An ANC–DA alliance is the outcome investors want in South Africa. But the parties see risks in partnership

The ANC is creaking at the seams and wounded by the success of Jacob Zuma’s MK. Alliance with the DA may be tricky to sell to party members.

Expert comment Published 3 June 2024 3 minute READ

As expected, the African National Congress (ANC) has lost its electoral dominance in South Africa after 30 years. Its vote share dropped from 57.5 per cent in 2019 to 39.7 per cent, and it now holds only 159 seats out of 400 in the national assembly, a fall of 71. But it is still the largest party and the biggest political force in the country.

Parliament must sit within the next two weeks to elect a president, who will then form a cabinet. The ANC’s challenge now is to form a government with another party, either in a formal coalition or through a confidence and supply agreement. Such arrangements, though relatively common in European politics, are very new in South Africa, and the people negotiating have no experience.

These new dynamics could shatter established political fault lines in South Africa, fundamentally changing internal party dynamics. It is a realignment that might force a new environment of negotiation and consensus building in South African politics. Alternatively, it could create serious disruption and dysfunction.

Cracks in the delivery of a high-stakes process

Election day on 29 May felt like the eye of a storm. The poll had been billed as the most contested since 1994, with anticipation building that the ANC would lose its dominance. But the day itself was calm. Across the country, long queues of voters waited patiently and participated.

The ANC leadership has accepted the result of the election. That in itself speaks volumes.

Many South African political parties felt that the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) fell short on the day. They have cited problems with Voter Management Devices (electronic devices for checking voter registration) as well as late delivery of materials to some stations, low voter education and poor presiding officer training on the new electoral system. They have also highlighted isolated incidents such as a missing ballot box that apparently fell off the back of a pick-up truck after it had already been counted.

Despite these shortcomings, the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) both signed off on the election as peaceful, fair, and credible. Other international commentators have said the IEC did a good job, given the circumstances of late changes in the electoral law and process. Regardless, the election has opened a new chapter in South Africa’s democratic story.

Politics of consensus and disruption

The ANC leadership has accepted the result of the election. That in itself speaks volumes in a region where dominant parties of government and national liberation movements have manipulated systems to retain incumbency. But the party is not a unitary force. It is famously a broad church, with many interest groups, factions, and alliance partners all operating under the one banner – each with separate views on who a preferred coalition partner should be.

This internal dynamic will have a big impact on coalition negotiations across a party that is creaking at the seams. 

For the DA, an agreement would mean access to government, having a say on the legislative agenda for the first time, and an opportunity to crack down on corruption. 

While the national leadership looks to the centre of the political spectrum for partners, many party members retain close relations with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – both offshoots of the ANC.

A likely possibility for a working partnership, and one that investors are desperately hoping for, is between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), who marginally increased their support from 2019 ending up with 21.78 per cent. 

Such an agreement would signify stability, fiscal responsibility, and a genuine moment for South Africa’s political landscape, finally shifting beyond the legacy of apartheid.

For the DA, an agreement would mean access to government, having a say on the legislative agenda for the first time, and an opportunity to crack down on corruption. But DA leadership will also understand the risks: their supporters voted for a party that was aiming to get rid of the ANC, not facilitate their remaining in power.

For the ANC, an agreement with the DA would also be a risky choice: it would mean their liberation movement entering into a deal with a party that, although it too has its roots in the anti-apartheid struggle, later subsumed former apartheid National Party members into its ranks. As the day has gone on, more and more internal ANC figures have voiced concern at these talks. 

The spoiler to this is the new MK party, formed by former president Jacob Zuma. MK has surprised everyone with its support – winning 58 out of 400 seats in parliament, and becoming the largest party in Kwa Zulu Natal Province. 

Zuma is pursuing a Trump-esque attack on the electoral system and process, initially finding allies from smaller parties. However, as the ANC and EFF have now accepted the results, MK may have isolated itself.

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Regardless, the impact of MK on the ANC is extraordinary, bringing an important and potentially volatile new regional element to politics in South Africa. 

MK has also deflated the EFF, whose firebrand pro-Russian leader, Julius Malema, has seemingly softened his stance that Ramaphosa’s resignation would be a prerequisite for coalition, although this position remains unclear. But despite Malema indicating his interest in cooperation (a popular configuration within parts of the ANC) the EFF has so underperformed it no longer even offers the ANC the numbers needed for a two-party coalition.

Ironically, the rise of MK has allowed ANC top brass to blame their electoral underperformance solely on MK and not on their own governance record. 

This could allow for continuity and stability within the leadership, which can argue that MK has taken the undesirable elements of the ANC, allowing the party to reform and rejuvenate its core principles – including a defence of the constitution, of which South Africans are rightly proud but Zuma has repeatedly attacked.

Still, that possibility will only hold in certain circumstances. Coalition with MK remains a theoretical possibility, and one much favoured by some party members.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing talks, South Africa has shown the world that its democracy is quite capable of an orderly and fair electoral process. 

How its politics adapts to the seismic shift of coalition politics is yet to be seen. An ANC–DA alliance would represent a remarkable new direction. Whether agreement is possible, and how enduring it will prove, remains uncertain.