South Africa’s new coalition government heralds change for the region and its leaders

Many of southern Africa’s liberation leaders should take heed that electorates are impatient for tangible change – as the ANC has discovered.

Expert comment Published 21 June 2024 4 minute READ

Although Cyril Ramaphosa has just been sworn in for a second term as president of South Africa, it is not thanks to voter endorsement of his African National Congress (ANC). The party for the first time lost its parliamentary majority in the elections on 29 May. 

Having governed South Africa since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, the ANC has now formed a centrist coalition government with its main rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). 

Various headlines describe this as a new era for South Africa. While coalition rule is not unusual in southern African countries, the electoral experience of the ANC – one of the continent’s oldest liberation movements – serves as a warning to other liberation leaders not to take voters for granted. 

Liberation’s legacy: leaders entitled to rule 

Members of southern Africa’s national liberation movement (NLM) parties of government see themselves as the political aristocracy of the region, having earned their legitimacy to govern in perpetuity through armed struggle against colonial rule. 

Members of southern Africa’s national liberation movement (NLM) parties of government…have typically emphasized their past armed struggles to provide historical legitimacy.

They have typically emphasized their past armed struggles to provide historical legitimacy and to build popular support. But for the populations governed by these movements, in some cases for several decades, the liberation narrative is now wearing thin.

Another commonality among NLM leaders is the tendency to portray themselves as exceptional. Jacob Zuma, the South African former president, described his mandate in divine terms in May 2008: ‘Even God expects us to rule this country… It is even blessed in heaven. That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back.’ 

South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe all had independence settlements that shared two of the same fundamental characteristics: settler populations that lost political power in exchange for guarantees of rights of minorities and property; and NLMs that gained control of the state in an exchange for accommodation with domestic and international capital.

In Angola and Mozambique, everything was expropriated by the state at independence. Although there has been some gradual privatization, land remains leased by the state. 

Retaining power

The principal concern of all the NLMs in southern Africa has been to consolidate their power (including through transitional elections). Incumbency has enabled them to use the administrative and financial resources of the state to do so. As a result, all the movements show a trajectory of political, social and ideological decline. 

The election result in South Africa should warn the NLM parties of Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe that they must deliver on the economic promises which they made to their electorates. 

Not all the movements took the same path to retain power. Without a secure national mandate, the ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe resorted to manipulating election victories. The near loss of the 2000 parliamentary election and the 2002 presidential election prompted ZANU-PF to ensure it would not lose again, through fair or foul means. 

Similar moves have been seen increasingly by FRELIMO in Mozambique and by the MPLA in Angola over the last decade. However, this was not the case for the ANC in South Africa and SWAPO of Namibia. 

Regardless, the election result in South Africa should warn the NLM parties of Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe that they must deliver on the economic promises which they made to their electorates. Furthermore, they cannot expect to rule in perpetuity; there are winds of change blowing again across southern Africa.

Coalitions and compromise in some states

Despite South Africa’s new coalition being described as a ’new era’, coalition governments are in fact not that rare in some Southern African Development Community (SADC) states. And South Africa has consistently been a strong advocate for political compromise and power-sharing across Africa, particularly during the administrations of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. 

Urban and rural municipalities across Southern Africa and particularly in South Africa are frequently run in multiparty, negotiated processes, with varying success. This highlights that ‘team of rivals’ coalitions at all levels of government are not new in the region. They are in fact a normal means of addressing political deadlock.   

Coalitions have operated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi and Mauritius. Lesotho has had three consecutive Governments of National Unity (GNU) since 2014. And Zambia in 2019 amended its constitution to provide for coalitions. Angola’s MPLA formed a national unity government with its armed foe, UNITA in April 1997, which lasted until hostilities resumed in 1999.

Zimbabwe too has experience with successful coalition government. Following its defeat in the March 2008 elections, ZANU-PF entered a coalition government in February 2009 with the two MDC opposition parties. Robert Mugabe continued as president, with MDC leaders Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister. South Africa (and the SADC) played a major role in Global Political Agreement negotiations and the final GNU deal.

The Zimbabwe 2009-2013 government was politically fractious, but brought economic stability. Zimbabwe’s record-breaking inflation was tamed through dollarization, and political differences never reached breaking point. (The period since has seen continued contestations between government, opposition, and civil society regarding electoral and political reforms).

What this year’s South African election demonstrates is that checks and balances provided by strong institutions can limit the powers of NLMs.

In South Africa, the ANC has also shared power. A national unity government was formed 30 years ago after the 1994 elections, marking the end of apartheid. It was a constitutionally defined multi-party government including the ANC, the DA and the IFP. Six ministers from the National Party were in the cabinet, including the apartheid-era president F. W. de Klerk. 

What this year’s South African election demonstrates is that checks and balances provided by strong institutions can limit the powers of NLMs and compel them to share power. South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission is world-class and has demonstrated integrity, buttressed by a robust civil society and independent media. 

South Africa’s experience also shows that opposition parties in the region can at times form coalitions. Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Jacob Zuma’s MK party and other parties have formed a Progressive Caucus opposition as a counterweight to the new South African government and what they are calling an ANC ‘betrayal’. 

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It remains to be seen what impact the caucus will have; but the populist rhetoric of its leaders does have a constituency amongst marginalized South Africans. They are also likely to reach out to other opposition and civil society groups across the region, particularly with regards to land and anti-poverty agendas.

More elections ahead in the region 

Three other national elections are due in southern Africa this year, in Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia. 

Botswana has enjoyed a reputation for political pluralism, but its Botswana Democratic Party has been in power since independence in 1966. The October elections will be fiercely contested, amid growing concerns of democratic decline and over the integrity of the country’s Independent Electoral Commission. 

Ahead of its national elections in October, Mozambique’s National Electoral Commission (CNE) is mired in controversy, with opposition calls for its chair, the Anglican Bishop Carlos Matsinhe, to resign. 

By contrast, the effective and well-respected Electoral Commission of Namibia should ensure a smooth and credible election there in November. 

In all three countries, South Africa’s election provides an important example: that leaderships can no longer take power for granted; and that citizens across the region are seeking real change.