Seldom does a political scene change dramatically. Rather, it shifts over time. If the shifts are consistently in the same direction they’re worth watching closely. That is the main message from the 2014 South African national and provincial election. Briefly: the ANC is on a slow decline, the combined opposition is rising, the ANC continues to lose support faster at provincial than at the national level while the main metropolitan centres may see ANC support fall below 50% at the 2016 municipal elections. Looking for coalition partners to maintain or take power is beginning to become the next focus.
We have to get rid of some illusions. This is not a race between two big parties which in the long run will alternate in the seat of power. Rather it will be shifting set of coalitions – quite likely with different coalition partners at different levels of government. Thus, the ANC may need the more radical EFF to hold on to power in Gauteng in future. But the DA may also be able to cobble together a coalition with a number of smaller parties. Thus also in the main cities. And in many smaller towns too – as is already happening.
The electoral system of proportional representation usually makes for two biggish parties – each with around 40% support, a third party at around 10% and half-a-dozen small parties sharing the remaining 10%. It is not an immutable law and exceptions are possible but it does provide a broad background against which one must judge the shifts.
The results underline the big a shifts – the ANC down from 70% in 2004 to 62% in 2014, the DA climbing from 12% in 2004 to 22% this year, the third parties falling away and a new one appearing - COPE replaced the IFP last time around, this year it is the turn of the Economic Freedom Fighters, based on anger and a redistributive policy.
Note, by the way, the DA is the most non-racial party and the second biggest black one.
The next election battle has begun – for 2016 the focus will be on Pretoria, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. All three may go to a DA coalition. In 2019 all eyes will be on Gauteng, the economic heart of the country, and the large and empty Northern Cape. The ANC lost support in all provinces, except KwaZulu-Natal, so further surprises are not impossible. The ANC at national level? If present trends continue it should still hold on to power. At worst, although it is unlikely, can still do it in coalition with a smaller party or two.
The holy grail of South Africa is the constitution. Its major part can only be changed with a two-thirds majority – as the ANC and EFF can muster. For EFF policies to be implemented, drastic changes will be necessary. Such a coalition is theoretically possible but has three counts against it: the deep loathing in the ANC against EFF leader Malema, that the ANC has had a two-thirds majority before and did not change the constitution and the fact that it was a strong driver in writing the constitution in the Nineties.
But, then, the word “never” does not exist in politics.
The real place to watch is the left of the ANC. There is the EFF, which has started modifying its loud restributive noises as the reality of its new role sinks in. The metalworkers union, NUMSA, has already said it will start a socialist party, and when and if it does, expect the EFF to be subsumed in it.
The important development is that the Socialists are unlikely to just replace the ANC but might take enough votes away on the left while the DA on the right will keep on chipping away – which may, but not need not, mean that the ANC loses enough on its flanks to fall to just below 50%. But as explained above, this does not mean the party has to give up power, but matters wll change significantly as it will have to share power.
What does all of this mean?
One has to look beyond the rhetoric. There is a real battle of words going on between EFF and ANC and it will attract a great deal of media attention. But, remember, none of these radical promises (redistributing land , interfering with ownership rights, expanding state holdings in mineral and energy fields, and more) can pass must muster in the Constitutional Court as the constitution simply does not allow it.
In any case, the National Development Plan is official ANC policy and was reaffirmed by president Zuma a day after the election. Yet there is more than one interpretation of the document possible and Zuma has to balance competing strands of economic approaches under one roof. Also, does the party go clearly and unequivocally for the NDP part which allows more space for the private sector knowing that the political space on its left is being closed down.
Fact is, the ANC may find itself in a position now where movement to the left has been pre-empted and it may just return more clearly to the more free market approach it espoused in the Nineties. It does realise it needs economic growth to address poverty, inequlity and unemployment – and it increasingly accepts it needs the private sector and has to make life easier for it rather than more difficult.
Don’t expect big public announcements, though. Keep an eye on who gets Treasury, what happens at the Reserve Bank, Trade and Industry, the new SMME ministry, under whom does the NDP fall.
And the ANC? It has to watch both flanks now. As South Africa urbanises – and it does so very rapidly – so the ANC base shrinks. As does the belief that it was the sole liberation force – there are the trade unions, the UDF, the black consciousness movements, the National Party which voted itself out of power, the old security establishment, sanctions, diplomatic pressure – a real “soup of liberation forces”. This means it must govern effectively, not ideologically, to be able to stay top of the log.
It must mean internal divisions will come to the fore, both on matters of economic policy and that other bugbear – who gets what job, tender, which spoils. The ANC future will be an uhappy one. And interesting, what with a communist party in the ruling alliance threatened on the left by a new Socialist Party and a supporting trade union movement relooking its relationship with the ANC.
And then there is Zuma and Nkandla – which will not go away and will eat at the party’s credibility.
There will be many and loud noises about ridding the country of corruption and nepotism. But these may have become so systemic that it will take harsh and consistent action and not just expressions of a desire for change.
In short, look beyond the rhetoric: the ANC, over time, gradually losing support to the left and right, possibly sharing power in a coalition to stay in power, sounding left but fiddling in the middle. But: no revolution in economic or political terms. South Africa is really quite a surprisingly conservative country.