A sea change is coming, no matter how much support the ANC gets

For President Cyril Ramaphosa, any result that is close to 50% will be viewed as a relative victory given the dismal state of the economy, rising unemployment and collapse of state services and associated enterprises. If, despite all the advance bad press, he can still lead his party to a slender victory, it will provide some strength to his arm.

Even scraping through at 51% will see financial markets relatively relieved that the worst possible electoral outcome, that of an ANC/EFF pact, may be avoided.

At least that’s what the theory of this scenario may present — superficially.

For the ANC at 50%, it may be a better result than the ANC at 40% predicted just a few months back, but it is a very far cry from the ANC at closer to 60%. And that makes a real difference. An ANC falling to 50% brings with it a plethora of problems for the party, policymaking and, therefore, the country. 

Even a much stronger ANC closer to 60% had great difficulty formulating clear economic policy. How much more complex will this be if the ANC barely enjoys a majority and, naturally, if it is forced to rely on a small party (or parties) to push it over the 50% mark.

In formulating clear policy, a political party requires internal cohesion, consensus leadership figures and a broader operating environment pushing said policies in a certain direction. At 50%, the ANC will be witness to its worst national result ever. Its leader, Ramaphosa, may escape the sheer indignity of having to cobble together a coalition, yet his own internal position will be destabilised and weakened.

In terms of economic policy, a sobering result for the ANC means making programme choices that either reflect a ramped-up approach towards public-private partnerships or more populist (or statist) policies to placate more radical players. This choice may become especially problematic if complex and combustible new provincial coalitions are required in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

Indeed, choosing a policy direction will also be dependent on the momentum shown by the two main opposition strands emerging in SA. If the market-friendly DA-multiparty coalition (MPC) does well, there will be some leeway for the ANC to shift — however timidly — towards that orientation. Conversely, if the EFF and MK eat into the ANC’s majorities, elements within the party may see this as the reason to revert to populist/radical choices.

A 50% ANC is unlikely, therefore, to be able to show great clarity on its vision for SA. Its weakness will be pried open by opposition parties, which will be quick to take advantage of the ANC’s newfound vulnerabilities.

This does not auger well for a country that desperately needs best-practice policy implementation — and needs it fast. Indecision, vacillation, internal political intrigue and leadership uncertainty may therefore also contribute to a policy impasse.

At 50%, the ANC will face an unpleasant five years of waiting for 2029, when it would stand the chance of being booted from power with greater decisiveness from the electorate.

So, a small win for the ANC is likely to still be an unsatisfying result for the party as it contemplates these challenges. Since its hegemony is being whittled away, its own default to a muddle-through policy platform will no longer be enough to steer it to recovery by 2029.

At 50%, the ANC must make some hard choices. It simply cannot continue down the same road of the past 30 years or it will be relegated to being a minor player after the next election.

A weaker result in 2024 is the ultimate test for the liberation behemoth and its ability to regroup with better policy, practice and implementation. This will be severely tested given the pressures or a weak win on May 29.

More broadly, though, SA politics is changing — even with a 50% ANC win. A dominant political party will now be a party of more marginal power. The blocs to the centre and to the left will pile on the pressure. And if better performance is tough to secure, SA’s existing political system will fragment into competing blocs vying for governing agreements with what’s left of a declining ANC.

While May 30 may see the ANC win an outright victory, that result may still herald a political sea change. But the tides are increasingly high and rough and the years to come — as we all learn to adapt to a new political order — will test cohesiveness across the political, economic and social spectrum.

It may not be same-old after next week, even though it might seem like that initially.

• Silke is director of Political Futures Consulting.

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