There are few certainties in life, apart from death and taxes, but there is something else that is a growing certainty in South Africa. This is that is that the ANC will lose support in the next election, and unless the party decides to overturn democratic norms, it will almost certainly be out of power after the 2029 election.

The immediate question, however, is whether the ANC will manage to win more than 50% of the seats in Parliament in the next election, allowing it to govern alone, or whether a coalition government will come to power, which may or may not include the ANC.

What kind of South Africa will people wake up to the day after the 2024 election? And what will it mean for South Africans in general?

There are a number of scenarios which exist, and each will have different implications. But what are they?

ANC remains above 50%

In 2019 the ANC won 57.5% of the vote, still giving it a relatively comfortable margin in the National Assembly. However, this was the party’s worst-ever showing in a post-apartheid election and the first time that it had won less than 60% of the national vote.

At the same time, it was the biggest decline in the party’s vote share between elections.

Between 1994 and 2004 the party saw an increase in its support in each election. However, this trend reversed in 2009, with the party seeing its support decline to 65.9% in 2009, compared to the nearly 70% it had won in 2004. In 2014 its support again declined to 62.2% in 2014, before the 57.5% it managed in 2019.

It’s clear that the tide is turning against the ANC, but the party will have to lose nearly eight percentage points for it  to lose its national majority. This would be the biggest decline for the party to date.

Nevertheless, this swing is not impossible. Although national and local government elections (LGEs) are not strictly comparable, the party has seen its support decline by this kind of margin in the past few local government elections. In 2011 the party won 62% of the national vote. This declined by nearly ten percentage points – to 53.9% – in the following local government election (LGE) held in 2016, and it suffered a similar decline in 2021, winning just over 45% of the vote.

The ANC tends to do better in national than local elections, with its supporters more likely to turn out at the ballot box for national elections, but the trend in LGEs shows that support for the ANC can decline quickly.

The party probably has a relatively good chance of holding on to its parliamentary majority (although much reduced). But will that mean we will see any reform?

Often parties turn to reform in times of crisis. The National Party (NP) in the late 1980s in this country is an example, as is the Indian National Congress (INC). The INC implemented free-market reforms in the early 1990s after years of statist economic policies (driven by the INC itself) had brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

However, despite the ANC being closer to being out of power than at any time in South Africa’s post-1994 history, it does not seem that this threat has concentrated the minds of those in the party. A recent discussion document released by the party interrogating its loss of support shows the ANC is still stuck in old ways of thinking. Much of the rhetoric and language would not have been out of place at a Communist party conference in the 1960s, with no evidence that the party has any ideas on how to get itself, or South Africa, out of the mire.

Reform is thus unlikely, even if the party barely holds on to its majority in 2024.

ANC below 50%, forms coalition with smaller parties

If the ANC narrowly misses out on a majority and needs the support of other parties, a likely scenario is that it approaches a number of smaller parties to help keep it in power, rather than trying to form a coalition with either the DA or the EFF.

This has been the party’s modus operandi in municipalities where it has fallen just short of a majority, showing that it prefers to work with small parties with a handful of seats, rather than approaching bigger parties such as the DA or EFF.  For example, in 2016, the ANC narrowly missed out on a majority in Ekurhuleni, and was kept in power by, amongst others, the African Independent Congress (AIC) and the Independent Ratepayers Association of South Africa – parties that attracted under 2% of the vote in that election. The AIC and IRASA won 1.6% and 0.2% of the vote, respectively, in Ekurhuleni in 2016.

Parties such as GOOD, Al Jama-ah or the AIC would likely be the partners which help the ANC to stay in power. However, even a party such as the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) could help the ANC stay in power – a former leader, Pieter Mulder, served in the first Zuma cabinet, and as the saying goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows.

But in such a scenario the ANC is also unlikely to reform. It may pretend to entertain  demands from coalition partners. But the partners should not expect too much, apart from some scraps from whatever is left on the patronage table. For example, the AIC agreed to help the ANC govern in Ekurhuleni in 2016 in exchange for returning the town of Matatiele to the administration of KwaZulu-Natal, rather than the Eastern Cape. This has not been done – yet the party still supported the ANC in various municipalities after the 2021 elections.

