/ 31 May 2024

Elections 2024: Leadership at a time of seizmic political change

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Scenes from the National Results Operations Centre in Midrand, Gauteng. Numerous political leaders, media and government officials are present to watch the results come in on 30 May 2024. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The face of South African politics will never be the same again. Wednesday’s general election has increased the speed and velocity of the country’s transition out of ANC dominance exponentially. 

People from both the left and the right, and especially from the middle class, have been yearning for the end of ANC dominion for decades. Well, here it is folks. This is what it looks like. 

The result of this National General Election leaves South Africa at a profound crossroads. It is a seismic moment for democracy, but also a very delicate one. 

As the smoke clears, a new landscape emerges. It is a rugged, complex and precarious one. 

It is both a victory for competitive multi-party constitutional democracy and a dangerous lurch away from the centre towards the kind of muscular populism, ethno-nationalism and demagogic narcissism that is now a persistent feature of politics across the world. 

There is a clear high road scenario ahead but also a very low road in sight. Both are very much on the table. Risk and uncertainty are rising, and the cause for concern and anxiety is legitimate. 

The stakes are very high. 

With no clear winner, either a coalition government must be formed, or a minority government – presumably the ANC – will have to try and govern without either a majority or a supportive alliance in place. 

The low road would be characterised by the transactional politics of rent-seeking and patronage, and malign consequences in terms of the rule of law, human rights and the constitution’s institutional checks and balances. 

It would constitute a very grave threat to both the progressive and liberal projects, regardless of the emancipatory rhetoric of the populists. After all, MK’s manifesto promises a return to feudalism and the end of constitutional supremacy.   

In sharp contrast, the high road has the potential to seed the maturation of a new political culture in which the partners in government bring out the best in each other, and a wider, deeper alliance of interests is reflected in policy and a sharper sense of accountability delivers better quality public service and governance. 

It would require the moderate actors in the room to put aside their egos and any historical animosity, so as to place the best interests of the country at the centre of their negotiating strategy. 

This will require, in turn, leadership of the highest order. It will require leaders who can balance their own interests and those of their parties with other interests even where a compromise may harm their own interests in the short term or require a sacrifice in power. 

When history throws up moments such as this – of fundamental change and profound complexity and potential crisis – so the opportunity for great leadership to transcend the short-term interests arises. 

Do we have such leaders? We are about to find out. History will speak highly of those that can rise to the moment and judge harshly those that fail to do so.  

Against this extraordinary backdrop, how should the political leadership of South Africa approach the coalition negotiations of the next few days? 

Coalition politics is a whole new way of doing political business than this country’s political parties have become accustomed. While it was foreshadowed, South Africa’s political culture and even its legal framework is not very well prepared for it. 

As one example of the lack of preparedness of the legal system for coalition politics, the Constitution allows only a 14-day period between the time that the results of this election are declared, and the first sitting of Parliament when the constitution requires that the new President must be elected. 

This is abnormally short compared to countries with mature coalition cultures, where coalition negotiations are given the space to form proper and lasting agreements, even if it takes months. 

So the pressure is doubly on. Great leadership is required, and fast. Clear-mindedness as well as courage must be the order of the day (and night).  

Despite the clock ticking, political leaders must resist the temptation of sloppy and transactional deal-making of the sort that has undermined governance at the sphere of local government since 2016. 

What makes for a ‘good’ deal? What are the cardinal elements that will undergird a stable and resilient coalition arrangement? 

First, a good deal doesn’t leave everyone happy. A good deal leaves everyone equally unhappy, but nonetheless sufficiently satisfied with the outcome. 

It can’t be proportional. In other words, just because you have 42% and happen to be the biggest party, doesn’t mean you should get all of the spoils. Power has to be shared. A degree of humility will be required, recognising that the smaller partners are essential to the viability and longevity of the coalition.  

The negotiations must take account of this. It must be realistic as well as reasonable and ambitious. 

Second, therefore, being absolutely clear about the ‘red-line’ issues is vitally important. When the Liberal Democrats in the UK entered into an agreement with the Conservatives after the 2010 election, they failed to be clear and strong enough about their two most important redline issues – free tertiary education and proportional representation, and the Tories double crossed them on both. 

Liberal supporters were furious and abandoned them at the next election in 2015, when their number of seats in the House of Commons fell from 57 to seven. 

Third, if this requires a written agreement to help anchor the coalition, then so be it. Write it down; capture the redlines and establish the rules of engagement for policy-making. 

Fourth, ‘institutionalise’ the coalition – meaning that it needs structural integrity and capability, through dispute resolution mechanisms, independent facilitation and support, and agreed communication channels, both internal and external. 

Political leaders and their wingmen and women will need to invest time and social capital into building trust. Facilitated processes will be needed to achieve this. 

Fifth, make it as inclusive as possible. This points, in South Africa’s context, towards a ‘government of national unity’ type arrangement. On the one hand more parties makes it more complicated, but on the other, it brings more voters into power. 

Politically, at this delicate moment, it may be critical to the legitimacy as well as the stability of the government. If, for example, the ANC and the DA begin to talk seriously about what continental Europeans call a ‘grand coalition’ (as it would involve the two biggest parties), then they would be well advised to invite other parties, such as the IFP, into the tent. 

Regardless, it has to be sufficiently ‘sellable’ to the core constituency of the respective parties. This is especially important in South Africa where parties are sometimes seen as enemies not opponents. The scope for conflict and violence is real. 

In this case, a coalition of the centre will need to be explained and justified on the basis of why it is in the national interest and how it will help build sustainable economic growth. 

The fork-in-the-road moment is tantalising because there is no doubt that a government of the centre, that brings progressive and liberal interests together, would be very well received by investors and the market. It would immediately inject huge confidence as well as capital into the economy. 

By the same token, a government of unruly, populist elements would extinguish such hopes at a stroke and would no doubt stifle the institutional rebuilding that has made steady progress in recent years. 

The hand of history will be weighing heavily on the shoulders of South Africa’s political leaders in the coming hours and days. Men and women such as Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe, John Steenhuisen and Helen Zille, and Velenkosini Hlabisa and Narend Singh have the opportunity to make history together, weaving a new chapter in South Africa’s tumultuous journey. 

Otherwise, others will step into the vacuum and make history of an entirely different kind.