It is approximately 680 days until the 2024 national and provincial elections, elections that will be unlike anything we’ve seen: an election in which the ANC will lose its majority.

The great risk of such an election is that its momentousness will be grasped too late or not at all by parties whose stated mission is to remove the ANC from office and install a new government for a country in desperate need of a new direction. The greatest threat to the future comes from opposition parties simply failing to understand or live up to what is needed from them in the interests of the people they claim to serve.

A week ago, ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba mounted the latest in an ongoing series of attacks by his party on the Democratic Alliance (DA). Make no mistake, this to-and-fro goes far beyond this latest lamentable incident.

It’s no secret that tensions between these two parties go back to the dramatic events of October 2019 when Mashaba resigned as the DA’s executive mayor of Johannesburg. This followed the resignation of Mmusi Maimane as leader and the election of Helen Zille as the chairperson of the party’s Federal Council.

The rumour mill ran into speculative overdrive that a Mashaba-Maimane party might soon see the light of day. Or a Maimane-Mashaba party. The inherent unworkability of this idea lay directly at this point: would this new party be led by Mashaba, former executive mayor, business magnate, and pugnacious opinion leader, or by Maimane, former leader of Mashaba’s former party and a politician with significantly greater name recognition than the vast majority of his peers?

In the end, Mashaba and Maimane went their separate ways – Mashaba to establish ActionSA and Maimane to launch the One South Africa Movement.

‘What a pity!’

And up went the cry: What a pity! What a pity that two such clearly talented politicians could waste the opportunity to combine their best efforts and form a political party that could unite all South Africans! What a pity that the opportunity for a party of black South Africans, for black South Africans, led by black South Africans stuttered. What a pity that a potential political home for black voters was never built. What a pity that the ANC would not be challenged by a lion of similar size and colour.

This development of ‘disunity’ that caused such disappointment might in the end prove a great boon to South Africans who seek a post-ANC era – if, and only if, a few other things are taken seriously.

Today, there’s a growing consensus, first put forward by the IRR in 2012 (to some ridicule at the time), that the ANC will see its support fall below the majority waterline of 50% in the 2024 national and provincial elections. Where this was once considered inconceivable, it’s becoming essentially inevitable.

Contingent on this realisation of the ANC’s decline comes an idea that is even today, fewer than 700 days away from the chance of its becoming reality, not taken seriously enough by the people most crucial to its feasibility: a post-ANC coalition government at national and provincial level. It’s in the context of this that Mashaba’s antagonism towards the DA in his piece a week ago is so immensely frustrating.

Recent focus-group and opinion research illuminate the intense dislike that ordinary South Africans have for political bickering – especially between parties that should, in the view of voters, be able to behave like adults and work together. That Mashaba at this point chooses to have an utterly unnecessary swing at a coalition government partner at local level, and a crucial potential partner in national government in 680 days from today is astounding. It is shortsighted. Compounding the peril at this point is the DA’s simmering desire to respond in kind. To say that voters will find this disheartening is an understatement.

Snipe and yap

What gets lost when the wild dogs, that could in a pack take down the ANC and its EFF calf, snipe and yap at each other is that South Africa’s opposition parties risk squandering the one shot they’ll have to save the country from continued ANC failure.

The ANC’s losing its majority will trigger a volatility in our politics unlike anything we’ve seen. The chaos will play out in one of four ways, setting the future course of government:

Option 1: The wild dogs cease sniping and yapping, and spend the next 680 days putting in place a viable route for its members to fight and win an election as a coalition, entering the Union Buildings and establishing a new type of politics where stable coalition government becomes the norm, killing single-party dominance.

Option 2: The wild dogs, not unlike in Option 1, establish stable and good coalition government, but, unlike in Option 1, government that pressures the ANC in opposition into the internal reform it has proved incapable of in office. After the coalition’s first term, the ANC re-emerges as a viable and attractive coalition partner for the 2029 or 2034 elections.

Option 3: The wild dogs continue sniping and yapping for the next 680 days, the ANC stumbles out of government, and a chaotic wild-dog coalition takes office only to lose it due to toxic sniping and yapping. This happens because coalition discipline is never established prior to taking office. The ANC then returns to government, either in 2029 or before, rehabilitated by comparison to the bumbling incompetence of the coalition of chaos.

