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South Africa Teeters on the Brink

For the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ruling party of South Africa, the African National Congress, has failed to reach the 50 percent threshold in national elections and thus will be forced to form a coalition with another party in order to maintain power. It won only 40 percent of the vote in the national elections held on May 29, 2024, compared to 57.5 percent in the previous election in 2019. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa is currently in talks to form a coalition with the Democratic Alliance, which won 21.8 percent of the vote. The DA is a moderately left-wing, pro-market, non-racialist party supported by South Africa’s non-black minorities. Its national leadership is mostly white. This would be the first time the DA helped to form a government at the national level. 

If that sounds like democracy in action, don’t be fooled. In a democracy, a failing party loses support as its voters seek competence elsewhere. The DA has not attracted voters from the ANC. Its share of the black vote is single-digit and, more importantly, flat. The ANC’s votes have been lost to left-wing black parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, which won 9.5 percent, and former president Jacob Zuma’s new party, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), which won 14.6 percent.

The ANC doesn’t want to form a coalition with the parties it is losing votes to, because those parties are a threat to replace it someday. It is going into coalition with the DA precisely because it is not a threat. There is a demographic ceiling on how much of the national vote it can ever hope to win. 

The other reason to go into coalition with the DA is that it is better for President Cyril Ramaphosa. In office since 2018, Ramaphosa has a reputation as a business-friendly politician. He knows that bringing the EFF into government would set off alarm bells in international markets and send the rand tumbling. He is corrupt and self-dealing, but he is savvy enough not to want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. There are many true-believing Marxists in the ANC; Ramaphosa is not one of them. Going into coalition with the DA strengthens his faction of the party at the expense of the hard left.

Many in the ANC regard coalition with the DA as anathema. “It will be the ultimate betrayal of all those martyrs who made the supreme sacrifice and laid down their lives for freedom,” a former ANC chief whip said. “Going into bed with the DA will ensure the ANC sleeps forever and does not rise,” an anonymous ANC official told the Mail & Guardian. The DA, despite its best efforts to project a non-racial image, is still seen as the white party. Choosing a white coalition partner over the EFF or MK could accelerate the flight of black voters from the ANC.

The threat posed by such disgruntlement is small, at least in the short term. It would be difficult to split the ANC. South Africa’s 400-seat parliament operates on a proportional representation system: A party receives a certain number of seats based on its share of the vote and fills those seats from a ranked list of candidates. There is no such thing as “crossing the floor” in this system. If an MP defects from his party, he loses his seat and gets replaced by the party’s next pick.

The next ANC party conference will be held in 2027. That will be the dissenters’ next opportunity to unseat Ramaphosa, the way Thabo Mbeki was unseated by Jacob Zuma as party leader in an ambush at the Polokwane conference in 2007. There is not much they can do until then—within the existing rules, at least.

What does the DA get out of a coalition with the ANC? Not much. According to leaked documents, pre-election talks between the two parties agreed that, in the event the two parties joined to form a government, the DA would receive a few peripheral federal appointments and also a promise to prosecute a handful of egregious offenders for corruption. Sacrificing a few corrupt deputies is a small price for Ramaphosa to pay and will do nothing to reduce the overall amount of graft.

On the cost side of the ledger, the DA stands to lose its moral high ground. Joining forces with the ANC is a betrayal of all the party’s founding principles, from clean government to non-racialism. The DA has been successful at consolidating the anti-ANC vote because it has refused to compromise those principles. If its voters no longer trust it to oppose the ruling party, then anti-ANC voters at the next election in 2029 might seek other options, which would leave the opposition fractured and ineffectual for years to come. 

The DA might be able to do some good as a junior coalition partner, especially if it proves able to halt implementation of three big pieces of legislation that the ANC government has either passed or plans to pass, which all mark a significant lurch to the left. The three are the Preventing and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Act, which Ramaphosa signed into law in early May, the National Health Insurance (NHI) bill, which Ramaphosa signed into law two weeks before the election, and the Expropriation Bill, which parliament has approved and now awaits Ramaphosa’s signature.

