Elections 2024: South Africa’s journey to coalition government
When the dust settles, the new government must focus on unity, economic growth and development.
28 May 2024

South Africans will elect their seventh democratic Parliament in two days, with the final results expected by 2 June. This will be an anxious week as we await the type of coalition and leadership that will govern for the next five years.

Voting patterns and trends indicate that after 35 years in power, the African National Congress (ANC) could by 2029 be relegated to the opposition bench. But in the interim, it’s likely to dominate Parliament as the largest party by quite a stretch.

Parliament must hold its first session within 14 days of the results’ release, likely on 17 June. After Members of Parliament (MPs) are sworn in, they elect a president from among their 400 members. Elected parties are allocated seats proportional to votes received, using the candidate lists submitted before the polls. If there’s more than one presidential candidate, voting is by secret ballot. If no one gets a majority, the candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated, and voting is repeated.

In the unlikely scenario that a new president isn’t elected within 30 days because two candidates get equal votes, Parliament is dissolved and a new election is called. During this period, President Cyril Ramaphosa and his current Cabinet remain in their positions in an acting capacity.

To date, the trend is for a steady decline in the percentage of South Africans who register and vote

Once the president is elected, she or he forms a cabinet from among the MPs. There’s no time limit for this. The president can nominate two people from outside the National Assembly. Choosing a large cabinet from the limited pool of expertise has been an enduring challenge for successive presidents.

Polls suggest that the ANC will remain dominant, with the largest number of seats in Parliament, but probably without a clear majority. The party will likely need partners in the Northern Cape and Free State provinces, and could find itself on the opposition bench in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The Democratic Alliance (DA) looks set to retain the Western Cape, even if it needs the support of a smaller party to do so.

Of course, the surveys may get it wrong. South Africans may decide to stay at home or turn out en masse. To date, the trend is for a steady decline in the percentage of South Africans who register and vote. Is there a sufficient sense that ‘change is in the air’ to turn that trend around on Wednesday? Whatever the outcomes, real negotiations between the various parties can only start once the results are announced.

That said, there seems little doubt that the largest losers will be the ANC, with an approximately 10 percentage point decline in their support, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which could see its support plateau. The new uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have eaten into voter support for both.

But MK has a limited shelf-life. The party was formed in December 2023 with former president Jacob Zuma’s endorsement. On 20 May, the Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma can’t run for Parliament this week due to his 2021 jail sentence. Given his age and disdain for the rule of law, MK will likely either disappear or eventually merge with another, most likely the EFF. In the interim, an EFF–MK alliance in Parliament could provide a voting bloc almost approaching DA levels of support.

Our propotional representation system makes coalition government an inevitable future

Perhaps the only certainty is that the polls will reflect the ongoing fracturing of political support among many more parties, pointing to the need for partners at every level. Our proportional system makes coalition government an inevitable future. The next local government elections in 2026 will surely see an increase in the 66 hung councils after the November 2021 polls.

Once enacted, the recently published Municipal Structures Amendment Bill will help stabilise local government. It will limit the number of parties allocated seats in a council by requiring 1% of valid votes cast. Changes of municipal office bearers would be possible only two years after being elected. And the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Member of the Executive Council (MEC) can change a municipality to a collective executive system if no party obtains a majority of seats.

It remains to be seen what will happen at the national and provincial levels after the elections on 29 May, however.

We need to learn to govern in consultation with one another, as has been happening successfully in some municipalities, although not in metros outside the Western Cape. Already there’s talk of professionalising the civil service as part of a broader plan to allow the government to carry on without too much political interference.

If it falls below 50%, it seems likely that the ANC will go into coalition with any number of smaller parties at the national level rather than with larger parties like the DA, EFF or IFP. The question of electing the president will be intertwined with selecting partners, and will be a harbinger of things to come.

To improve livelihoods, South Africans must put ideology, race and other divisions aside

South Africans have been here before, with efforts in 1994 to hold the country together after its first democratic elections. After a promising start, the past two decades have been disappointing, although we must recognise the extent and impact of exogenous shocks such as COVID-19.

But South Africa – once a beacon of hope – has squandered much of its national and international goodwill, particularly under Zuma, whose presidency was marred by corruption, incompetence and inaction. Under his watch, the state was decimated, and many state-owned assets sold off or destroyed. This has left the government with no choice but to turn to the private sector – not a long-term solution for a country with such levels of poverty and inequality.

Recent Nobel laureates in economics Angus Deaton and Joseph Stiglitz, among others, are sounding alarm bells regarding how neoliberal economics have led to populism and increased inequality. South Africa is heading in the same direction, largely due to a lack of alternatives, and will eventually need to recover from the inevitable deleterious effects. We need a strong, developmental state. Large parts of its service delivery in poorer areas should not and cannot be driven by profit.

South Africans need to come together and put ideology, race and other divisions aside if we want to improve livelihoods. We must build a working future that brings all key sectors in public life and the economy together.

A country divided – as we are today – grows slowly. This means the best outcome for South Africa, once the dust settles after the elections, will be a government of national unity and, like other high-growth economies, a laser-like focus on economic growth and development. We need to bring all our considerable expertise together to make South Africa the success it can be.

This article was originally published by ISS Today on 27 May 2024

Image: Gallo Images/Lefty Shivambu


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