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Democracy on the Line: Four Scenarios for South Africa’s Election

Three decades on from South Africa’s transition to non-racial democracy, the country is once again facing a historic election – but this time, the fate of that democracy is at stake.

Fired up: supporters chant and wave flags during the final African National Congress rally before the national election

On 29 May, South Africans will go to the polls in what is likely to be the country’s most important election since the advent of a non-racial democracy in 1994. It could be the moment when the country shifts from one-party dominance to coalition rule of one or another stripe.

This election occurs amid a backdrop of low economic growth, rising unemployment (which in its broad definition affects 42% of South Africa’s 61 million people, nearly half of whom survive meagre state welfare) and rampant criminality. For some it is a chance to remind the African National Congress (ANC) – Africa’s oldest liberation movement – why it is in power, and how the majority of South Africans now believe it is the ANC, and not apartheid, that is to blame for the country’s woes. Much was expected from Cyril Ramaphosa when he took over from Jacob Zuma as president in 2017, supposedly bringing down the curtain on the era of ‘state capture’ and rampant corruption which had cost the country by Ramaphosa’s own admission over R500 billion, or $28 billion.

To achieve this result, several things will have to change.

For one thing, participation in South Africa’s democracy is weakening, and even this ‘watershed’ election might not fix that.

A yawning chasm of apathy has opened up in South Africa over the last three democratic decades. Fewer and fewer adults of voting age are participating in formal politics; youth registration is abysmally low, just as unemployment among this cohort is shockingly high at over 60%. This pattern of non-participation has grown as the government’s capacity to deliver has diminished and corruption has risen. It is fuelled by a deep cynicism, a view that ‘voting won’t change anything’.

Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that more South Africans voted in the national election of 1994 – some 19,533,498 – than 25 years later in 2019, when only 17,672,851cast their ballots, despite the population growing by 18 million in the same period.

Over the last 30 years, only one of the arms of democratic government, the judiciary, has done its job reasonably well, holding the line against Zuma’s blatant attempts to run roughshod over independent institutions.

Still, the judicial role has not been the perfect story. The weakness – and politicization – of the judicial system must bear its share of the blame for the establishment of a culture of impunity. The failure to prosecute those identified as corrupt by the Zondo Commission’s investigation into the era of state capture has happened on its watch. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that Ramaphosa served as Zuma’s deputy.

While the judiciary has comparatively held firm, the legislature and especially the Executive manifestly has failed to deliver on the democratic promise. Dominated by the government, parliament was admonished for closing ranks on Zuma and it would later cover up for his successor, Ramaphosa, putting aside recommendations by its own commission that there be an investigation into the mysterious appearance of tens of thousands of US dollars in Ramaphosa’s couch. Just as there have been dark spots in the judiciary’s record, however, there have been bright spots for parliament given its role in continuing to highlight – amid some theatre – Zuma’s malfeasance.

But there is more. The Executive has presided over infrastructural decay and a vast network of crooked contracts, the latter laid bare in excruciating detail by the Zondo Commission.

For some the election is a chance to remind the ANC why it is in power, and how the majority of South Africans now believe it is the ANC, and not apartheid, that is to blame for the country’s woes

Instead of moving to strengthen and grow South Africa’s democracy and democratic participation, the Executive has apparently been happy to see the last of disgruntled voters and instead opted for apathy.

And, in another alarming development, it has begun to turn its back on the democratic world in favour of a potpourri of dictatorships, autocracies and theocracies with abysmal human rights records and a penchant for imprisoning and murdering critics.

When South Africa joined BRICS, it become one of three democratic countries – Brazil and India being the other two – in an organisation dominated by Russia and China.

Yet when the opportunity came for South Africa to lead the expansion of BRICS at the 2023 summit held in Sandton, Johannesburg, what did it do? It overlooked Africa’s two largest democracies – Nigeria and Kenya – and instead chose to extend BRICS to Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ethiopia and Egypt, none of which can remotely be described as democratic – thus turning the body from a forum for enhanced trade and cheaper debt into one antagonistic towards democracy.

This was an alarming sign that democracy is no longer the loadstar of South Africa, which nowadays prefers the company of autocrats. New friends have included Iran’s hardline former president, Ebrahim Raisi – the first leader Pretoria consulted after the 7 October terror assault on Israel.

