The South African political landscape is likely to undergo a dramatic and complete transformation in the coming year if the ANC’s support falls to below 50% in the upcoming 2019 national election.
The country could soon be run by a coalition of political parties, forcing compromise on a number of key issues. “The era of one-party dominance is coming to an end,” author and Senior Research Specialist at Princeton University, Leon Schreiber told a Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) forum.
The 2016 local government elections were a watershed moment, and “made it clear that something fundamental was changing,” he explained. The country’s political system is shifting away from single party dominance and returning to the intended compromise scenario of a multiparty coalition, which was “baked into the cake of the South African electoral system” when proportional representation was deliberately chosen in the early 1990s.
2019 Election Scenarios
Schreiber’s book, Coalition Country: South Africa after the ANC explains that voters have an unexamined assumption of single party rule. This was understandable, given the National Party’s single party rule during apartheid and the ANC’s dominance since 1994.
However, the proportional representation system almost inevitably results in multiparty governments he explained. If ANC support drops below 50% in 2019, “they won’t be replaced by someone else as the new dominant force, it is going to be a totally different paradigm from anything we’ve known over the past seven decades.”
Structural shifts in South Africa’s demographics and voting patterns, as well as urbanisation and the growth of the middle class are all a threat to the ANC. “Urban voters are more interested in things like education, corruption and practical service delivery than the liberation narrative. There is very strong evidence that the ANC is becoming a rural party,” Schreiber said.
“Ramaphosa certainly has a mountain to climb within the ANC, and we are also underestimating the mountain that there is to climb outside when it comes to next year’s election.”
Schreiber presented three possible coalition scenarios following a loss of dominance by the ANC in the national government elections:
An ANC/EFF Coalition
“This is the worst possible outcome, which we should take seriously as it is the most likely to have bad consequences for governance.” Under this scenario, losing its majority will send a huge shock through the ANC, who are “the least prepared of all parties at present for this coalition future.”
Schreiber said the ANC would be willing to make fundamental populist compromises to the EFF in this situation “just to hang on to power.”
A DA/EFF coalition
A possible DA/EFF national coalition would “leave ANC out in the cold.” This could force the necessity of compromise and “be a potentially fruitful scenario for South Africa which would bring out the best in both parties.”
There is evidence from countries like Israel that more ideologically diverse parties can form more stable and successful governments because they are so different from one another, he further explained.
The existing DA/EFF cooperation agreements in Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitans have given these parties an advantage: “Despite all the issues, it has forced people to get to know one another. Coalition governments are around relationships and negotiation. The relationship between Herman Mashaba and Julius Malema is something the ANC wishes it had.”
Minority national government
A minority government at a national level, similar to the current DA/EFF agreement in Johannesburg, would mean that a majority would need to be built for each and every legislative amendment. Such a system “would become very slow, tedious and potentially corrupt.”
The need for compromise in a divided society
The South African electoral system is very unique in the African context, Schreiber explained. “We underestimate what a massive difference it will make once no one gets 50%. There is a fundamental reorganisation that needs to come, and the ANC will have to reinvent itself for a coalition-based society.”
“If we really get serious about compromise and finding one other, and not just populist slogans and racial talk, there is potential for this to work in ways that we may not previously thought possible or appreciated. In coalitions, compromise is non-negotiable, because otherwise you don’t have a government.”
However, he said at present South African society isn’t having that discussion. “Rather, we are talking about the sell outs. This kind of historical revisionism is hugely dangerous.”
The government of national unity was a coalition of sorts, Schreiber argued, and there was no way the country would have its current Constitution or exist in its current form “unless we had what was essentially a coalition culture.”