Option 4: The wild dogs continue down a path of ill-discipline and sniping. The ANC exploits the chaos of the opposition, essentially running the 2015 Conservative Party campaign, warning voters of the ‘coalition of chaos’, the 2024 elections resulting in a hung parliamentary paralysis that enables a minority ANC government to hold onto office through a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the EFF. While this might serve as a wake-up call for the wild dogs to sort out the petty, yapping nonsense that so disgusts the voter, and might see a coalition of wild dogs take over government in 2029, it might very well be too little too late.

Greatest chance

Now, none of the wild dogs can stop another member of the potential pack that is hell bent on derailing South Africa’s greatest chance to emerge from ANC governance – multi-party coalition government, a pack of wild dogs working together to make the kill. This is, after all, what the DA and ActionSA purport their shared objective to be. Even in his attack a week ago, Mashaba reiterates his party’s desire to realise this.

But what leaders like John Steenhuisen or Zille can and should do is take the voters seriously enough to show that the DA is ready to lead a coalition government to the Union Buildings. A response from the DA should be tailored to working backwards from the inauguration of a potential President Steenhuisen and Deputy President Herman Mashaba. If this scene is too difficult for people to imagine, let alone work to make a reality, we’ve got bigger problems than two opposition parties irritating voters with petty sniping. If this future is unimaginable for people in either ActionSA or the DA, it’s time for them to leave or be kicked out of these parties. The time for anything short of uncomfortable realpolitik in the national interest is past. We’re simply not in Kansas anymore.

Accomplishing this future of viable coalition government calendaring its way down the tracks, will take maturity, patience, dedication, and discipline – not to mention strategic insight and creativity. It’s encouraging that some early shoots of this have started sprouting.

Bantu Holomisa has taken an unofficial lead role behind the scenes in reaching across party lines in preparation for a post-2024 national government. The Freedom Front Plus recently contested a by-election under the slogan ‘your reliable coalition partner’ – a sentiment so spot on for the current political climate that I can barely put its perfection into words.

Someone like Mmusi Maimane can and should play an important role, here. Far from Mashaba and Maimane impoverishing South African politics by going their separate ways, their split might very well now equip the broader coalition with additional tools it otherwise would lack.

Warm-up act

Samadoda Fikeni described Maimane’s experience perfectly: the DA sought to microwave a young black leader into a position he simply wasn’t yet ready for. Maimane’s DA failure would have been enough to send most people to the wilderness (or Harvard) to lick wounds and become a serial sniper or passive aggressive political dinnertime warm-up act. It is to Maimane’s credit that after he retreated from the political stage, he has positioned himself well for a dignified and, hopefully, substantive return to frontline politics, using the promotion of ideas on real issues facing the country as a whetstone for sharpening his political skills.

Were Maimane to re-emerge as a political player heading into 2024, truer to his own convictions and free from the pressures of running a vast and ruthless political machine like the official opposition, he has the potential to fill a gap currently unoccupied: someone to take aim at the ANC from a socially conservative, economically social democratic angle of attack and someone able to understand the larger coalition stakes.

Maimane’s background and personal beliefs position him well to take aim at a mostly uncontested collection of moderate, middle-class aspirant, and religious voters so far almost begrudgingly loyal to the ANC. While Maimane’s consensus-seeking leadership failed him at the top of the DA, it might very well equip him, along with figures such as Corné Mulder and Bantu Holomisa, to guide South Africa’s voters and larger parties to a place of collaboration in pragmatic coalition government.

The DA also deserves some credit – it has come a long way from its sleek video ad envisioning a South Africa where it gets 59% of the vote. It has also shown itself more adept than any other party at leading coalition government at local level. It by no means boasts a perfect record, and complaints by junior coalition partners of arrogance often ring true. But at least there’s an emerging maturity and awareness from key players in the DA of what would need to happen in the next 680 days to give South Africa its first post-ANC government.

