After elections: South Africa faces change – or chaos

In South Africa, frustration with the few “up there” is a sad tradition for the many “down there”. Now the quasi-state party ANC is paying the price for decades of corruption. Africa's strongest economy is at a crossroads: finally on the up or in free fall?

The term “historic” is actually meant to indicate that something big, something dramatic has happened. In fact, due to a lack of linguistic alternatives, this seemingly harmless little word is always used in journalism when events are somehow significant but their extent is completely intangible. In this sense, the election result in South Africa is historic.

The African National Congress, or ANC for short, has lost its absolute majority for the first time since the first democratic elections in 1994. The ability to reflect on oneself has now become rather stunted after 30 years of continuous rule. The quasi-state party is now faced with a task that is completely alien to it: it must make compromises. If the ANC cannot find a coalition partner, the best-case scenario is likely to be political stagnation, and the worst-case scenario is pure chaos.

ANC election debacle in South Africa

The election defeat is the belated payment for all the years in which a small elite confused the state coffers with their private bank accounts. The result: In no other country in the world is the gap between rich and poor so wide. According to the World Bank, the top 0.01 percent of the population, just 3,500 people, control over 15 percent of the total wealth. The sea of ​​corrugated iron in the townships is growing, around a third of the 60 million South Africans are unemployed, and among those under 30, the figure is as high as 60 percent. Gang crime is reaching terrible proportions, and South Africa's murder rate has entered the global top 10. The roads are dilapidated, and the only reliable thing about the power grid is that it regularly goes out for hours. It was therefore foreseeable that a political earthquake would occur at some point. Few people expected it to be so severe.

“Our people have spoken,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, and the ANC has listened, assured Secretary General Fikile Mbalula, after the ANC received only 40 percent of the vote on Sunday – 17 percent less than in the last election. The self-proclaimed people's party must now give up 71 parliamentary seats.

There is not much time to shake off the state of shock: according to the constitution, the new government, including the president, must be formed within a maximum of two weeks. After the embarrassment at the ballot box, an alliance with small parties is mathematically impossible – the ANC is dependent on at least one of its three biggest rivals. But even if it learns humility in a hurry and extends its hand to the long-ridiculed competition: who should take it? The second-place Democratic Alliance (DA)? Denounced by the black majority population as a remnant of the white oppressors. Newcomer to the party, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in English “The Spear of the Nation”? Basically just a revenge project by the ousted ex-president Jacob Zuma. The Marxists of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)? Too radical for reality.

Deal with the Democratic Alliance?

The fact that the ANC was unchallenged for so long was also due to the historical lack of alternatives. Four out of five South Africans are black. The unspoken rule: if someone is going to plunder the country, at least it shouldn't be a white person. Has the time for reconciliation come now? For purely practical reasons?

Together, the ANC and DA would get more than 60 percent. At least the two strongest forces can get along when it comes to economic policy, which would reassure foreign investors. In the DA, they would probably be keen to join forces – if only to exclude the left. However, they would clash on the subject of foreign policy. The DA is pursuing a strictly pro-Western course, whereas the ANC has made some pretty good friends in the East and Far East. So are the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East becoming a morale killer? Perhaps. But it doesn't have to be love. The DA could support the ANC in a minority government in exchange for concessions.

DA party leader John Steenhuisen

© Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Either way, the marriage of convenience could backfire from the ANC's perspective at the next election. Its voter base, the millions of blacks in the mushroom-like townships, would see a fraternization with the DA, which is seen as a white elite party, as a betrayal – especially since party leader John Steenhuisen has recently moved the conservatives increasingly to the right and speaks of “positive discrimination” when it comes to preferential treatment of blacks in the job market.

Nevertheless, a pact with the DA may be the only option for a functioning government with Ramaphosa at the helm.

If not right, then maybe left?

ANC members critical of Ramaphosa are likely to look in the opposite direction. The left-wing radical EFF still has a good 9.5 percent, even if that doesn't make them the sole junior partner. Julius Malema, the man with the red beret, is a friend of clear, often racist words. The 43-year-old party leader is himself a scion of the ANC, but has taken a sharp left turn somewhere.

Julius Malema

Julius Malema, head of the left-wing radical Economic Freedom Fighters

© Xabiso Mkhabela / Xinhua / Imago Images

If the ANC wants the support of its EFF, that would mean: expropriation of white farmers within six months, establishment of a state bank, cancellation of all student debts, free water and electricity for those in need and, above all, a partner who “is not a puppet or representative of the Western imperialist agenda”.

If neither right nor left adoption is an option – how about reconciliation with the former head of the family instead?

Jacob Zuma – South Africa’s Donald Trump on a revenge mission

There is always the “Donald Trump of…”. In South Africa, that is Jacob Zuma. The fact that the 82-year-old has even made it back onto the political stage speaks volumes. After all, it was Zuma himself who played a major role in driving the country into ruin and allegedly lined millions for himself in the process. In his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, he only narrowly missed the absolute majority. Of course, despite surprisingly strong results nationwide, he suspected election manipulation during the counting. Zuma could not vote for himself – as a convicted criminal, he was barred from running.

Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma, former president on a revenge mission

© Shiraaz Mohamed / AP / DPA

Politically, his MK is as uncompromising as its leader: land acquisition without compensation, brown instead of green energy, they even want to abolish the current constitution. Zuma would pay a lot for his 15 percent – above all the head of his former deputy Ramaphosa. When Zuma took over the leadership of the newly founded MK in December 2023, it was said that his only goal was to harm the ANC – out of pure revenge. He blames his former party friends for his legal problems. Problems for which a foot in the parliamentary door would of course not be a bad idea.

However, a deal with Zuma would not only demonstrate political blackmailability, but would also mean a return to cronyism when a new beginning would be vital for survival.

Hope for change

All the prerequisites for the title “historic” are present. South Africa is no longer the same country that Nelson Mandela vowed to reconciliation 30 years ago – for better or for worse. The dictatorship of the majority, as a result of which a new elite has simply plundered the country, is about to end.

Those who mean well hope for democratic change. In a healthy democracy there is room for more than one party. It is questionable, however, whether the new government, which is currently being hammered out in Cape Town's back rooms, will take up the fight against corruption – or will simply go to town.

Sources: “New York Times”, “Conversation”; “Modern Diplomacy”; “Economist”; “Unsherd”