The hate speech bill is similar to dozens of similar laws across the globe. It bans any speech or communication that “could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to be harmful or to incite harm and to promote or propagate hatred” based on a protected characteristic such as race. Opposition parties fear the ANC will use the law to stifle debate and harass its political enemies.

The NHI effectively puts an end to private medicine in South Africa. South Africa already has a national health service, which is used by 84 percent of the population. Many South Africans supplement this with private health insurance. The NHI bill would put an end to that, making it so that all doctors, including those in private practice, are paid by the state at rates set by the government. Patients arriving at a doctor’s office for care would pay nothing. “For those who would like to see [their] privileges continuing, sorry, you are on the wrong boat. The boat we are on is about equality,” Ramaphosa said at the signing ceremony.

The creation of a massive treasure chest out of which all medical expenses would be paid is, obviously, an invitation for ANC officials to go on a looting spree. The standard of care would also decline as private medicine came to resemble South Africa’s public hospitals, which are overcrowded and often lack basic supplies. 

The Expropriation Bill has loomed over South African politics for years. Land reform was one of the core promises of the anti-apartheid movement. Unfortunately, when the Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki governments handed out formerly white-owned land to black supporters, the results were dismal. Most of the farms (some estimates put it as high as 90 percent) failed. Nevertheless, land reform remains a symbolic issue and, since the presidency of Jacob Zuma, the ANC has supported a shift from the “willing seller, willing buyer” model used under Mandela to expropriation without compensation.

No such law has been enacted, probably because the ANC feared the panic it would cause among property holders and the damage it would do to South Africa’s standing with foreign investors. Delaying tactics repeatedly put off expropriation without compensation into the future—but now the future is here. The law has cleared its last legislative hurdle, and it will become law as soon as Ramaphosa signs it.

Could the DA stop these three new initiatives? In theory, yes. The NHI has already had lawsuits filed against it on constitutional grounds. The government could halt its implementation until litigation is concluded. The DA could ask Ramaphosa to scrap the Expropriation Bill as a condition of their coalition, something Ramaphosa may well want to do anyway since he understands better than most ANC politicians what will happen if foreign investors get spooked. The hate speech law could be clarified and narrowed.

Whether any of those things happens will depend on how much leverage the DA can bring to bear in its negotiations. Its leverage over the ANC is not very great. The ANC does not need the DA to govern. Its leverage over Ramaphosa is greater. If the ANC switched to a coalition with the EFF or MK, Ramaphosa would be surrounded by hostile forces bent on ending his political career. MK has explicitly made Ramaphosa’s ouster a condition of any coalition with them. Ramaphosa would personally much rather work with the nice, polite folks of the DA, even if most of his voter base would rather see the party join forces with Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma.

But even if the DA can stop these three bills, it doesn’t matter. South Africa is doomed. It will go the way of Zimbabwe eventually. The only questions are whether it will be a fast journey or a slow one and whether any enclaves within South Africa will be able to escape the downward spiral, either through formal secession or informal autarky. 

André de Ruyter, the former CEO of power utility Eskom, tells a depressing story in his memoir: After he was appointed to lead the company with a mandate to root out corruption and stop rolling blackouts, 72 retired Eskom employees wrote a letter to him offering to come back to work. He wanted to accept the offer, because he had a shortage of experienced managers, but he was forced to turn it down. They were white—indeed, that was why many of them were retired in the first place, so their jobs could be given to black employees to help Eskom satisfy its diversity mandates. The optics were just too bad. “No sooner has a white man taken over than he’s bringing back the old white people” was what people said, according to De Ruyter.

What can you do with a country like that—where people will choose to endure chronic rolling blackouts as long as no white person gets a job that a black person might have wanted? For years, the DA has told itself that its failure to attract black votes was a temporary problem, an unfortunate legacy of apartheid that would disappear as the party established its trustworthiness and older generations were replaced by those with no memory of the old system. It is getting harder to resist the conclusion that the problem black voters have with the DA is more fundamental. 

De Ruyter eventually failed in his effort to salvage Eskom. He stepped down in December 2022 shortly after an assassination attempt against him. De Ruyter was CEO with the full authority of that office, and he couldn’t fix the problems facing Eskom. It is hard to imagine that the DA could do better against far more serious problems as a junior coalition partner.



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