South Africa at a turning point? How the 2024 elections will shape the future

Photo: EFF leader Julius Malema speaks to media before casting his vote in the elections. Credit: X/@EFFSouthAfrica

Thirty years after the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa finds itself at a political inflection point. The 2024 election saw a collapse in the vote of the ruling African National Congress, gaining only 40% of the vote, 17 percentage points lower than 2019, gaining less than a majority of votes cast for the first time. Turnout was also down 6%. The loss was even more notable as it followed an acrimonious pre-election split in the ANC with former president Jacob Zuma leading a break away party (MK Party).

The election was also a watershed for the various rightwing parties, who cemented their minority — but growing — role in the political landscape. In the wake of the results the political scene is being roiled by negotiations for the first ever coalition government after the end of apartheid. At stake is whether or not South Africa will make rapid progress on poverty and inequality and play a role advancing the struggle to end unipolar U.S. hegemony, or whether it becomes a neutered node for the eroding Western status quo and send its population even deeper into a state of deprivation. 

Results and conditions

South Africa’s voting age population is roughly 42 million, just over 27 million of whom are registered. 16,076,719 registered voters cast ballots. In other words, abstention was the biggest winner of the 2024 election. No political party can claim to represent more than 16% of the adult population. Viewing the elections from the point of view of the voting age population here are the top 4 parties:

  • African National Congress: 15.5%
  • Democratic Alliance: 8.4%
  • uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK): 5.6%
  • Economic Freedom Fighters: 3.6%

Capitalist media is principally framing the election as a rejection of the ANC government. But the results show that, in reality, the election was a rejection of the entire political establishment and the idea that casting a ballot can bring positive change — a reflection of the dire state of the country. 

South Africa’s mineral wealth is generating at least $125 billion a year, with at the least $2.4 trillion worth of minerals still left in the ground. The companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Africa’s largest, were worth roughly $1 trillion in 2023

However, 10% of the population owns 80% of the wealth, with predictable results. Unemployment officially stands at 32.9%, 45.5% among those 15-34. 55% of households do not have running water and 34% still don’t have flush toilets. 50% of the country lives in poverty based on official statistics, 65% in rural areas. Further, by some measures, South Africa has the highest level of income inequality on earth. In addition, 75% of farmland is still owned by whites.

This is also reflected in the results. 64.2% of those who chose to vote went for the ANC, MK or EFF — all of whom pledged to address these issues more resolutely. The ANC told voters they would “end poverty by 2030.” MK and EFF promised voters they will expropriate land without compensation and nationalize mines and banks. Significantly expanded access to healthcare, housing and education, at little to no cost, are touted by all three. Internationally all three have been offering support to Cuba, Palestine, Venezuela and China. EFF leader Julius Malema even pledged to fund Hamas, while MK additionally pledged to prioritize solidarity with Russia.

Whatever one might say about the sincerity or feasibility of particular parties or plans, a clear majority of South African voters are looking for policies that seriously roll back poverty and the legacies of settler colonialism while taking an anti-imperialist approach to international relations. 

Forces at play

Meanwhile, 27% percent of voters supported political parties clearly representing pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist trends, roughly a 3-4% increase from the 2019 election. 

Rising right-wing forces represent an attempt by elements of the ruling class to resolve the contradictions between capital and state under ANC rule. The price for the end to de jure apartheid was to leave the white economic aristocracy in place. This was not an ideal situation for the elites however. They had to acquiesce to a combination of demands. First, the demand for Black inclusion at elite and “middle class” levels, and second the need to address at least some of the demands of the poor, trade unions and communists that play significant roles in internal ANC politics. 

As the political hegemony of the ANC has frayed, elite forces have increasingly funded an array of opposition parties to try to shift the balance of power more in their favor. At the core is the Democratic Alliance. Funded by ruling class families like the Oppenheimers, and “newer” money like gambling boss Martin Moshal as well as some of the largest pro-business political parties in Germany and Denmark. 

Similar donors have spent lavishly in support of parties like ActionSA and Build One South Africa, that try to present a more “Black” face on DA-like policies. Others like the Patriotic Alliance, also emanating from elements of the business community, are rooted in a more right-wing “populist” approach, stressing in particular an anti-immigrant politics, designed to appeal more to the Black poor. 

These pro-capitalist currents are seeking to exploit the decline and fracture of the ANC to open space to force the ANC into a governing agreement where the demands of “the market” are given a greater pride of place and set the stage to overtake them in future elections. 

The ANC is engaged in its own balancing process between its embeddedness with the global imperialist economy and the desire of its base to rapidly accelerate economic transformation. The latter is unlikely to happen without leaning into the shifting sands of multipolarity, further heightening the contradictions with the Western-oriented business elite. 

Coalition politics

This is the context underlying ongoing coalition negotiations. “The markets” and the business community are weighing in heavily to create some sort of coalition government between the ANC and the DA. This would be a decisive shift to the right that would undoubtedly involve further privatization of state-owned companies, implementation of austerity budgets, as well as a cooling of relations with the BRICS, Cuba and Palestine. In other words, it’s likely to take the country in the opposite direction of where over 60% of the electorate would like it to go. 

However, other potential coalition options present challenges for the ANC. Both the EFF and MK are splits from the ANC. Pro-capitalist forces in the ANC fear an alliance with either or both parties will make it more difficult to impose the dictates of capital, and in the case of the EFF in particular, strengthen the hand of socialist ideas in the government. Further, the acrimony that exists between these parties also creates hurdles to a coalition agreement. 

A number of ANC leaders and the Communist Party have been publicly against an alliance with the DA, and it seems like such a deal would likely further split the organization. The Patriotic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party have also been open to coalitions with the ANC and, alongside the EFF or MK, could easily create a parliamentary majority. 

The outcome of these negotiations will be far-reaching. Will South Africa move towards eliminating poverty and stake out its own ground in a multipolar world order? Or regress towards a role more akin to the former apartheid regime as a node for the West in Africa and beyond? 

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