Can South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa survive the ANC’s election setback?

The governing party must form a coalition government but some opposition parties want the president out of the picture first.

south africa
President of the African National Congress (ANC) and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (2nd R) reacts while casting his ballot at Hitekani Primary School polling station in Soweto on May 29, 2024 [Phil Magakoe/AFP]

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost its majority in the country’s election this week for the first time since the end of apartheid, in a major setback for the party that led the country’s liberation from white minority rule.

The ANC, which has led the country since 1994, has started closed-door negotiations with other parties to try and stitch together a governing coalition — something it had never had to do until now. Yet analysts say that the party’s losses and the pressures it will confront from potential alliance partners have also cast a cloud over the future of the man the ANC had hoped would lead it into another term in office: President Cyril Ramaphosa.

With nearly all votes counted, the ANC has won about 40 percent of the mandate, followed by the principal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, with 21 percent. In third place is the big success story of the election: Former President Jacob Zuma’s uMKhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, which has ravaged the ANC’s core voting base, looks poised to form the government in KwaZulu Natal province, and could prove critical in determining whether the ANC forms the next government under Ramaphosa. The MK party has won almost 15 percent of the national vote, and 45 percent of the vote in KwaZulu Natal, Zuma’s home province.

Already, the MK, whose senior leadership — including Zuma himself — consists of many politicians with ANC roots, has ruled out a deal with the governing party unless it sacks Ramaphosa first. After leading the ANC to its worst-ever electoral performance, Ramaphosa will face intense pressure to stand aside, said analysts.

“They’ve lost the majority and they’ve lost it badly,” said Richard Calland, Africa director at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. “That represents a very significant defeat.”

The ANC is still South Africa’s largest political formation, and it is almost impossible for the next government to be formed without the party, so it will be in a position to drive coalition negotiations, said Callard. “The question is whether Ramaphosa will lead those negotiations or whether he will resign or be ousted in the very short term.”

Those questions are magnified by the limited options that Ramaphosa and the ANC face, as they try to pull together a coalition that can rule.

Zuma vs Ramaphosa: A bitter history

If the ANC and the MK were to team up, they would have a clear majority in parliament. ANC support would also help the MK get across the halfway mark in KwaZulu Natal, giving Zuma’s party a chance to form a government on its very first try: The party was only formed late last year.

Yet, that’s easier said than done, according to analysts.

The ANC’s declining voter support comes against the backdrop of deteriorating public infrastructure, social inequalities and rising crime. South Africa has the world’s highest unemployment, at 33 percent, and youth unemployment is at 45 percent. Rolling electricity blackouts have hobbled the economy.

Ramaphosa and other ANC officials have also faced personal corruption scandals, with the president at one point facing a no-confidence vote due to misconduct allegations.

Yet behind the ANC’s 17 percent vote share drop since the 2019 election, when it won 57 percent votes, is also the surge of Zuma’s MK.

Although Zuma had personally chosen Ramaphosa to be his then-deputy president, the two have since fallen out. Their gripes date back to 2018 when Zuma was forced by the ANC to resign as party leader and as president due to multiple corruption scandals he was mired in.

Stepping in as party leader and president, Ramaphosa set up a commission of inquiry to investigate Zuma and alluded to his former boss’s presidency as years of corruption and waste. Zuma, in public statements, took countless swipes at the president and the ANC in return.

Last December, Zuma backed the new opposition MK party while still claiming to be part of the ANC, leading to his suspension. Analysts predicted then that Zuma aimed to challenge Ramaphosa and split the ANC vote in this week’s elections, using his loyal support base in KwaZulu Natal. He has now delivered on that threat.

“This is about ‘unfinished business’ between the two as President Ramaphosa has said before,” said Sanusha Naidu, an analyst with the Institute for Global Dialogue. “Zuma feels he needs to be vindicated for being blamed for corruption. He feels the institutions have been against him. The MK doesn’t see the ANC under Ramaphosa as being a credible, legitimate organisation.”

A difficult coalition

Despite overseeing a steep downslide in the ANC’s fortunes, Ramaphosa has — until recently, at least — been the party’s most popular face. In internal ANC polls in March, the politician was found to be the most popular of major party leaders and ranked higher than even the ANC itself. That makes it harder for the party to replace him, said analysts.

A former union leader, one-time Nelson Mandela protege, and a wealthy businessman, Ramaphosa is credited by supporters for his steady pragmatism, and for polishing South Africa’s image globally as a fighter for underdogs in “Global South” countries.

His presidency has especially been lauded for backing Palestinians and bringing a historic genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice over the war on Gaza. This month, the World Court ruled that Israel halt its military assault on Rafah in southern Gaza — a requirement under international law that Israel has ignored as it has continued its attacks on the Palestinian city.

Instead of the MK, a grand coalition with the DA might offer both the ANC and South Africa a more stable governing alliance, said analysts. That won’t be easy. Critics of the DA have accused it of leaving towards the interests of the country’s white minority, and the party has been a staunch critic of the ANC and Ramaphosa. Ahead of the election, it promised to “rescue South Africa from the ANC” and pledged never to form a coalition government with it.

Now, though, it has indicated that it is not closing any options. And analysts say an ANC-DA combine could be the best option for the country at the moment, uniting the nation and boosting investor confidence in Africa’s most advanced economy.

“The two have deep differences, but those are not insurmountable,” Ebrahim Fakir, analyst at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy, said. “With that, the ANC has a better chance of stability and of rehabilitating government institutions which have been hollowed out – even if just in the short term.”

Another option, Fakir added, would be a national unity government, where all parties with above 10 percent of votes would be given cabinet portfolios. It’s the type of government Nelson Mandela headed after first coming to power in 1994.

Either way, there will be challenges, Fakir warned. “If the ANC goes with the DA or for a government of national unity, the different parties will try to undermine or show up each other, so both have their dangers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ANC must consider another factor in its own leadership calculations, said Naidu of the Institute for Global Dialogue: Will removing Ramaphosa from power actually help the party recover?

“Even if Ramaphosa is made to leave or he feels he needs to leave, it doesn’t resolve the issue of the ANC’s stabilisation nor does it resolve the issue of if the party can put the country ahead of itself,” Naidu said. “This is where we need that level of rationality and pragmatic thinking in the party.

“It’s not just about what happens to Ramaphosa, it’s really about the country, the markets, and most importantly the people.”

Source: Al Jazeera