Unprovoked, unnecessary, disingenuous, and counter-productive

Mashaba’s attack on the DA a week ago was unprovoked, unnecessary, disingenuous, and counter-productive. He is perhaps unaware of the damage he has inflicted on his own reputation and his party’s ability to attract funds and support. While tensions between ActionSA and the DA over recent months have been kept more under wraps and collaborative moves have trickled into actual efforts of toenadering, Mashaba unwisely set the clock back. One wonders whose advice he took, because it was clearly the wrong advice. While some opposition politicians might be gleeful of this foot-shooting by Mashaba, it is an unforced error that South Africans can ill afford from one of its most important political players.

Mashaba has in the past shown himself able to acknowledge a mistake and apologise – a rare skill in politics. I implore him to do so again – to acknowledge an error of judgement and move on to get the bigger job done. Mashaba is a proud man with much reason to be, so anyone seeking to humiliate him now should pause and appreciate the wider implications of an extended dust-up. The DA should take a leaf from the books of other wild-dog parties and show voters that its fight is and will always be with the ANC and its EFF calf and that it is truly ready to lead a national government under difficult circumstances with the silly-sounding but vital resource of people skills. Nothing can be gained from further yapping, but everything can be lost.

ActionSA, without any doubt, will be a key partner for the DA seeking to lead a post-ANC national government. ActionSA can reach into areas of support where the DA’s message fails to cut through. This should not be considered by the DA to be a problem for the greater goal of a post-ANC coalition government. In fact, parties with unique appeal to specific voters have great incentive to specialise in turning those voters into supporters of a post-ANC coalition government. The outbreak of unify-under-one-party-banneritis of the 2000s should remain firmly in the past. Specialisation of wild-dog parties on specific targeted voters and issues will effect far greater change in voters coalescing around a new government than any gimmick or merger of parties by rights stronger apart than they might be if inelegantly and transparently glued together.

Serious and complex business

Now, politics is a serious and complex business – after all, it is a profession or industry very harsh on personal and interpersonal failings. Herman Mashaba is pugnacious. Helen Zille’s ability and willingness to fight for her beliefs is formidable. Between parties like ActionSA and the DA, personal vendettas and feelings run deep. But for the love of South Africa, this yapping nonsense must stop and the DA now has a great opportunity to lead and show how it can foster stability and reliability for the sake of a larger aim. Smaller opposition parties must find their voices. The FF+, ACDP, Cope, UDM, and the PA must step up to keep the peace and defend the hope of coalition and collaborative government – especially when their larger colleagues lose sight of the goal of unseating incompetence from government. Scrambling and squeezing for one’s own slice of the opposition vote simply won’t do.

John Howard, Australia’s prime minister from 1996 to 2007, used to say: You can’t fatten the pig on market day. To adapt this to our current situation, you can’t train the hunting pack on hunting day. You can’t hope for coherence and collaboration to develop between parties on the steps of the Union Buildings on the way in. That task begins now. And how the DA and other potential coalition parties respond to last week’s moment of unnecessary conflict escalation will set the tone for the next 680 or so days, counting down to the moment when South Africa could at last see the change it so desperately needs.

The countdown to 2024, merciless in its insistence on daily progress, is not about opposition parties putting their differences aside to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but about putting their common interests, voters, and the country first.

Show us you can fight wisely

Show South Africans you are serious about this. Show us you can fight wisely and strategically against the real threats. Show us that your desire to make a difference extends further than counter-productively expanding your own share of the vote. Show us that you are able to refrain from exploiting the ambiguities or perceived errors or missteps of people you will need to make a post-ANC South Africa possible. Show us that you take voters more seriously than you take the opportunity to get one up on a rival. Show us that you can value the democratic representatives of voters longing for change as coalition partners instead of political opponents. Show us that you are wise enough to focus on the common ground of a moderate coalition government, rather than the political higher ground of the news cycle and perpetual opposition.

Show us the collective, collaborative maturity needed to clean up after failure, and we will vote for you.

But know that the clock is ticking.

[Image: https://pixabay.com/vectors/crowd-people-democracy-community-296520/]

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Hermann Pretorius studied law and opera before entering politics and, latterly, joining the IRR as an analyst. He was formerly the IRR’s Head of Strategic Initiatives, and is presently Director of the Freedom Advocacy Network. He describes himself as a Protestant, landless, Anglophilic, Afrikaans classical liberal.