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  • Writer's pictureGareth Stokes

National Elections 2024. The more things change, the more they stay the same

There is an age-old English saying that holds, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. This is the sense your writer got when surveying South Africa’s part-baked National Elections 2024 results at the beginning of the second day of counting. The commentary that follows is based on a snapshot of the result taken with just over half of the national ballot accounted for, meaning final party support could be plus or minus a percentage point or two.


Slip sliding away

We definitely see change, as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) appears certain to slip below 50% nationally for the first time since 1994. At the time of writing, the ruling party was trending at just under 42% on the national assembly ballot; running neck-and-neck with the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the Gauteng province-to-cabinet vote; and battling to keep up with the MK Party in KwaZulu-Natal. The Western Cape incumbents were far ahead in that province at around 54% of the provincial legislature vote, but also at risk of falling nearer the 50% threshold as the Patriotic Alliance gnawed at their heels. To see what remains the same, you need to be a trifle more creative.


It turns out if you aggregate support for the ANC and its two political offshoots, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and MK, both hovering at 10% nationally, you arrive at close to the total support achieved by the former party in the 2019 elections. Your writer believes the main reason for the ANC’s fall from grace is that supporters finally had a way to punish the party without entirely abandoning it. Phrased differently, many KZN-based voters and others countrywide may not have seen a vote for Jacob Zuma and MK as being that far away from their original support of the ANC. PS, the Zuma vote is somewhat ironic given that he cannot be elected a member of the National Assembly, yet.


The rocky, treacherous road to coalitions

Economic and political commentators will not be surprised by the early election results snapshot. They have, after all, had months to assess and unpack dozens of pre-election polls. Just days before 29 May 2024, your writer posted a LinkedIn teaser titled ‘So, you thought the ANC falling from grace would be a good thing?’ “As 29 May looms, you and I face the usual political uncertainty,” he wrote, alongside a snapshot of the most recent eNCA, Ipsos and Social Research Foundation (SRF) polls.


The following pre-election insights were based on your writer’s attendance at a handful of economic and financial presentations in April and May. First, the fact that the ruling party was going below 50% nationally was a fait accompli. Second, the post-election national government coalition landscape would depend on how far the ANC’s support fell. And third, the greater the ANC’s decline, the sketchier the coalition landscape becomes. The third point was only hinted at in the lines: “If the ANC gets 45-50% it may partner with a few one-percenters and retain unfettered control; if it dips under 45%, it is going to have to partner up with a single, larger party”.


Commenting on the consequence of a dip in ruling party support, Daniel Silke, Director of Political Futures Consulting, offered the following analysis. “The weaker the ANC’s election results, the more potential there is for them to enter into a disastrous coalition agreement,” he said. “The closer the ANC gets to 50%, the more likely it is they find fairly acquiescent or benign partners and therefore do not have to go to the worst outcome route, which would be a coalition with a populist party like the EFF”. An alignment with the EFF was considered likely due to existing coalition arrangements in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. The overarching sentiment was that South Africans could face a period of uncertainty and volatility as politicians figure out the state of play post-elections.


Could JZ be making a comeback?

The EFF is not the only party the ANC could turn to. Speaking at a client-facing Allan Gray Investment Update, political analyst Justice Malala opined that the MK party had thrown analysts’ elections forecasting into disarray. The party was registered in September 2023 and launched in December with ex-President Zuma as its figurehead. “The thought of Zuma re-entering politics is noteworthy because he is extremely popular in the KZN province,” Malala said. “If the MK party makes a significant dent in KZN, then the national numbers look totally different, bringing a level of uncertainty about what kind of post-election coalition will be formed”.


Malala’s words were somewhat prophetic. Around 21% of the country’s registered voters are based in KZN, with strong support for the MK Party in that province lifting its share of the national vote to over 10% by early morning, 31 May. Time will tell whether the upstart party maintains its 10% once the full count is in; but it certainly creates the interesting prospect of the ANC welcoming Zuma back to the fold on a bizarre Presidential pardon plus Cabinet position plus promise of rebuilding the ANC of old ticket.


Turning his attention to the imminent post-election coalition wrangling, Malala lamented that too many of the country’s political leaders were in it for themselves. His hope was that the country would benefit from sensible post-election coalitions that were established for the good of all citizens rather than to serve egos. Silke pointed out that agreement was central to successful coalition politics. “The coalition has to agree upon the broad-based policies that are going to be implemented, and be supported by the coalition partners themselves,” he said.


A three-way electoral split

Silke’s prediction, which seemed to be playing out with around half of the votes counted, was that South Africa could be moving towards a three-way electoral split. “We will have the rump of the ANC; a populist bloc comprising the EFF and MK; and then a more pragmatic or centrist bloc, largely out of the DA,” Silke concluded. “Under those circumstances, we will definitely be entering coalition territory. And [that means South Africans] will have to get used to a degree of instability or volatility as opposed to [the stability of] the big, hegemonic, single-dominant political party that we have enjoyed up until now”.


“The key thing for me is that the people of South Africa want this country to work,” concluded Malala. He was all about positives, commenting on the great strides made between business and government in areas like energy and logistics recently. He said the love that ordinary citizens have for their country, and the spirit that people have shown in dealing with past adversity, would see South Africa through another peaceful election, regardless of the political noise. Time will tell, dear reader. Time will tell.

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