The Nordic Africa Institute


Peaceful elections made democracy the winner

Date • 3 Jun 2024

The results of the 29 May election have opened a new chapter in South African democracy, with the African National Congress losing majority for the first time since coming to power three decades ago. However, the ANC’s acceptance of the result and call for national unity also showed the strength of South African democracy.

Henning Melber

BY HENNING MELBER, Associate of The Nordic Africa Institute


With the ANC getting only 40.2 % percent of the votes, the result marks a watershed for South Africa. Despite some challenging times ahead, peaceful elections made democracy the winner. Not least the humble and accepting ANC response to the defeat was a showpiece of democratic behaviour. But the devil lies in the detail: Depending on the outcome of coalition negotiations, democracy and political stability could end as collateral damage, sacrificed on the altar of state capture. As researchers Richard Calland and Mike Law opined in the Mail & Guardian External link, opens in new window., “South African politics will never be the same again”. The election result “leaves South Africa at a profound crossroads. It is a seismic moment for democracy, but also a very delicate one.”

The situation is complicated by the country’s constitutional provision to allow for only 14 days of negotiations after the official results are declared. Then the new members of parliament must elect a state president. But it would not be South Africa, if this would spoil the atmosphere. As the Daily Maverick reported live at noon of 1st June: “ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe … greets Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald, who tells him; ‘You are in trouble.’ To which Mantashe responds, ‘we are in trouble like everyone else. Everyone is in trouble.’ They both burst into laughter while shaking hands.”

More of the same?

An independent judiciary as one of the strongest pillars of South African society prevented Jacob Zuma – just as the law stipulates – as a convicted criminal from returning into political office. That MK nonetheless made such significant inroads should ring alarm bells. Additionally, the fact that MK and EFF together received almost a quarter of the votes, is an indication that radical populism appeals to many. The parties now being a third and fourth force in the political landscape as birds of the same feather, are more interested in power for their own material benefits than the well-being of the citizens or the rule of law, willing to abandon one of the world’s most progressive constitutions.

That the ANC might be entering a coalition with the MK seemed unlikely if not impossible, given the role Zuma played in undermining its credibility by state capture and factional battles, and the ruling out of such coalition by the MK. But with these results, MK signalled willingness to consider such an alliance if Cyril Ramaphosa is replaced. There remains a pool of potential successors who in mindset, ideology, action, and greed, were part of Zuma’s state capture faction. These internal divisions made Ramaphosa’s life difficult and made his declared fight against corruption a mission impossible. Ramaphosa’s replacement with such an accepted successor would be tantamount to taking the ANC hostage to the MK.

Somewhat less complicated would be a coalition with Julius Malema’s EFF. This requires a junior third partner to secure sufficient seats/votes in parliament. Such an alliance would - like the MK-option - reinforce the populist pseudo-radical authoritarian tendencies. It consolidates a regime, which cares less about civil rights, the rule of law, and democracy. In this case too, Ramaphosa most likely must make room, though the EFF has not made this a pre-condition.

Both alternatives need an ANC leadership close to Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema. This would be a setback for South Africa’s democracy and the rule of law embedded in a constitution protecting civil liberties and human rights, putting power and greed above the public good. Coming from the ranks of the ANC, both had created new parties with political programmes, which partly oppose the constitutional foundation laid in the mid-1990s. Both were implicated in corrupt practices and showed a willingness to disregard the rule of law. They also risk increasingly strained relations to the West. Foreign direct investments and trade might significantly decline, while the current foreign policy and the geostrategic alliances will be reinforced.

Or a new beginning?

But the constellation also offers an opportunity for policy making, replacing ideology with pragmatism, and guided by delivery of public goods and services. This would be a more convincing form of governance than appealing to a past, which does not – in the present - deliver to those beyond the networks of the cadres. The most unlikely pre-election scenario could be the best one: an ANC-DA coalition (possibly with the IFP as the third partner, if only to also maintain a provincial coalition government in KwaZulu Natal) with Ramaphosa re-elected as Head of State. Those shouting betrayal on both sides should think twice, weighing in the alternative of a Zuma offspring party and/or the EFF in partial command over government, public administration and the state.

A co-habitation of ANC and DA requires flexibility to compromise, both in foreign and economic policy. It relies on Ramaphosa surviving the defeat at the polling stations. For him this could be a golden opportunity to create a legacy as unifier and modernizer as well as party reformer. The ANC has then to part from the image of a liberation movement for the sake of being accepted (and maybe even respected) as a post-Apartheid party leaving behind the nostalgic struggle narrative. For the DA is needs to leave behind its knee jerk anti-ANC disposition.

This might be a point of departure to reshape South African policy and policy makers, replacing the past by fostering a national identity beyond the racial divide. The DA might be less inclined to such an alliance. Becoming an ANC bedfellow could risk its profile and abandons its role as official opposition. But the DA could justify such a move to prevent worse and claim its influence would translate into less corruption and more service delivery.

End of an era

Whichever turn the coalition negotiations take: The heroic narrative of the former liberation movement has been put to rest once and for all. State capture was the grave digger for the patriotic history. As a warning sign, however, the diggers resurfaced in the MK and their aspirations to continue the abuse of state power and public funds to satisfy their own greed.

Zackie Achmat, one of the most prominent social movement activists best known for his campaign against Thabo Mbeki’s fatal stand on HIV/Aids, and successful in securing state funded retroviral therapy, failed to secure the necessary votes as independent candidate to make the cut. Observing the election results, he added his voice to the growing concerns. According to a report by the Daily Maverick he declared: “At a national level, our country is facing a serious ‘Trump moment’ and therefore the two big parties – the ANC and the DA – need to look closely at how they can work together in order to prevent the destruction of our constitutional order.” For him an ANC-DA coalition is the “best in the worst circumstance”.

The South African electorate exposed and punished the limits of a pseudo-anticolonial gospel, which has served as smokescreen for a new Black elite to join an old White elite while the “masses” remain at the margins. Any government serving the ordinary people more than the office bearers in politics, state-owned enterprises, and public administration will be major progress. The outcome of the current horse trading will tell, if this is perceived as a window of opportunity. Whichever way, the ANC will remain part of a government but must eat humble pie.

The lesson is that the limits to liberation under the former liberation movement have finally taken its toll with an electorate not any longer loyal to a party, which does not deliver. As editor Toivo Ndebela commented in the newspaper Namibian Sun External link, opens in new window.: “The ANC’s hardships in this election are a culmination of industrial-scale corruption, high rates of crime and load-shedding, among other sins of governance.”

The betrayal of trust is not a unique feature limited to the ANC. Liberation movements in the region have been over-reliant on history as fodder to garner votes. On balance, often with very little to show as achievements in return for the continued loyalty of voters. The writing is on the wall. After a marked decline of its initial political hegemony, Namibia’s SWAPO will be the next to stand the test of time in the Namibian National Assembly and Presidential elections end of November.

The election result:

  • With 40.2% (-17.3%), the African National Congress (ANC) lost its absolute majority;
  • With 21.8% (+1%), the Democratic Alliance (DA) remained the second biggest party;
  • With 14.6%, the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) emerged as the new kid on the bloc;
  • With 9.5% (-1.3%), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were downgraded to rank four;
  • the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) maintained some bargaining power with 3.9% (+0.5%).

Almost 25 million people who could have voted did not. 13 million eligible voters did not even register, and those voting declined from 66 to under 59 per cent.

Watch the series of videos created around post-election scenarios: