I chose to give my talk the title ‘Consolidating an uncertain future’ in deference to the idea of democratic consolidation. This is the process by which a new democracy comes to accept democracy as a part of the operation of governance, something that the polity accepts as an intrinsic feature. 

Democratic consolidation is usually viewed as on track when an incumbent party is defeated at the polls and accepts this. Once this has happened a number of times, and governments have alternated, democracy is entrenched, or ‘consolidated’. As political scientists have put it, democracy is then ‘the only game in town’.

Consolidation implies certainty. The survival of the democratic system is no longer an open question, and it will endure. 

This makes the past election an important milestone. Our democracy delivered a result that went against the ruling party, and this was accepted by the party. South Africa made some tangible progress towards consolidation, but is it a move towards certainty?

I wrote on the day of the election that whatever this did for South Africa politically, it would not alter the deeper challenges that confront the country. Fundamentally, these are the failure to achieve a level of economic growth to provide South Africa’s people with rising living standards and to ameliorate both the immediate socio-economic hardships and the widespread despondency that has gripped the country. It is only through an expanding economy offering a widening scope of opportunity for all that we will overcome the present crisis and brighten expectations for the future.

Yet, something profound has indeed happened. When we held our pre-election webinar with UFS, I suggested that what was on the table this time around meant shifts in two paradigms through which post-transition politics has frequently been conceptualised. 

Paradigm shifts

The first is that of one-party dominance. This is the idea that while other parties may freely exist, one of them commands such a lead that it is effectively assured of power from one election to another. This is not an undemocratic outcome – indeed, where it reflects the legitimate will of the electorate, it is profoundly democratic – but it comes with numerous potential downsides. Long-term incumbents that do not face credible electoral threats can become arrogant in power. They may begin to play fast and loose with the legal and institutional constraints within which they are supposed to operate. And they will frequently attract careerists and supplicants for patronage (or those offering incentives for access to political decision-making). All of these hold out threats for the quality of governance, and perhaps for the quality of democracy as well.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it should. The ANC’s electoral mandate was bolted onto a self-conception that it was the entitled, authentic representative of ‘the people’. From that came problems like the ANC disregarding the constitutional strictures separating the party from the state and its cadre deployment programme, not to mention the flourishing of corrupt, rent-seeking relationships that have become so much a part of the fabric of South Africa’s politics.

If nothing else, this election broke that paradigm. True enough, in academic circles the ‘dominant party’ thesis had been in decline for some time, but here we are. (Interesting tidbit: in 2012, the IRR indicated that the ANC would lose its parliamentary majority. A number of big-name academics scornfully told us we didn’t know what we were talking about. I doubt any of them will remember this.)

With the election, one-party dominance has ended. The ANC has accepted – quite gracefully it must be said – the results, and its own failure to achieve a majority. It is in talks with others on arrangements for a new government. This is quite a step-down for a party that wouldn’t even formally entertain the idea of losing its majority during its campaign.

Politics is now a lot more competitive.

The second matter is that of South Africa as a divided society. This is the idea that ascriptive identities exert a strong influence on political behaviour: people will vote in large measure according to communal patterns or even for communally specific organisations. This is one explanation for the failure of the Democratic Alliance and its predecessor organisations to gain ‘the black vote’.

It is also one way of looking at the steady decline of non-African support for the ANC. As the promise of the ‘new South Africa’ has faded, the ANC has found it expedient to appeal to a core ethno-racial constituency, its non-racial pretentions notwithstanding.

Looking at the outcome, this seems to have held up, at least to the extent that the ANC’s historical vote-share has by and large been distributed among itself and its offshoot parties. There has not been a great deal of crossover. 

This is arguably most pronounced with the emergence of MK. Its appeal was overtly racial in nature, and on that basis, explicitly hostile to the Constitution and to constitutionalism. The Constitution, it says, is alien and unsuited to an African society. All colonial remnants will be expunged! While previous challenges may have been couched in ambiguity towards the Constitution (and while the ANC itself has regarded it ambivalently), a major party has attacked it in toto, claiming that it is incompatible with the cultural heritage of the country.

So, a more competitive politics has not, at this point, produced a more ethnically fluid politics.

So, what can we take away from the results?

Looking at the parties

The African National Congress took an unprecedented electoral hit, falling from 57.5% in 2019 to 40.2%. Indeed, compare that to its electoral high-water mark of 2004, where it reached 69.7%. 

My sense is that the ANC is still trying to come to terms with this result. It represents a seismic shift in the world it has known and in how it has seen itself. Wait for this to play itself out. Much has been made of the 71 ANC MPs who will not be returning to Parliament. Add to that those excluded from the provincial legislatures. And those whose positions in town councils will start to look uncertain as MK eyes municipal control. And multiply that by people whose careers have been built in the civil service or in business by their proximity to the ANC. Many of these will be embittered and angry. There is a sizeable ripple effect coming; perhaps this is the real tsunami that was spoken about when Zuma was on the rise. A tsunami is, after all, very destructive of what stands in its path.

