The ANC and South Africa's 2024 elections: A nightmare of coalitions, splits and neoliberal crisis (plus: Amandla!: Elections 2024 — A wake up call for the left)

[Editor’s note: South African human rights activist Salim Vally will be speaking at Ecosocialism 2024, June 28–30, Boorloo/Perth, Australia. For more information on the conference visit]

First published at Amandla!.

The African National Congress is certainly fighting its most difficult election since the dawn of democracy in 1994. This may sound like a cliché that gets echoed every election, but now it’s true. The unabated decline of the electoral support of the ANC has been happening since 2009, when Zuma became President. It will now make the ANC fall below 50% of the vote. Almost all polls put the ANC around 45%, tending towards 40%. If you think polls are doomsayers, just look at the 2021 local government results— the overall ANC vote was 45.59%. 

The trend over the last 15 years has been that local government election outcomes tend to be a precursor to national election results when it comes to the ANC. In the 2011 local elections, the ANC got 61.95%, and in the 2014 general election it declined to 62.15%. In the 2016 local elections, the ANC received 53.91% of the vote and even lost the big metropolitan municipalities of Joburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay. In the following general election in 2019, it declined to 57.50%.

The trajectory of the ANC decline will continue even in 2024, with it getting not far from the 45% it got in the 2021 local elections. It is also clear that the pace of the ANC decline has tended to be faster, considering the outcomes of the 2019 general election and 2021 local elections. Thus, the ANC is facing a nightmare of unworkable coalitions and splits that mark the chaotic unfolding of the deepening ANC crisis, as it approaches the 2024 general elections, and beyond.

ANC engaged in a fake renewal

The nightmare is made worse by the fact that they have been pretending to be engaged in a renewal process to self-correct, since Jacob Zuma left the ANC presidency in 2017. This sham of a renewal process has made matters worse for them because they have claimed they are ditching corruption and embarking on a radical economic transformation; to restructure the Reserve Bank, implement a radical land reform, and redistribute wealth and income in the economy for the benefit of the poor black majority. This was all a blue lie, and they know it!

Now they are more discredited, even worse than in the Zuma years, because they don’t have a Zuma and Ace Magashule to scapegoat for their mess. If you want to see that they did nothing about corruption, look no further than their parliamentary list. You will see many of those implicated in the Zondo commission on state capture and corruption. Worse even: their current President Ramaphosa’s ascent to high office was based on an anti-corruption ticket. But he has a big cloud hanging over his head: the Phala Phala scandal that involves a stack of cash of more than half a million US dollars, whose real source remains unexplained.

The ANC used its majority in parliament to block the impeachment inquiry arising from serious violations and crimes by the President at Phala Phala, as established prima facie by the Independent Panel of two retired judges and one senior advocate. The formal reason they advanced when they were squashing the recommended parliamentary inquiry was that the President has taken the report of the Independent Panel on review in court. Once the ANC parliamentary majority voted down the report, the President went back to court to withdraw his review, on the grounds that the report of the Independent Panel had become academic since parliament had rejected it. Those are pure monkey tricks of the ANC to evade accountability!

The arrest of the Speaker of parliament following a R4.5 million bribe scandal, during an election period, has added fuel to the flames.

Unemployment, poverty, the delivery of public services including health, education and housing, and the deterioration of public infrastructure have all got worse since Ramaphosa took over at the 2017 ANC conference, on the back of a radical economic transformation that was going to improve the lot of the poor black masses. There are no radical policy interventions that have been put in place. So both the proclaimed anti- corruption stance and radical economic policies, which are the twin pillars of the sham ANC renewal, have fallen flat.

On the contrary, we have witnessed heightened neoliberal austerity of budget cuts in important public services, including health, education, housing and roads, and on government workers’ wages. Austerity has also extended to the reactionary, tight monetary policy of increasing interest rates. This is supposed to be to fight off inflation. But that inflation did not come from the oversupply of money, but from price increases by monopoly corporations and from imports due to breaks in global supply chains, following the Covid slump and the Ukraine war. This fiscal and monetary austerity has worsened the cost of living for poor families, workers and the middle classes.

The rise of the dangerous right: Zuma and his MK party

Ordinarily, Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe party should not be posing any serious threat to the ANC electoral support because, according to Ramaphosa’s ANC, Zuma presided over “nine wasted years of corruption and state capture”, and Cyril is a renewal man. If anything, the ANC should be saying ‘good riddance’ now that Zuma has his own party that is based on Zulu tribalist mobilisation and defending his legacy of corruption. But on the contrary, Zuma and his MK party have added to ANC woes, so they are terrified to the core.

