voters the ANC has miscalculated: voting for political representatives is not just about services; it’s also about identity. The problem with the ANC bestowing what it imagines are populist vote-cinchers is that it underlines the party’s carelessness with money, increasing the suspicion that it’s yet another cover for corruption within the party. 

3. The MK party’s astonishing debut

The surprise performer in the election was of course the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party, which off a standing start looks close to becoming SA’s third-largest party.  Allied with this is the underperformance of the EFF. MK has taken votes from the ANC, the EFF and the IFP. Amazing. Why?

Some aspects of MK’s quick rise are obvious: there is the name recognition of its leader, former president Jacob Zuma; there is a bit of ethnic nationalism in being the “Zulu ANC”; there is a lot of being hard done by; and there is a bit of the old ethnic/rural split, imbued with resentment of urban elites. But even taking all that into account, the protest-vote aspect of MK’s showing in the election is notable — and worrying. 

4. ANC takes blows at provincial level

There is a provincial aspect to all of this too, which should not be ignored. When the dust settles, it seems likely that the ANC is going to go from controlling eight of the nine provinces to controlling six – or less. The consequence will be that not only will we see a national dimension to the horse-trading but a provincial one too. 

One further aspect of this is the DA’s continued control over the Western Cape, which some commentators considered in doubt. This wasn’t absolutely clear at the time of writing, but an increased majority seemed within reach, and the DA’s control over the province seems secure. 

Overall, it seems, the DA has had a good election, regaining support from the Freedom Front Plus that it lost in 2019 and holding on to its broad support. This is easier said than done — he might not be the most beloved of DA leaders but, in this election, John Steenhuisen has earned his spurs.

Yet, you still can’t ignore the fact that in 1994, the National Party won 20% of the vote and the Democratic Party, as it was then, won 1.7% of the vote. Collectively, the right and centre-right opposition have not grown significantly in 30 years, even in the face of the weakest ruling party that it has ever faced. Surely, that alone is the basis for some introspection. 

5. The turnout wasn’t great

Just for the record, the turnout wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great. As I filed this, the turnout at the voting stations where counting had occurred was just below 60%. If that holds till the last ballots are tabulated, it will be worrying, because it will be lower than the 66% achieved in 2019, and a whopping 30 percentage points lower than it was in 1999. 

There is also a growing number of potential voters who are not even registered — possibly as many as 10 million. There has to be a reason that out of a population of around 66 million, the total votes cast are likely to come in at less than 20 million.  

Those are the main takeaways for now; they need to be clarified and plotted more exactly. But there is no question that 2024 will go down as a landmark election year. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections Dashboard

  • The Democratic Party’s 1994 support corrected – apologies.
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