South Africans Poised To Shake Up Their Governing Status Quo

The provincial and national elections on May 29 come amid waning support for the ruling African National Congress thirty years after South Africa transitioned to democracy.

What’s at stake in South Africa’s elections?

In recent years, South Africa has struggled with sluggish economic growth, widespread unemployment, unreliable access to power, dysfunctional rail and port infrastructure, crime, and corruption. Polling indicates that more than 80 percent [PDF] of South Africans believe the country is going in the wrong direction. 

The African National Congress (ANC) party has dominated government since the 1994 end of apartheid, the system of institutionalized racial segregation that disenfranchised the country’s non-white majority. Since then, the most significant political contests in South Africa have been those internal to the ANC. But the party’s dominance is now waning as citizens grow increasingly dissatisfied with their government, and numerous high-profile scandals have tarnished the images of many ANC leaders. 

Polls suggest that the ANC could lose its outright majority for the first time, which would force it into a coalition to govern the country, although that is not a foregone conclusion. Still, that prospect is prompting significant anxiety throughout the country, as some of South Africa’s recent experiences with coalition governments at the municipal level have been disastrous. 

The health of South African democracy is also at stake. While the country boasts an impressive civil society, free press, and independent judiciary, political violence remains stubbornly persistent. These elections will almost certainly be free and fair—South Africa boasts highly credible electoral institutions—but Afrobarometer polling shows that 70 percent of South Africans are dissatisfied with the way democracy works in their country. Furthermore, a majority of South Africans are dissatisfied with democracy and say they would give up their ability to elect leaders if they could be assured of security, jobs, and better service delivery from the government. Whether South Africans choose to participate in elections will be an important indicator to watch; low voter turnout could indicate disenchantment with the political system.  

Who is on the ballot?

Dozens of political parties will contest the national elections alongside the ANC. Additionally, independent candidates will be on the ballot for the first time, adding new complexity to the electoral process. The party, or coalition, that accounts for more than half of the four hundred–seat National Assembly then chooses South Africa’s president.  

The most significant challenges to the ANC come from: 

  • the business-friendly Democratic Alliance (DA), with its stronghold in the Western Cape Province; 
  • the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who advocate for radical economic changes such as nationalizing industries; 
  • and the newly formed uMkhonto WeSizwe (MK) Party, which has served as a vehicle for former President Jacob Zuma and his supporters.

Once an ANC stalwart, Zuma was forced to resign the presidency in 2018 after bombshell investigations into corruption under his administration sapped confidence in his leadership. This new political project, the MK Party, is animated by Zuma’s ongoing legal battles and animosity toward current President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC factions that helped to oust Zuma. It combines some of the radical economic policies of the EFF with a call to scrap the constitution and invest more authority in traditional leaders. The Constitutional Court has ruled that Zuma himself is ineligible to stand for election to the National Assembly due to his prior criminal conviction.

No party is likely to win an outright majority in the National Assembly, though one or more could play a role in a coalition government. Ramaphosa is likely to remain South Africa’s President, serving his second, final term.

What are the implications for South Africa’s relations with governments in the region and beyond?

South Africa will continue to play an important role in Africa given the sheer size of its economy, although ongoing instances of xenophobic violence—fueled by frustration with limited economic opportunity—could continue to complicate South Africa’s claim to regional leadership. The country’s willingness to deploy its forces to regional stability operations, as it has recently done in northern Mozambique and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, is not likely to be significantly changed by the electoral outcome.

Should the elections result in an unstable coalition or a governing direction antagonistic to the private sector, the country’s aspirations to serve as a “gateway to Africa” for foreign investors will suffer. Such an outcome would likely also turbocharge South African enthusiasm for further expansion of the BRICS group led by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa and push the country even closer to Russia and China, though South African leaders will continue to characterize such developments as “nonalignment.” Relations with the United States, meanwhile, have been particularly rocky recently in light of policy differences relating to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza Strip. South Africa-U.S. relations would worsen in such an election scenario, with likely implications for South Africa’s duty-free access to U.S. markets. Cooperation with the United States and Europe on the Just Energy Transition Partnership would also likely stall. 

In contrast, an ANC coalition with the DA will likely result in a policy course of nonalignment in name and in practice, as the DA has been critical of some of South Africa’s more pro-Russia decisions. An outright ANC victory will mean a continuation of the status quo, in which the disparate ANC factions drive the government to continue robust economic engagement with Western powers on one hand and to align reflexively with Russia, China, and Iran against those powers on the other. 

Regardless of the electoral outcome, deep-seated elements of South African foreign policy will persist, such as championing the rights of Palestinians and calling for international institutions to reform to better reflect the priorities of African states. 

This article was originally sourced from Council on Foreign Relations

Scroll to Top

Subscribe

Stay informed and ahead of the game with our curated collection of the top 10 stories from Africa each day, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. On Fridays, gear up for the business world as we bring you the 10 most relevant and game-changing business stories. And on Sundays, prepare to be whisked away on a delightful journey through Africa’s vibrant lifestyle and travel scenes.