Zuma’s party is seriously threatening to take away significant ANC support in KZN, and in some parts of Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Some polls even put the MK party at 13% of the national vote, ahead of the EFF. If this threat to the ANC electoral support is real and the polls are to be believed, then the ANC is a reactionary party that shares with the MK party reactionary tendencies such as backward tribalist mobilisation and corruption. The praises the ANC gave to King Goodwill Zwelithini and Mangosuthu Buthelezi on the occasion of their respective passing in 2021 and 2023 also bear testimony to this. They praised these two as great patriots who fought for peace and democracy. This is contrary to their recorded history as reactionaries derailing our democracy, apartheid collaborators and the mass murderer that Buthelezi was.

As part of this rightward drift of embracing reactionary traditional leaders, with the hope to lure rural votes, ANC has now secured the endorsement of the criminally convicted King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo on its 2024 election campaign trail, after they wrestled him away from the EFF.

Zuma is a rightwing force whose danger to national stability and security was highlighted during the 2021 July unrest. Of course, Zuma’s rightwing political rise is on the back of the declining democracy and the deepening neoliberal crisis.

The ANC fears Zuma so much that they have not expelled him as an ANC member, despite the fact that he has violated the ANC’s own constitution by forming a party outside the Alliance and campaigning against the ANC. They only suspended his ANC membership long after he had announced the formation of, and started campaigning for, MK party. They claim their reason for not outright expelling Zuma is tactical; they don’t want to make matters worse in an election period. Yet they are busy fighting Zuma in the courts, trying to get his MK party deregistered and to stop using the uMkhonto weSizwe name and logo, since those are associated with the ANC brand.

Their approach on Zuma is confused because they are not principled and they don’t have control of a lot of stuff in their terrain; it can blow up their face any time, because the ANC implosion resembles an empire of chaos. The Zuma split is part of the deepening ANC crisis.

The nightmare of unworkable coalitions

The experience of coalitions in municipalities has been bad, fraught with unstable coalition governments, wherein mayors, executives and council speakers are changed willy-nilly. Given the big possibility (almost a certainty) of the ANC falling below 50% nationally, and losing Gauteng and KZN, they are panicking and want to be ready for coalition governments. They have attempted to make a law that would regulate the stability of coalition governments, but they have failed. They have also failed to formulate a coherent political strategy for coalitions because the ANC has become a political mess, unable to coordinate any big and complex political project.

As Hein Marais correctly points out in his 2011 classic book, South Africa Pushed to the Limit: 

The ANC now hosts such a disparate assortment of interests, ideologies and ideals that the progressive impulses are mitigated by a mishmash of coarse tendencies. The ANC can no longer credibly claim to be the custodian and manager of a coherent liberation project…Powerful sections of the ANC have acquired a reflective sympathy for policies that put the market ahead of society, and that push the pursuit of social justice deeper into the shadows. 

The ANC can’t agree among themselves to have a coalition with the EFF on the basis of a strategic perspective. They are also embarrassed to openly declare that they are more likely to go with the liberal DA. Maybe they will go with smaller parties if they fall below 50% only by a small margin.

Again, there is a permanent feud between ANC and EFF when it comes to agreeing on radical policy positions. EFF is always out to discredit the ANC as a sellout party. The 2021 experience of trying to amend Section 25 of the Constitution, in order to clarify the possibility of a radical land reform that is free of market forces, is a case in point. The EFF rejected the proposed amendment from the ANC-dominated parliamentary committee that was worded: “where land and any improvements thereon are expropriated for purposes of land reform…the amount of compensation may be nil.” The EFF objected and instead insisted on the wording expropriation without compensation”. Thus the constitutional amendment to easily enable radical land reform did not pass, as it did not get the required two-thirds majority of the vote in the National Assembly.

It is not clear if the ANC will talk to Zuma’s MK party to form coalitions, given the animosity between the two.

Despite desperate attempts ANC crisis deepens 

The ANC in Gauteng has been pursuing a massive programme of public sector employment. This should be commended. The neoliberal restructuring of the economy that has been consolidated by the ANC government since 1994 has been shedding jobs and making unemployment worse, with no private capital investment to expand output and create jobs on a large scale. Given the big numbers that are cited of those employed since last year (more than 90,000), these employment opportunities should be enhancing the electoral fortunes of the ANC in Gauteng, as a province where the ANC is set to lose.

