Local government is increasingly characterised by coalitions; it seems like national government soon will be too. Should the ANC fail to secure a majority in 2024, the dynamics of coalitions will become more complex, with implications of greater importance.
While the ANC’s support declines throughout the country coalitions are becoming the defacto framework for South African politics of the future. Opposition parties will have greater latitude to work together, free from the constraints of the majority the ANC has enjoyed for more than two decades, as they become more entrenched.
Such developments should be welcomed. Despite the plurality of proportional representation in South Africa, the ANC’s majority for much of the last two decades has left little room for alternative parties and voices to carve out space. More participation leads to more competition, which in theory should lead to more accountability.
Yet, without any party likely to secure a majority at either the municipal or national levels in 2024, there are no certainties about the outcomes coalitions may lead to. No opposition party has come even remotely close to challenging the ANC at the national level.
The question thus is: if coalitions seem suitable at the local level, how will they translate at the national and provincial levels?
Imagining them as a mechanism for removing the ANC, or as a roadmap for arriving at a post-ANC future, reignite aspirations about what’s possible, when it seems like year after year there are only dead ends.
But they also overlook the reality of South African politics: The ANC will be a key part of coalitions. The party is obviously not too big to fail. But it’s also too big not to be a central part of how coalitions will continue to develop.
If we are to believe in a post-ANC future, opposition parties and the coalitions they will form at the national and provincial levels run the risk of not having a shared goal, at least beyond removing the ANC. Just like it was when Jacob Zuma’s removal was the paramount goal of oppositional collaboration, viewing coalitions in this way has the potential to lose momentum should the goal be achieved in a couple of years.
Without a shared vision of what coalitions can achieve, in addition to the sheer number of parties required to even form a majority, there are serious questions about how coherent coalitions at the national level would be.
In their current form, the local dynamics of coalitions contrast with the national reality of leading the country. The DA and EFF, the only opposition parties with national footprints, would currently struggle to secure a combined majority if the ANC were to fall below 50%, if the 2019 and 2021 elections are anything to go by.
If the future is to truly be post-ANC, then smaller parties like the IFP, VF+, ActionSA and others would necessarily be critical to forming a majority. These parties, though, struggle to gain anything beyond a provincial footprint (or municipal, in the case of ActionSA).
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The presence of so many smaller parties works well in local contexts, where community needs can be more readily addressed. In contrast, parties with no national capacity already have and will continually challenge the DA and EFF for votes crucial to forming a majority at the national level.
A post-ANC future, should it be a reality in the years to come, would be weakened by further distribution of votes among opposition parties because any majority that’s formed could be held together by tiny, fragile, margins.
But still, even if the DA were to experience significant gains and, for instance, secure 35% of the vote, the EFF would need to also more than double its size of the electorate to form a majority — while smaller parties which saw gains in 2021, would have to lose votes. And even if this were to happen, can the DA and EFF be expected to work together when the parties have drastically different visions of and for South Africa?
The size of their organisation and political networks all but require that the ANC will play a greater role in coalitions than just about anyone not affiliated with the party admits, especially as coalitions seem primed to jump from the local to the national level.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy about it. The party’s legitimacy to govern now rests — perhaps solely — on its legacy as a liberation party. This draw increasingly counts little with young people and voters in metros. They don’t have a good story to tell. Still, in any pull of the coalition slot machine, the ANC will receive the largest share of votes.
Although opposition parties have eaten into the ANC’s once significant majority, the reality is that the ANC’s share of the electorate complicates efforts to imagine a future without the ANC.
Foregrounding coalitions without the ANC suggests national aspirations for the future of how South African politics should work, don’t align with the local realities of how they may in fact play out.
Continuing to ignore this contradiction when imagining the development of South Africa’s political landscape suggests those championing coalitions as a pathway to removing the ANC do so by nationalising local aspirations.
National elections may get more attention for their historical and symbolic significance but local elections, which are for representatives people interact with, are arguably more reflective of people’s immediate concerns. We should thus be more circumspect in how we draw from local examples of coalitions when imagining how they may work nationally.
Coalitions clearly have a place in the future of South African politics. Nearly 30 years into the democratic project, no party looks likely to secure a majority within the next 10 years — or more. However, opposition parties, former politicians, journalists, analysts and casual voters alike are mistaken to peg the future of South Africa to be post-ANC. DM