What are the issues?      

With general elections on May 29, South Africa is heading to its most contentious elections since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Recent polls suggest the African National Congress (ANC) will likely receive less than 50 percent of the national vote, thereby necessitating the formation of a coalition. This would be a landmark moment in South African politics, with the party that spearheaded the end of apartheid rule being forced to enter a coalition government and govern with other parties at the national level. This gives many South Africans pause, due to the recent failure of local coalition governments in Johannesburg, Ekhuruleni, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality to deliver services, and their chaotic nature. Moreso, there are few known avenues to political coalitions, with the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), having profound policy and historical differences from the ruling ANC, although it has not fully ruled out a coalition. The third largest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a far-left offshoot of the ruling party, is unlikely to enter into a coalition without extracting major policy compromises, which would taint the image presented by both the ANC and DA.  

Why should we care?  

South Africa currently faces a myriad of challenges – ranging from sluggish economic growth, electricity shortages, and persistent inequities baked into society as a result of apartheid’s legacy. Nevertheless, South Africa remains the largest economy in Africa, with many economic and societal connections to the United States in sectors ranging from automotive manufacturing to electricity. South Africa plays an increasing role in international affairs, exercising sizable influence in international organizations and multilateral fora is evidenced by its position as a perceived voice for the global south and taking a leading role in responses to global crises including conflicts in the Middle East, and thematic areas including nuclear disarmament and food security.  

The result of the elections, and potentially the coalition-building mechanics that will follow, will have a major impact on the country’s domestic and international polices. The degree to which South Africa can successfully address its internal challenges and the positions it takes in international fora will have regional and indeed global implications. Further, the continued inability of the South African government to address its domestic challenges and provide adequate services to its citizens will continue to taint the perception of democracy’s ability to deliver. In a context of continued backsliding throughout the globe, the success of South Africa is critical to the perception that democracy can deliver, not only in Africa, but globally. 

What can be done?   

Despite its challenges, South Africa has strong democratic frameworks and institutions, including one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. These institutions have continuously proven their strength and independence, including the conviction and arrest of former President Jacob Zuma and his subsequent disqualification as a candidate. These actions, taken by the judiciary, law enforcement, and Electoral Commission, demonstrate their widespread strength. However, a simultaneous history of state-capture, widespread corruption, and failure of service delivery has resulted in the perception of these institutions’ effectiveness waning. Therefore, bolstering and improving their independence is key.  

Further, South Africa’s challenges including economic disparities and poor service delivery, many of which have their roots in the apartheid system, have led to rises in political extremism in all segments of politics. This includes a rise in white-minority secessionist movements in the Western Cape, the surge in popularity of the far-left EFF, and militant ethnic-based political movements including the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party of former President Zuma which has gained a sizable following in KwaZulu Natal. This not only erodes social cohesion but makes the country ripe to experience political violence with widespread political and economic implications. Therefore, there is an urgent need to support South Africans, particularly urban youth, to apply their legitimate grievances through constructive engagement in the civic and political ecosystems.  

Given the tense nature of the election and the uncertainty around the outcomes, an emphasis on coalition building and the modalities that it could take are paramount. Regardless of the outcome of the election, there is an urgent need to support citizen driven reforms, with an emphasis in supply-side political will and delivery of services to South Africa’s most marginalized populations.  

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