Is South Africa's future on shaky ground?

PUBLISHED: Thu, 18 Aug 2016 16:47:06 GMT

There was always the prospect that the local authority elections of early August would produce a seismic shift in South African politics. That shift became apparent on Wednesday with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) facing an impending political earthquake.

The massive vote of no confidence delivered by the electorate on August 3 produced an unprecedented series of swings to opposition parties and resulted in 27 hung authorities, including four of the country’s eight major metropolitan councils. It was clear there would be tremors across the political landscape. But, the near total exclusion of the ANC from all and any coalition/cooperation agreements and undertakings has shaken the landscape to its very core. Nothing is going to be the same again.

After weeks of deliberations, promises and smoke-filled rooms in the wake of the indecisive polls, one major opposition coalition emerged to foil the ANC on Wednesday, while another major player went its own way – but in total opposition to the ruling party. The ANC was left isolated and alone, with the exception of a few minor supportive parties.

The big winner was the Democratic Alliance (DA), whose multi-party coalition announced on Wednesday includes the United Democratic Movement (UDM), the Congress of the People (COPE), the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Freedom Front Plus (FF+), and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

In Nelson Mandela Bay, the coalition between the DA, UDM, COPE and ACDP means the multi-party coalition has secured a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat council and the ANC has lost control of the metro. In addition, the coalition is set to take over several other councils across the country.

Up until Wednesday, the ANC was growing increasingly confident that it could hold Nelson Mandela Bay with the help of smaller parties, but once again it underestimated the tide turning against it.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) turned down coalitions with both the ANC and DA and said it would remain in opposition. However, in a hammer blow to the ANC, leader Julius Malema said the EFF would vote with the DA and other parties against the ruling party – a move that will guarantee a minority DA administration in Tshwane and possibly in the Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni metros as well.

In fact, the only reasonable prospect the ANC has of a minority administration is in Johannesburg, where the EFF support for the DA is conditional on the party discarding its mayoral candidate Herman Mashaba. A condition the DA will certainly refuse.

The EFF has set coalition conditions that neither the ANC nor the DA could entertain, and which the EFF most likely knew in advance. It allowed the EFF to take the political high ground and to claim it did not at any point betray its principles or the people who supported the party at the polls.

Nevertheless, this left the party as a major kingmaker and left the door open for deals with other opposition parties without the need for a formal alliance. The EFF played the coalition game significantly better than either of its two main rivals, leaving itself in a position of significant power, without making a single compromise.

It remains to be seen just how stable any minority administration can be with the constant threat of the withdrawal of EFF support hanging over all deliberations.

“We couldn’t be neutral, we had to take sides. This is history. We were caught between two devils,” Julius Malema said at a press conference on Wednesday. It would vote with the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal’s hung municipalities and with the DA in the metros of Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay and the Service Delivery Forum in Rustenburg.

The tremors produced by these developments will run through the political environment and have an impact way beyond the new formation of local authorities that will emerge over the next few days. It presents a challenge to the ANC that it so far appears to be unable to meet.

The four days of so-called “introspection” at the recent ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) gathering appeared to produce nothing of the sort, with the party apparently ready to carry on as before and regardless of the local polls that clearly doubled as a national referendum on ANC leadership.

Hopefully, the shock of losing control over the three Gauteng metro councils – that between them account for the vast majority of the country’s GDP – and the symbolically important Nelson Mandela Bay will cause the hitherto silent opposition in the NEC to the national leadership of the party, including President Jacob Zuma, to find their voice. For the sake of the ANC, those voices had better find some volume soon, because if the current top six are allowed to remain in power for even another few months, the decline in ANC support evident on August 3 will continue and become irreversible.

This could turn current hung councils into a hung Parliament. If the brains trust in the NEC believed President Zuma and his current allies would destroy the ANC on the basis of the evidence of the past two weeks, we might yet see some shift in the position the party has taken on the issues of national leadership.

An important element in this debate is going to be the role of the alliance partners in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), who would almost certainly be re-evaluating their position in an alliance that hangs on the edge of a precipice.

The new coalition that will take over some local authorities, including some of the metro councils, as well as the decision by the EFF to support its opposition counterparts on an issue-by-issue basis, is not guaranteed to produce a stable government. In particular, the EFF’s decision to sit as opposition but hold the power to bring down minority administrations is not conducive to stable government.

Coalition-rule and minority-government require a degree of political maturity not always evident in the South African environment, and given the wide ideological divides, it may be even more difficult to maintain governance and service delivery with so many competing agendas.

The coalition and the EFF tend to be more opposed to the ANC than in agreement on something. Unless that is addressed by solid policy changes and swift implementation, the coalition will be anti-ANC, but not much else.

South African politics is certainly heading for something completely different, but whether that is a fundamental shift in governance, policy making and service delivery to the benefit of the people that breaks with the recent dubious past of the ANC, or becomes an environment of the absurd, remains an open question.

All the elements are in place for a process to unfold that drags South Africa out of its current political and economic quagmire, but the stark warning is that those very same elements have the potential to speed our descent into deeper instability and economic stagnation.

We argued previously that, following August 3, South African politics would never be the same again – but for better or worse remains to be seen. 

Gary van Staden is a Senior Political Analyst at NKC African Economics.

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