However, it does not seem this employment scheme will work wonders for the ANC because it was implemented too late, close to elections, when the electoral noise and heat overwhelms everything. Most of those who got employed will probably vote for the ANC, but their number falls way too short to make a dent in improving their desperate electoral fortunes in Gauteng. It is unlikely that other voters who are unemployed will vote ANC with hopes inspired by the employment scheme, believing that their turn is coming. They will probably not vote ANC because of the cynicism that is widespread among voters from accumulated disappointments and failures since 1994.

30 years is certainly a long enough period to fail, trying to pursue a development strategy and trying again, and again, until you succeed. But with the ANC, the failure has been dismal because they were not committed to any sovereign development project. Instead, they succumbed fully to the dominant neoliberal development philosophy that allots a decisive role to market forces.

This election therefore depicts a decline of democracy, the deepening neoliberal crisis and the rise of the rightwing parties (MK, ActionSA, Patriotic Alliance, Freedom Front Plus) and rightwing social forces. The ANC decline continues unabated, yet there is no party that is winning an outright majority. It is a political crisis of absent political and social forces capable of posing an alternative, radical social vision that strengthens democracy and advances a development agenda that is buttressed in the social demands of popular classes, who constitute the majority of the population.

The ANC crisis has become an intrinsic part of the neoliberal capitalist crisis deepening in our country and globally. A meaningful exit out of this crisis is not to renew or reform the ANC. That is not possible. The ANC has to be transcended with a socialist revolutionary advance to exit from the deepening neoliberal crisis. Mass movements that wage mass struggles that have to register decisive victories must be built urgently. Of course, that has to be done outside elections but then exert political weight on elections, on the basis of political victories scored before elections, not after. Failure by the Left and popular classes to live up to this task and challenge will perpetuate the ruinous crisis as it gets worse.

Gunnett Kaaf is a Marxist activist and writer based in Bloemfontein. 

Elections 2024: A wake up call for the left

First published at Amandla!.

The coming 2024 national and provincial elections are the most significant since the ’94 ‘freedom elections’. Yet once again there is no credible left-wing or anti-capitalist force contesting. By all accounts, the ANC is not likely to win an outright majority, and new configurations of power might emerge. The failure to be present in these elections is indicative of the state of the Left and of the labour and social movements. They are a shadow of the movements which were so decisive in dislodging the racist National Party regime from the Union Buildings.

30 years of ANC rule has been a disaster for our country and for poor and working class people. The rate of unemployment has climbed to one of the highest in the world. Inequality has deteriorated to the worst in the world. Violence against women is at horrific levels. On average a woman is raped every 25 seconds, and one is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours. Most local municipalities are unable to provide basic services to their people because of gross underfunding.

The corporatisation and marketisation of state owned enterprises has been a disaster. Eskom and Transnet are in a death spiral. Highly indebted, they are unable to meet the electricity and transport needs of people and the economy. The same is true of almost all other SOEs.

The Left vacuum

It is therefore tragic that the Left which has developed a cogent critique of neoliberal policies is not able to promote real alternatives, at the very time the electorate is wanting real solutions.

All the fragments of the opposition to the ANC (and each day a new fragment emerges) offer largely superficial and false explanations for the current state of the nation. For the DA and its allies, it’s corruption and cadre deployment. For the populists, it’s either illegal immigrants or the failure to protect Christian family values. For the ANC breakaways, it’s not enough BEE and the vacuous notion of radical economic transformation.

The failure of the Left to constitute a credible force has given rise to a farcical situation: corrupt populists, who once led the ANC, opportunistically repackage themselves as left-wing radicals. Zuma and his MK Party are just the most recent case. There is Ace Magashule and his African Congress for Transformation, Marius Fransman’s People’s Movement for Change and of course the EFF, where Carl Niehaus has found yet another home. For the new kids on the block (parties like the Patriotic Alliance and Action SA), their election strategy is to appeal to the worst sentiments of a people made desperate by the socio-economic crisis. They outbid each other to be the most stridently xenophobic, homophobic and tough on crime.

The disastrous showing of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party in the 2019 elections has had consequences for the entire Left. It signals the demise of what was referred to as the ‘Numsa moment’ in 2013 — an opportunity for the renewal of independent Left politics rooted in mass popular movements. It reinforces the mistaken idea that it is difficult to build democratic, radical, mass-based political movements which can successfully contest elections; the idea that electoral politics is not where the Left should intervene. Equally, the drift by the EFF towards crude nationalistic politics, and its evolution towards becoming just a radical version of the ANC, will stand as a blockage to the renewal of a militant Left politics.

