The ANC and EFF could be on the way to sharing power in municipalities and might be moving to a national coalition, and possibly even merging. But there is a lot that could derail the EFF-ANC toenadering.

After last year’s local government elections the EFF wanted to teach the ANC the lesson that it needed the EFF to remain in power in certain hung municipalities. That led to the EFF voting for a DA-led coalition in Johannesburg and a number of other municipalities across the country to keep the ANC out of power. It was a move of spite, as the EFF was not even on the Mayoral Committee.

Things have recently changed.

A vote in the Johannesburg City Council last week could soon lead to the demise of the DA-led coalition, with the ANC and EFF joining forces with councillors from smaller parties to take control. Last week the DA Speaker of the Johannesburg Council, Vasco Da Gama, was ousted in a vote of no-confidence brought by the Pan Africanist Congress, and supported by the ANC, the EFF and five councillors from smaller parties. Councillors from Cope, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the African Christian Democratic Party, and the United Independent Movement went against the instructions of their parties and voted against Da Gama. If there is a vote on the mayor, Johannesburg’s DA Mayor, Mpho Phalatse, could be replaced by a candidate backed by a coalition of the ANC and EFF, backed by some smaller parties.

The vote shows the chaos of hung councils and the vagaries of coalition politics. 

Leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, recently said he had been approached by the ANC provincial leadership in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng about the possibility of forming coalitions. This is while the EFF is pushing for the replacement of President Cyril Ramaphosa after the allegation that millions of dollars in cash were stolen from his Phala Phala game farm.

Populist agenda

As the ANC gets closer to the EFF, the chances are that elements of the EFF’s populist agenda will increasingly be adopted. The EFF will constantly threaten the ANC with a withdrawal of support if it does not get its way.

Why this is all happening now is not entirely clear, but the falling support of both parties could be giving the moves impetus.

Talks and manoeuvring by the EFF could be part of a larger strategy. The EFF came out of the ANC and might still go back to the ANC. A reverse takeover of the ANC by the EFF is probably part of its longer-term strategy. A party which may have peaked at a little over ten percent of the vote cannot come to power on its own. Besides, the EFF knows how the ANC operates and the two would make a good ideological fit. The views of many ANC cadres are probably very close to those of their counterparts in the Red Berets.

In the immediate future, the ANC is more likely to need the EFF at local level rather than national. After all, the national elections are two years away and the chances are that the party might scrape through or will only require a few extra seats from small parties.

ANC support

A Social Research Foundation (SRF) poll conducted in July found ANC support running at 52 percent, but an IPSOS poll, using different methods, found ANC support only at 42 percent. It is unlikely that the ANC will fall so fast and far as was predicted by the IPSOS poll, but it may need a bit of external support in a coalition after the 2024 poll.

Whether or not the ANC would go into a national coalition with the EFF would depend on how far the ruling party falls below 50 percent in 2024 and the safety margin it requires. The ANC is losing support and the best way to slow its decline is for it to remain in government and retain the power of patronage. Without power and patronage, the ANC fully realises that its support would haemorrhage away. That means it has to accept the idea of coalitions at all levels of government.

If the ANC relies upon the EFF to form coalitions it will have to give a lot away in terms of power and patronage to keep its new political partner on side. Relying on the EFF at national level might be a last resort. The ANC might instead prefer to make up their electoral deficit by ruling the country with support from smaller parties.

The problem with some of the smaller parties which the ANC might call upon is that they are unreliable. They are often prone to infighting and could easily switch their support to the highest bidder. Therefore, an alliance with the EFF, which can offer a coalition a solid margin, albeit at some cost, could be the better option for the ANC.

As the ANC could split and die in opposition, it will be prepared to pay the price of staying in power. When it is in opposition, as it is in the Western Cape and on a number of councils, the ANC does not perform well and cannot easily regain power.

EFF peaked

The EFF is unlikely to come to power on its own and its support has probably peaked. Recent polls show EFF support running at between 9 and 11 percent. One factor holding the party back is its heavy reliance on youth support. The young are generally more disillusioned by politics than the overall electorate and have a very low voter turnout. A further problem for the EFF is that many of those who tend toward radicalism might instead support Operation Dudula, the movement campaigning against illegal immigration, if it were to become a political party.

At the moment the electoral maths does not permit the EFF to get into government if it joins with smaller parties. Other sorts of governing coalitions such as that between the EFF and DA and smaller parties are highly unlikely.

Any national coalition between the EFF and the ANC would fundamentally change the balance of power within the ruling party. The EFF openly sides with the ANC’s Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction which supports former President Jacob Zuma. It also proposes populist policies such as Expropriation Without Compensation, National Health Insurance, and a Basic Income Grant. That is why the RET faction might well be keen to bring in the EFF. The party has probably long wanted to engineer a reverse takeover of the ANC.

ANC deals with the EFF can only help the agenda and the internal power of the RET faction. That is why Ramaphosa might be very scared of any deals with the EFF.

The big question is whether an ANC that relies on the EFF will win. Voters might shy away from a party that is effectively taken over by the EFF.

In 2024 populist promises might do well, but by the 2029 poll there could have been enormous damage done by the ANC and EFF, and there could be change. Smaller parties in opposition to the ANC-EFF could emerge and grow, and a coalition which could include the DA might just be possible.

This is all highly uncertain, but South African politics is on the verge of big changes.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Katzenellenbogen has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader. He has a Master's degree in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.