The South African election campaign season marks a shift to a volatile new politics

ANC domination is anticipated to give way to national and provincial coalition deal-making between very different parties. But the constitution was designed to accommodate this change.

Expert comment Updated 16 April 2024 Published 1 March 2024 3 minute READ

South Africa’s ruling ANC party launched its manifesto last week, but the background for the event was worrying for party leaders. 

Polls indicate that 2024’s general election, scheduled for 29 May, could see the ANC get below 50 per cent of the vote for the first time since 1994 – bringing about multi-party government for the first time. That will be a significant inflection point for South Africans, and for the region. 

But progress towards democratic pluralism would be a fulfilment of South Africa’s constitution, which imagined a more diverse political landscape, and is intentionally structured around quasi-federalist political institutions and consociationalism.

In some ways, moving beyond ANC domination might be seen as progress. But coalitions have a poor record in South African politics at the local level, and the general election could be the beginning of five years of volatility, with local elections slated for 2026.

Coalitions’ poor reputation

The ANC is likely to continue as the largest party in parliament, but it has suffered an accelerating decline in support due to poor public service delivery, corruption, and an economically crippling energy crisis. 

Since the local elections of 2016, many of the country’s most important urban metros have been governed by coalitions. But these have been seen as failures.

The party’s election mobilization machine should not be underestimated, but coalition government is now the likely outcome at a national and provincial level. A national dialogue facilitated by Deputy President Paul Mashatile in August 2023 attempted to set in place ground rules for coalition formations – but how sustainable such coalitions can be remains to be seen.

Coalitions have been a part of South African politics since 1994 at ward level. And since the local elections of 2016, many of the country’s most important urban metros have been governed by coalitions. But these have been seen as failures, characterized by short-lived alliances that elevate ‘political entrepreneurs’ and feed patronage politics. This experience has increased perceptions that a national coalition will be volatile. 

In May, opposition parties will compete hardest for the country’s urban areas – which account for around 60 per cent of the population. Their success will depend on their ability to overcome race and class divisions that have traditionally defined political party support, and mobilize ‘born frees’ – young voters born after 1994 who don’t hold loyalty to the ANC. But success in urban centres may yet fail to dislodge the ruling party.

The Multi Party Charter and opposition parties

The Democratic Alliance (DA), the largest opposition political party, is unlikely to enter a coalition with the ANC due to their diverging positions on the Israel–Palestine conflict – forcing the DA to seek cooperation with smaller parties.

The MPC faces significant challenges. Each party will contest the election independently, competing rather than cooperating against the ANC.

The DA has been the driving force behind the Multi Party Charter (MPC), a formal coalition platform which includes Action SA – a DA spin off party – the Zulu ethno-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, and Freedom Front Plus (which predominantly promotes Afrikaner interests). 

The MPC faces significant challenges. Each party will contest the election independently, competing rather than cooperating against the ANC; parties’ different economic ideologies and ethno-nationalist interests raise doubts over the resilience of a coalition policy agenda; and some MPC member parties have held private talks with the ANC, undermining confidence in the enterprise.

A key driving force behind the DA’s campaign and promotion of the MPC is their desire to keen the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) out of power. Widely seen to be the potential ANC coalition partner that would bring the most political and economic risk, the EFF’s self-proclaimed Marxist-nationalist agenda has garnered support from urban youth but has yet to translate into a competitive share of the vote. 

Former President Jacob Zuma has placed his support behind a new party, uMkhonto Wesizwe (Spear of the Nation), MK for short, which takes its name from the ANC’s armed wing during the anti-apartheid struggle. While it won’t gain traction at a national level, it could chip into ANC and EFF support in the heavily contested province of KwaZulu-Natal. 

Two other new parties of interest have emerged: Build One South Africa, headed by former DA leader Mmusi Maimane, and Rise Mzansi, lead by former Business Day editor Songezo Zibi. Each has maintained independence by not associating with another party or coalition slate. 

2024 will also be the first test of a new electoral law that allows independent candidates to contest elections in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures.

While each currently lacks the national organisational capabilities of more established parties, the two high profile leaders have their eyes set on playing a bigger role in a post-ANC South Africa. 

2024 will also be the first test of a new electoral law that allows independent candidates to contest elections in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures.

National and provincial power

The 2024 election result will likely decouple national and provincial administration. Since 1994, each of South Africa’s nine provinces has been ruled by the ANC (with the exception of Western Cape, which has been governed by the DA since 2009). 

In 2024, more provinces are predicted to be governed either by opposition parties or coalitions. This includes Gauteng, the economic and political heartland which accounts for a third of the country’s GDP and more than a quarter of its population. It would be a highly symbolic blow to the ANC for it to lose control of provincial power in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Soweto. 

As power disperses from the ANC, so election outcomes are more likely to be contested. The Independent Electoral Commission lists 1788 registered parties in the country. 

Along with the new presence of independents, this significantly increases the number of prospective ‘kingmakers’ and potentially aggrieved candidates that could lodge a complaint against (IEC). 

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The IEC is one of the most trusted institutions in the country and most respected electoral bodies on the continent. This status is an important guarantee of the credibility of the election process, against a background of declining public trust in political parties, parliament, and the office of the president. 

While there has been little experience of electoral violence in South Africa, there are fears in some quarters of sporadic instances of other forms of violence around elections – including political assassinations or targeting of foreign citizens in areas where immigration is a key electoral issue.

The uncertainty of coalition government is a significant political risk in 2024. The configuration of potential national and provincial coalitions will be determined by the number of votes and seats needed rather than ideological compatibility. 

The number of potential kingmakers raises the prospect of political bargaining and patronage politics. South Africa’s constitution is built around principles of cooperative government. May’s election will be the first real test of that ambition.