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South Africa’s ANC Has No Good Options as Majority Vanishes

South Africa’s ANC Has No Good Options as Majority Vanishes
Voting data at the IEC national results center in Midrand, on May 30. Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Just hours after South African President Cyril Ramaphosa confidently predicted that the ruling party would easily retain its three-decade stranglehold on politics, it was increasingly clear that voters had other ideas — sending the country into uncharted terrain. 

Early results from Wednesday’s election show the African National Congress hemorrhaging support in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the two most populous provinces, and an extrapolation of the tallies by a state research body suggests it will win just 42% of the national vote.

If that projection proves accurate, the party will lose the outright majority it has held in every election since apartheid ended and have to partner with at least one of its main rivals to retain power or form a minority government, meaning it will no longer have carte blanche to determine policy.

The prospect of the ANC tying up with either the populist Economic Freedom Fighters or the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MKP), which is headed by scandal-tainted former President Jacob Zuma, spooked financial markets — the rand, the country’s bonds and its stock market tumbled after the projections were announced.

The securities will likely rebound should the ANC partner with the business-friendly Democratic Alliance, which looks set to retain its position as the main opposition. That could prove tricky because the two parties have long had an adversarial relationship, clashing over everything from health and education policy to the management of the national budget.

Cyril Ramaphosa casts his vote in Soweto on May 29
Cyril Ramaphosa casts his vote in Soweto on May 29. Photographer: Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg

“It’s a big deal,” said Sanusha Naidu, a Cape Town-based research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue. “Depending on how the coalitions pan out, it could have a major bearing on the markets and how the next administration approaches macroeconomic and other policies.”

Ramaphosa hasn’t been seen in public since he voted in Soweto, near Johannesburg on Wednesday, He refused to discuss coalition options in the lead-up to the election, because he was adamant the ANC would be able to continue governing on its own. Formal cooperation talks are unlikely to begin until final results are released this coming weekend, and uncertainty will reign until they are concluded.

Many of the votes tallied so far are from the largely rural Eastern Cape, an ANC stronghold and the birthplace of the country’s first two Black presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

“The projected result is a significant blow for the ANC, but it is the start of a new era of coalition politics in national government,” said Mike Davies, the founder of political-advisory company Kigoda Consulting. “The exact policy implications will depend on the coalition agreements, but it is clear that the ANC will no longer have the power to drive through contested policies or rubber stamp cabinet decisions using its parliamentary majority. This will complicate the legislative process, but could also enable greater accountability.”

Both DA leader John Steenhuisen and EFF head Julius Malema have indicated they would be prepared to work with the ANC.

“It’s too early to discuss coalitions. We are waiting for the results,” Helen Zille, the chairwoman of the DA’s federal council, said in an interview. “We will have a meeting on Saturday and Sunday to discuss the way forward.”

Read More on South Africa’s Elections:
John Steenhuisen
John Steenhuisen Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The 112-year-old ANC led the fight against White-minority rule and has held a parliamentary majority since it won the country’s first democratic election under Mandela in 1994.

But its triumphant first 15 years in power was followed by an era of corruption, mismanagement and economic stagnation. Many South Africans grew disillusioned with the party’s failure to fully address apartheid’s legacy of racial inequality, a theme that both the MKP and EFF have hammered.

Read more: Apartheid’s Enduring Legacy in South Africa Puts ANC at Risk

South Africa’s economy grew by an average of less than 1% a year over the past decade, as widespread blackouts and decaying infrastructure crippled output.

While Ramaphosa’s administration has made halting progress in addressing those challenges, it’s been less successful in creating jobs, tackling crime or turning around dysfunctional municipalities — key drivers of the ANC’s poor performance.

Bloomberg Terminal clients can click on ELEC ZA for more on South Africa’s elections.

The projections by the state-run Council for Scientific and Industrial Research show that the MKP, a new party led by the charismatic Zuma has also eaten into the ANC’s support, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. Zuma was president for almost nine years before the ANC forced him to step down in 2018 and replaced him with Ramaphosa.

“Until there is clarity on the make up of the next administration and the cabinet, particularly the identity of the next finance minister, there will be uncertainty,” said Yvonne Mhango, Africa Economist at Bloomberg Economics. “And until that happens, the rand and the nation’s bonds will trend weaker.”

For now, ANC Chairman Gwede Mantashe is putting on a brave face, telling reporters that he expects the party’s share of the vote to increase as more results come in.

“Let us not project now,” he said. “You can’t project when votes are coming in.”

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  • Maronga Maronga says:

    ANC has made mistakes along the way but they have been provided with a perfect opportunity to redeem themselves… partner with DA and turn-around the economy. They will enjoy 2/3 majority/ Even add IFP to secure KZN… The greatest mistake will be to go with EFF/PA and have Floyd as Minister of Finance.

    • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

      MK, being the Zuma faction of the ANC, is where lost the ANC votes have gone. Now that Zuma also has ballot-box power (not just impi muscle), he will offer to consolidate by forcing Cyril to resign and getting personal indemnity from prosecution – and everyone gets back to the feeding trough with renewed vigor. How is that not obvious?

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