When Raisi died in a helicopter crash earlier this month, Ramaphosa said of a man labelled the ‘Butcher of Tehran’: ‘This is an extraordinary, unthinkable tragedy that has claimed a remarkable leader of a nation with whom South Africa enjoys strong bilateral relations’. There was not even a fig leaf such as ‘although we may have disagreed about democracy’, nor any mention of the thousands imprisoned and executed under Iran’s violent theocratic regime.

Now there is a threat not only in terms of the deterioration of South Africa’s already ineffective governance, but worsening policy.

There are those on the ballot paper such as the MK Party, led by former president Zuma and ranked third in most polls, which are openly in favour of the repeal of the constitution. Others want it to be amended and limited in scope. Some of these parties might end up as minor partners in a new coalition government should the ANC choose to continue its populist trajectory.

This lends itself to four scenarios around the twin-tracks of policy and governance, which we have mapped out in ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Scenarios for South Africa’s Uncertain Future’.

The first – the ‘Good’ scenario – is the only one which provides light at the end of the tunnel, and centres on the formation of a centrist pact built on the opposition’s Multi-Party Charter and the pragmatic parts of the ANC, which together could command as much as 75% of the vote according to the latest surveys.

It is worth asking whether 2024 could be South Africa’s last democratic election, given all the signs: authoritarian friendships, shady funding, leadership impunity, rising violent crime and scant regard for parliamentary niceties

The realisation of this scenario would require South Africa’s establishment to swallow some humble pie, as well as the emergence of the much-talked about but hitherto invisible ‘good ANC’ which would place the majority of South Africans – and not just an increasingly out-of-touch elite fascinated with power and its tantalising economic proceeds – at the centre of policy and implementation.

The good news is that this scenario is part of the way to being achieved thanks to key provinces. It seems certain – or as certain as one can be ahead of elections – that coalitions will run Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, which together with the Western Cape comprise nearly two-thirds of South Africa’s GDP.

This provincial dimension may be just the segue needed to broker a wider national deal that puts the country first. And it is just such a deal that could save the Ramaphosa presidency from a legacy of disappointing indecision and governance failure that may otherwise end in a catastrophic tilt to the populist promise of redistribution. Of course, this ‘Good’ arrangement comes with dangers – not least the danger of the ANC swallowing up the opposition once it has got its breath back, just as Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF weakened the opposition MDC in Zimbabwe after their 2009 unity government leading to a major slide in its popularity.

But overall, this is the only coalition alternative offering an improvement in governance and policy.

The second – the ‘Bad’ scenario – comes in the form of an ‘Animal Farm’ nightmare, where the ANC hooks up with populists who want the constitution and/or private ownership of anything to be scrapped. The ANC, in combination with either the EFF or the MK Party – or either of the latter’s mutant offshoots – would see a rapid descent into populism. Ramaphosa’s trademark dithering would pave the way for these populist forces to seize the public agenda and push him around. In this scenario, for tourists coming for a cheap holiday or businesspeople seeking a quick flip, South Africa ‘won’t seem such a bad place’ – save for those actually living and working there.

This scenario is more likely than most think. The ANC has already flirted with abandoning private property rights; it has launched a R1 trillion National Health Insurance scheme without any funding plan, and there are several powerful members of its leadership who openly desire this outcome. In this scenario it is worth asking whether 2024 could be South Africa’s last democratic election, given all the signs: authoritarian friendships, shady funding, leadership impunity, rising violent crime and scant regard for parliamentary niceties.

‘It’ll never happen to us’ and ‘we’re too big to fail’ are among the famous last words of many other regimes.

The third, ‘Ugly’ scenario can be summed up as more of the same, with the ANC squeaking over the line at just over 50% of the vote and then continuing with the status quo ante. This would mean the prospect of little reform in the human and institutional software required for a modern economy, given the inherent loss of rent, while managing a weak fiscus as the effects of its unsubtle pivot to populism in the form of the signing into law of the National Health Insurance scheme take hold.

The final scenario – the ‘Fistful of Cents’ – would see the ANC fall below 50% but with sufficient votes to form a coalition with one or two smaller parties, possibly including the PA or the IFP. While policy can be expected to remain much the same, this scenario could only lead to even worse governance given the inevitably highly transactional relationships that are likely to be reached with smaller parties, resulting in only limited reform at best.

When South Africans go to the polls, they will be celebrating three decades of democracy. But they will also be carrying a responsibility to protect that democracy, before voting itself becomes a charade.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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