The ANC will also need to reckon with its own political calculations going into the elections. Two things stand out: it attempted to weaponise foreign policy and to appeal to the electorate by pushing through extravagant legislative items. Foreign policy has never been a significant factor in our elections, and this had no noticeable impact. Apparently, the ANC felt betrayed by Cape Muslim voters for not delivering more to it, an interesting inversion of the relationship between the governors and the governed. 

More interestingly, it seems that the flagship measure it reserved for a pre-election signature, the NHI, actually harmed the ANC. Frans Cronje explained this as being the result of people trusting private medical providers and not having much faith in the state to step in here. Given its record, this is hardly surprising.

Indeed, we could go further on this point and note that the Zuma insurgency that has inflicted such damage was ultimately the creation of successive choices by the ANC and its leading lights. Think about Thabo Mbeki, who couldn’t countenance a province in which African voters opted for another party, and sent Zuma in to wrest it away, Zulu ethnic mobilisation being a useful tool at the time. (Mbeki, of course, remains trapped in conspiracy theories that this was all the ‘counter-revolution’…) Or the Polokwane generation for whom the hopelessly compromised Zuma was a useful way of taking control of the party – the implications for the country, for its institutions and for the corruption epidemic being a distinctly third order priority. (Let’s not forget the role that the SA Communist Party and Congress of SA Trade Unions played in this process, especially as they now plead their own piety and rectitude.)

In all respects, some introspection about the nature of the ANC’s offerings and the orientation of the electorate would not go amiss. I don’t expect to see much of it.

That said, the ANC remains the country’s largest party, and retains important constituencies. Its dominance of predominantly rural provinces such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape is firmly intact. It’s far from a spent force, although the past election has shown that it faces some grave risks, perhaps being pushed back into a mode reminiscent of a Bantustan party of yesteryear, increasingly reliant on the support of rural folk along with those directly dependent on the reach of its patronage.

This raises a subsidiary possibility, that drawn out of the space it has long operated in and unable to adapt, it could face a very rapid decline. We’ve seen this with the National Party that had – all things considered – a relatively successful entry into democracy, with 20.4% of the votes. A decade later it was folding itself into the ANC. Or the ANC itself in the Western Cape, which has shown itself singularly unable to function as an opposition. In these polls it fell to 19.6%. 

The Democratic Alliance put on a respectable showing, but not much more. It’s a percentage point larger than it was after the 2019 polls, but it wasn’t back at the level it reached in 2014. 

I must confess to some wry amusement at watching the way in which the DA has been covered  by the press over the past few years. For much of the commentariat, the question has been why the DA has failed to grow to proportions that would make it capable of taking on the ANC. Invariably this leads to criticism of its stance on race, on being ‘too negative’, the ‘exodus of black leaders’ and so on.

I think this misstates the issue. The DA fundamentally represents a coalition of multi-racial middle-class interests, and multi-class ethno-racial minority communities. This is actually quite a feat for a divided society. Non-racialism is frankly not everyone’s cup of tea – RW Johnson said recently that this is a challenge for the DA, as it needs to actually live this, and not just talk about it. South Africa is a diverse society, and that means something much more profound than varying skin tones.

I also wonder whether its current level of support may be within the ballpark that is about as good as it gets for a political party in South Africa’s emerging party space. If the era of dominant party rule is over, what replaces it? Do we get winning parties at election time, or just parties that perform better or worse than their competitors?  

That is where I think the DA is.

Interestingly, the DA was the focus of an inordinate amount of attention this time around. The opposition field was crowded, and because most of these parties were intentionally or in effect fighting for the same constituency as the DA, it faced a multiplicity of challenges. For the most part, it saw them off (the Patriotic Alliance being a small exception). 

Yet much of the commentary about the DA represented a twist on what had gone previously. Where it was once criticised for focusing on its opponents, and not offering enough of a vision of its own, now  its critics have taken to scolding it for not paying enough attention to its opponents and being too caught up in its own interests. Sparring with Rise Mzansi was denounced as divisive against a valuable new political addition; not being willing to commit to rescuing the ANC from its failings an act of betrayal of South Africa. (Melanie Verwoerd wrote a truly bizarre article saying that the DA would be to blame if the ANC and EFF formed an alliance.)

