Whether the ANC retains its majority or not, we are now shifting away from a period of near absolute domination by one political party.  

The ANC will still be the biggest party for some time, but either at this election or the next, it will not be able to hold power on its own. Its support is dropping, and the default of proportional representation systems is coalitions.

Even if there is a late surge in support for the ANC over the next few weeks, it is highly likely that its support will fall well below the 57.5% share of the vote that it achieved in 2019. And if its support falls below 50%, it will have to go into a coalition and will be subject to at least some of the demands of its coalition partners. Even if the ANC retains its majority in the upcoming election, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to hold on to this at the election in 2029.

Many of the recent opinion polls have shown ANC support at below 45 percent. As ANC support tends to surge in the last few weeks of an election campaign, the most reasonable election scenarios are that the party retains its majority by a sliver or falls by about five percentage points below the 50% mark. In the latter case, it will have to cobble together a coalition with some of the small parties.

The idea that it could see itself entirely out of power at the 2029 election must have been driven home by now. 

How will the ANC respond to a reduced majority or being forced into a coalition with a few small parties?

An ANC in coalition will have reduced patronage. Having a coalition partner would mean that the other party would want a share of power, positions, and maybe contracts.

An ANC with a small majority, or in coalition with minor parties, would carry  symbolic importance by showing the country that the once almighty movement that thought it would rule forever is much reduced. An electorate seeing a reduced ANC could open the party to a further loss in support.

If the ANC achieves a slim majority or needs to find a few coalition partners, the best bet is that its response will be to double down on its policies. Its aim will be to pursue policies that stand a chance of increasing votes in 2029. That won’t be a new growth strategy to address what is holding the economy back, but a populist one to buy votes. 

The best way it knows how to do this is to increase giveaways in the form of grants, implementing expropriation without compensation, retaining and extending empowerment regulations, and finding ways to implement its National Health Insurance project.

It won’t want to reform, as that could fire up opposition from people laid off by the state and the public enterprises. To retain patronage for jobs and contracts, it must hold on to the state enterprises. Rather than proposing long-term measures to boost growth, it will focus on shorter-term measures that can help its chances of re-election.

The greater its loss of support, the more the ANC is likely to resort to freebies to effectively buy votes. It will however, run into the binding constraint of tax revenue and the amount the markets are prepared to lend to the state. With negligible economic growth, South Africa’s budget deficit is already high and its ability to borrow is decreasing.

Under these circumstances, the question that arises is whether or not the party would dare to compromise the independence of the Reserve Bank, either through a change to the Constitution or by appointing an individual who is prepared to do its bidding. With a tiny majority and the help of a few small parties, the ANC will not command the two-thirds majority required to make a constitutional change, like scrapping the independence of the central bank. Other parties such as the EFF might not necessarily support a change they otherwise might favour, because it was supported by the ANC which they wish to defeat. 

But it is likely that the smaller parties will go along with the ANC on most issues. With ministerial salaries, houses, cars, and pensions, it is hardly worthwhile for them to storm out of a coalition. 

As the ANC declines, the prospect for further splits will rise. So far, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party are the major breakaways from the ANC. But as the prospects for advancement in the ANC declines, many more cadres will try their luck with the smaller parties or form breakaways.

One big unknown about the forthcoming election is voter turnout. At the election in 2019, there was a strong voter turnout of 66 percent, but this slumped to 46 percent at the municipal election in 2021. Voter turnout for municipal polls is usually well below that for national elections, but not on the scale we saw in 2019. This rang alarm bells about falling voter participation.

A steep drop in voter participation in the upcoming election would be of concern, as it is a sign of people dropping out of the democratic process. It would raise the question about whether many of those who disenfranchise themselves might be so disillusioned as to resort to violence to express their anger.

If people are so deeply disillusioned with the political process, the question then arises about the sort of institutions in which they then might then place their faith.

Religious institutions are certainly one outlet, but so are organised crime and gangs, as well as neighbourhood improvement and protection bodies, and maybe new political movements. And as the government fails to meet its obligations, there will be a great deal more room for the private sector. Business groups have stepped in to help the government in multiple areas, and they just might be allowed to run towns and government functions so as to avert disaster. 

Water and power cuts, poorly run municipalities and hospitals, and the collapse of the Post Office and government services are forcing people to seek alternatives. The upper middle classes can afford to buy solar panels, drill bore holes, hire private security companies, pay for medical insurance and use courier services.

All of this is part of the “counter-revolution” about which former President Thabo Mbeki spoke last year with some alarm. A weakened ANC combined with a government which fails to deliver is the precise combination needed to further advance the counter-revolution. 

The poor do not have these options and unemployment remains astronomically high. They might increasingly feel frustrated as they are left to fend for themselves by the party that made big promises about ‘a better life for all’.

With low growth, collapsing public services and no realistic plan, things will not be easy for the next ANC government, even if it retains its majority. 

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.