Even if the ANC falls under 50%, reform is again unlikely.

ANC support closer to 40%, looks to DA or EFF

If support for South Africa’s Grand Old Party comes in closer to 40% than 50%, it may be forced to look for a coalition with one of the two biggest opposition parties, the DA or the EFF.

Although there have been some murmurings from the DA that it could be amenable to working with the ‘reformist’ wing of the ANC, some kind of ‘Grand Coalition’ between the ANC and the DA is unlikely. Firstly, no real reformist wing, amenable to working with the DA and acceptable to it, exists in the ANC. Secondly, many DA supporters would vehemently oppose co-operating with the ANC, as would many of its senior officials and public representatives. Furthermore, any move by the DA to effectively prop up the ANC would probably backfire on John Steenhuisen’s party. It would be the smaller party in any ANC-DA coalition. It would be unlikely that any DA-driven reforms would be passed easily in this hypothetical ANC-dominated coalition. In addition, governance failures occurring during an ANC-DA coalition period could be pinned on the DA as much as the ANC, perhaps damaging the DA brand irreparably in the eyes of the voters prior to 2029.

The DA should also look to historical examples of parties which have governed at national or provincial level with the ANC, such as the NP and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). It would see how hamstrung these two parties were during their time in government with the ANC and how it damaged their future prospects. The NP never recovered and the IFP is arguably only now recovering its mojo after its time in government with the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It is more likely that the ANC would turn to the EFF if it needed more than a handful of small parties to stay in power. Although the long-term goal of EFF leaders is probably to return the Red Berets to the ANC, many of its ordinary members would probably prefer not to help keep the ANC in power.

The leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, is also not particularly consistent with many of his policy positions and the direction of his party, meaning any putative ANC-EFF coalition could be unstable.

In addition, Malema would demand concessions to keep the ANC in power and would push for legislation which advances the power of the state at the expense of the citizen. However, in a scenario where the ANC is reliant on the EFF to remain in power, the ‘two-thirds’ threshold may be out of reach for these two parties in Parliament (even with the assistance of smaller groupings), meaning that constitutional changes – such as the proposed amendment to Section 25, the property rights clause, to allow for expropriation without compensation (EWC) – could well be off the table for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, an ANC coalition with the EFF is more likely than one with the DA. In such a situation any positive reforms are extremely unlikely to be enacted. However, the EFF could also be harmed in the eyes of the voters if it governs with the ANC. The EFF has, in the main, stayed away from the coalface of actual governance, and it is possible that it would be wary of entering national government, if it wasn’t completely on its own terms.

‘Wild dogs’ bring down the ANC

The fourth scenario is one in which a grouping of opposition parties bring down the ANC. No single party will outpoll the ANC in the next election, or even the one after it, but it is possible that a coalition of opposition parties together could manage to form a majority and bring to an end a generation of ANC rule.

How it will work out for South Africa all depends on the electoral maths, following the election. As we have seen in the metro coalitions, parties such as the DA, ACDP, FF+, COPE, ActionSA, and, to a lesser degree, the IFP, seem to be fairly natural coalition partners (although we have seen significant infighting between the DA and ActionSA, for example).

However, any potential ‘Wild Dog’ coalition is likely to fall short of the 50% mark, even if the ANC itself is also below that threshold. To govern, this hypothetical national coalition will almost certainly need the support of parties such as the EFF and the PA – whether in a formal coalition or under a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement.

However, as we have seen in some municipalities where the ‘Wild Dogs’ have been reliant on the support of parties such as the EFF and the PA to pass budgets and elect mayors, any relationship with both these parties seems to be inherently transactional. This leads to instability, often resulting in paralysed municipal administrations, with residents suffering the most.

Nevertheless, this is South Africa’s best chance for real reform which will see the country reach its full potential. And it’s an open question whether South Africa can survive another seven years of ANC rule before the 2029 election.

Whatever the situation is when South Africans open their eyes on the morning after election day, the country is in for interesting times (in the Chinese curse sense of the term). The rest of the decade, up until 2030, is likely to determine whether South Africa fulfils the potential it had in the 1990s and early 2000s, or becomes just another story of wasted potential.

But the future lies in our hands as South Africans. It is an opportunity we dare not miss.

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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.