As for the Multi-Party Charter, it was largely ineffective, failing to garner even 30% of the vote. In hindsight, it is less than clear what its practical advantage would have been. The participating parties declared their commitment to cooperation, but ran separate campaigns and fielded separate lists. I understand there was some stepping down in municipal by-elections to accommodate one another. This was important, but limited in impact. There was also a lot of obvious bad blood between some of the players, some of it personal and some grounded on strategic differences. So, no great pickings there, and it’s unclear whether it will endure. But – and don’t underestimate this – it has given the broad reformist opposition experience in cooperating on a campaign. Can this be sustained and built on? Is it worth doing?

The left

Off to the left – and yes, this is the left – the EFF and MK made their mark.  

The EFF was a marginal loser. Its small regression will dent its own narrative about being the heir to the liberation movement tradition, and the authentic voice of post-1994 radicalism. Liberation movements, as RW Johnson once said, must always be on a forward momentum. 

The EFF is an expression of leftist, vanguardist authoritarianism. It’s a form of politics that would be recognisable in the ascent to power of an authoritarian group in a weakened democracy, selectively using the institutions against themselves. Those among South Africa’s ‘progressives’ who have a dewy-eyed attachment to Cuba or Venezuela can see that mode of political operation taking place right here: the contempt for legal niceties in pursuit of political advantage, the stern discipline of the party above all, the veneration of the leader.

The EFF’s disappointing electoral returns speak to a few things. Firstly, in this election it tried to present itself both as a resistance movement (its dominant posture thus far) and a government in waiting. These two things sit uncomfortably together, and mixed its messaging – and frankly, it’s doubtful that there was much of an audience for the EFF-as-a-responsible-government. 

Secondly, its ideological and political appeal has limited resonance. There is a significant volume of polling showing that South African opinion is generally conservative and moderate. Railing against capitalism doesn’t play as well as some observers assume. 

There may also be something in its mode of operation that is profoundly off-putting to its audience. The rowdy, threatening conduct and the disrespect that characterises its behaviour are not well-received by many ordinary people, even those frustrated with the state of the country, and in principle receptive to the EFF’s message. Remember for context that when Julius Malema was a member of the ANC in good standing, and a visible face of its 2009 campaign, his appearances were carefully managed – he was kept out of rural KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, where he would have been more of a liability than an asset.

And this brings us to the big story of the election, the emergence of MK. This has been the country’s most successful political insurgency: in a matter of months, it went from resentment around Zuma and the treatment he’d received to taking 14% of the vote and reducing the ANC to third place in KwaZulu-Natal.

There is a lot going on there. MK was able to commandeer parts of the provincial ANC, to mobilise general dissatisfaction and frustration at exclusion along with Zulu ethnic sentiment, and to invoke former President Zuma’s very considerable charisma. The mix of indignation, identity and personalised leadership constitutes to my mind the purest expression yet in South Africa of that overused concept: populism.

Here I’d like to pause and note another failing in much of the country’s political commentary. Zuma is in many quarters an enormously popular figure. Helen Zille describes him as the most charming man she’s ever met, and opinion polling confirms that for a chunk of South Africa’s people, he is held in very high regard. I am somewhat puzzled by the reticence I sense in some commentators to acknowledge this. Perhaps, for all the finger-wagging about the need to understand ‘the people’, there is some difficulty in recognising that the latter are not the same as those who attend one’s dinner parties.

MK has emerged as an anti-establishment protest party, embodying the rejection of constitutional democracy, and I’d say of South Africa as it presently exists. It’s a hazardous venture, illustrating just how far our politics has sunk. Let’s not forget either what this says about the ANC: these impulses did not emerge from nowhere and were on display when Zuma occupied the Union Buildings with the enthusiastic support of his party.

Whether this is a viable long-term endeavour or merely the vehicle for Zuma’s retribution is hard to tell, though I’d caution that the current conjunction of crises in the country gives it (or like-minded insurgencies) plenty of material to feed off. 

The election also threw up a blaze of smaller offerings, some established and some new. Not much has changed here. Groups like the Inkatha Freedom Party, Freedom Front Plus, African Christian Democratic Party and GOOD held their ground, with some gains and some losses, but no major changes. The IFP’s opportunity to reassert itself as the voice of Zulu identity was curtailed by MK, though the overlap in constituency between them in KwaZulu-Natal raises interesting questions about the possibilities of cooperation, at least on this level. (Again, what will happen with the MPC?)

The new suite of parties – the PA (not technically new, but having made a breakthrough), Action SA, Rise Mzansi, Build One South Africa and so on – delivered mixed performances. With the exception of the PA, these were underwhelming. This should not have been surprising, given the difficulty that new formations have had breaking into the political space. Party brands and established organisations matter.

Action SA’s modest traction surprised me a little. In policy terms, it’s quite well aligned with South African opinion, and Herman Mashaba’s life story is a compelling one. I think it is a going concern as an organisation, but it will take sustained hard work over time. And time will tell if it and its leaders have the fortitude to do the work. Herman Mashaba and Michael Beaumont have announced they will not be taking up seats in Parliament, and will focus on party growth towards the next municipal elections. This makes sense; their Parliamentary caucus is to be led by veteran politician Athol Trollip (a good option, in my opinion). 