The consequence for a genuine, democratic socialist Left is that, even if it was in a position to enter the election fray, it would find itself in a congested field, struggling to distinguish itself from the many imposters.

And then there are the large numbers of the potential constituency of the Left who have become so disillusioned with this situation that they have opted out, not even bothering to register to vote.

Elections are expensive affairs. Mobilising finances to compete with bourgeois parties, without sinking into opportunism, bent by reliance on questionable donors, is potentially a massive problem for a Left dependent on the support of those who own nothing.

Resolving the electoral absence of a credible Left is urgent. It will require a deep rethinking of Left perspectives and strategy which will provoke a substantial reorganisation of the Left.

The long march to building a mass Left alternative to nationalist politics will face difficult strategic and tactical decisions, particularly with the decline of working class social movements, including the weakening and fragmenting of the labour movement.

Our starting point

Our understanding of the absence of an anti-capitalist party in the coming elections has to go beyond the analysis of Steven Friedman, who puts it down to the centrality of race and racial inequality. A good starting point would be to acknowledge the defeat of the Left in South Africa. The French socialist philosopher and activist, Daniel Bensaid, remarked, when assessing revolutionary strategy at the turn of the 21st century: 

What are we coming from? From a historic defeat. We do best to admit it and gauge its scope. The neoliberal offensive of the last quarter century is both the cause of this defeat, its consequence, and its culmination.

Something was accomplished at turn of the century, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and September 11. But what was it? The end of the ‘short twentieth century’ and its cycle of wars and revolutions? Or the end of modernity? The end of a cycle, a period of time, or an epoch?

Clearly the Left in South Africa has suffered in a similar way. But there are also elements specific to South Africa.

Firstly, it comes in the wake, and as a consequence, of the collapse of the socialist distortion, which was the USSR and its satellite states. Then, as Vishwas Satgar correctly explained:

Two decades of ANC-led neoliberalisation, which has surrendered democracy, development and state formation to capital, consolidated the strategic defeat of the Left and working class in South Africa. The ‘National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) moment’ and process, led by South Africa’s largest (more than 330 000 members) and most militant trade union, is all about confronting this strategic defeat. It is about a battle to determine the future of South Africa the strategic initiative for the country’s working class.

Yet, it is the collapse of this ‘Numsa moment’ which makes the situation for the Left that much more difficult and complex. It is like having to rebuild from scratch. As Stuart Hall, the British Marxist, points out:

When a conjuncture unrolls, there is no ‘going back’. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently’, with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at your and, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’. 

Stalinist politics prevailed

Why did the anti-capitalist Left in South Africa fail to put its stamp on this moment? Old-style Marxist Leninist dogma was dominant, with its in-built authoritarianism and its hold over significant bureaucratic machines such as the SACP, Cosatu and Numsa. This killed off the green shoots of a more open, democratic and pluralist emancipatory politics.

Amongst the protagonists behind the formation of the EFF and Numsa’s SRWP, there may have been a break with the ANC/SACP but not with Congress/Stalinist politics and practices. This is particularly true in relation to the regurgitation of the notions of ‘national democratic revolution,’ the stagist theory of revolutionary change, underpinned by an alliance with the patriotic bourgeoisie, on behalf of the working class. The young activists and cadres thrown up by the worker, community and student struggles were absorbed by these bureaucracies as they searched for a stable income and personal security.

Acknowledging the defeat we have suffered is not to demoralise. It is rather to acknowledge a failure without capitulating before the enemy, knowing that a new beginning could take unprecedented forms.

Towards renewal

There will be no shortcut out of this state of decline. This election may be significant in that it will, in all likelihood, end the complete dominance of nationalist politics. Perhaps, therefore, there will be greater opportunities for a constituency for class politics. But in another sense it will be completely insignificant — it will have no effect on the material lives of the working class and the poor. It will not fix the broken water and sewerage pipes. It won’t stop load- shedding. And above all it won’t move the government away from the neoliberal direction that is shared by most of its political opponents.

For real change, there will be no alternative but to continue to build popular organisations, to fight to recapture the labour movement from its bureaucratic leadership, and to struggle to rebuild unity of the working class movement into a movement for socialism. There must be no more elections without a voice of the Left being on the ballot paper. And that voice must be rooted in active popular organisations.