Those who attempted to showcase a ‘new’ type of politics – here I’m thinking of Rise Mzansi, Build One South Africa and the various independent candidates – will have been disappointed. This is despite the hype around them by some in the media and civil society. This was foreshadowed by the farce around Change Starts Now, a project that combined hubris and naivety in equal measure. Yes, there were some intellectually engaging ideas in the new party space, but again, nothing that could break the established party system and the broad currents represented within it. BOSA tried to run a highly personalised campaign, very much I think on the lines of a US presidential bid, around Mmusi Maimane (its full name was Build One South Africa with Mmusi Maimane). Its two seats demonstrated that this didn’t work.

And even though there has been animated talk for years about the value of independents, none made it into Parliament. In part, this was because the representative system was rigged against them, but also because we just don’t have much of a view of non-party politics. If someone like Zackie Achmat, love him or loathe him, can’t do it, I don’t see much prospect for independents in the future, at least not until both the electoral system and the political culture are fundamentally reconfigured.

Still, the fragmented small party space – there will be 18 parties in the coming Parliament, of which 11 have fewer than 6 seats – is a reminder of the enduring importance of niche interests, niche constituencies, and niche personalities whose presence is made possible by the low-threshold proportional representative system. And in the present environment, they stand to have outsized influence.

So, what does this mean? 

South Africa’s democracy showed its resilience. We can be proud of that; there are peer societies, not least in our own neighbourhood, where ruling parties will neither tolerate an inconvenient election outcome nor accept one.

But democratic consolidation is more than accepting election reversals. It’s about accepting democracy and the supporting institutions as a fixture of the country’s public life and acknowledging them as an intrinsic good.

Here, we are in uncertain terrain. Not only did reform-minded forces fail to gain much momentum, but anti-constitutionalism and counter-reformists did. Many of the latter have a record of disrupting the operation of the country’s institutions, while others seem poised to do so, on the doubtful premise that they represent the rightful voice of the people – an idea, it must be said, that traces its origins to the ANC’s worldview. The ANC may be fracturing, but some of its pathologies show a disconcertingly enduring half-life.

The immediate challenge will be to constitute a government. This is no easy feat, as the ANC would be the logical core of such an arrangement, and probably more than any party would need to alter its mental framework to deal with it. It has for decades presented itself as the avatar of both revolutionary radicalism and sensible constitutionalism (according to mood and audience). It is now at a point where it can’t do that any longer and it has to choose one side or the other.

The idea of a coalition between the DA and the ANC has been well-received in some quarters, particularly by a nervous and exhausted business community. This is also an idea that pollsters find to be appealing to large parts of the electorate. The DA’s competence and the ANC’s mass appeal and social conscience should do a deal. This can be described as the ‘put petty politics aside and do what’s good for the country’ school of thought.

It’s not that simple. We’ve seen considerable pushback from within the ANC about this. Ideology, as we at the IRR have long maintained, plays a decisive role in the way the ANC operates, and when some of its members term the DA its enemy, this should be taken as fact. Besides, the ANC’s commitment to constitutionalism and clean governance is a flexible one. Cadre deployment and the commandeering of the state for party purposes are foundational to its operation in office. Making an agreement with an interlocutor demanding that party-state separation be taken seriously would be difficult, even for the nominal constitutionalists and tepid reformers in the ANC.

Ideologically, getting together with the EFF would make more sense (MK is probably out, because it represents an unambiguous challenge to the ANC as the latter currently exists). But in this case, enough good sense probably exists to understand the catastrophic consequences for the country – and, more importantly from its vantage point, for the ANC.

If media reports at this time are to be believed, the ANC favours splitting the difference, and convening a government of national unity (sans MK, making it a government of selective unity). I don’t see this working. The divergence in ideological views and perceptions of the national interest would make agreement all but impossible, and my fear is that the ANC would attempt to play the DA off against the EFF, and to co-opt small partners (the IFP and PA) to give it solid dominance of the government. 

For those with an eye for symmetry, at best this would look a lot like the dithering and endless delay-by-commission that has characterised President Ramaphosa’s incumbency. In other words, expect little change and therefore ongoing decline.

This brings us back to the theme of consolidation. Democratic decline is intimately linked globally to the frustrations around economic circumstances, and South Africa’s failures to get the country onto a high-growth path is part of the story behind the rise of MK and the anti-constitutional impulses it embodies.

And so, what we’ve seen is a signifier of democratic consolidation, but one whose short- to medium-term consequences will lead only to more uncertainty. Beyond that, South Africa’s democratic future remains an open question.

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.