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South Africa’s 2024 Election: A Time for Change?

Lachlan Forster

Source: Marco Longari for AFP

On May 29 2024, South Africans will flood the polls to elect a new National Assembly. The vote will determine which of the nation’s political parties gets to form government and appoint a president for the next five-years. Domestic affairs pertaining to South Africa’s economic performance, resource capabilities and political corruption are set to be the dominant topics influencing voters. 

The dominant question lingering over 2024’s elections is the possibility of the African National Congress (ANC) losing the parliamentary majority which it has enjoyed since South Africa’s first post-apartheid election in 1994. Although it is unlikely that the party will not find itself part of the future government, the ANC could be pressured into forming a coalition with the conservative Democratic Alliance (DA) or radically left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). This has the potential to force a shift on historic policy positions which have influenced South Africa’s political direction for three decades. 

South Africa’s Political System 

South Africa uses a bicameral parliamentary system. As such the lower house, the National Assembly, holds 400 seats and the upper house, the National Council of Provinces, comprises 90 seats. A key feature of South Africa’s electoral system is the use of proportional representation. Citizens do not cast votes for individual MPs, but instead for their preferred party. When all votes are cast, the percentage of votes that a party gets is translated into a number of seats in the National Assembly. For example, if a party gets 10 percent of the national vote, it will receive 40 seats in the lower house. The public can view ‘Party Lists’ which order prospective MPs from first to last in line for a political party’s seats, but voters have little power to change the order of candidates. 

The ANC 

The African National Congress constitutes South Africa’s dominant political institution. Best known for its leading role in the struggle against apartheid throughout the latter-half of the twentieth century, the ANC came to political dominance in 1994 when Nelson Mandela led the party to form government following South Africa’s first fully inclusive national elections. The ANC has since held a comfortable majority on a national level and appointed all of South Africa’s post-apartheid presidents, including the incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa

However, coasting on the legacy of Nelson Mandela has proven to be a failing strategy in recent years, particularly on a provincial level. The ANC lost its local majority during the 2021 Municipal Elections, with staggering declines in the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal Provinces, which include the major metropolitan hubs of Cape Town and Durban. 

The motivating force behind the decrease in support for the ANC is the range of corruption allegations that permeate the party’s reputation. Former President Jacob Zumba, who resigned in 2017, has been accused of a wide range of illegal activities from taking bribes in international arms deals to handing contracts and state assets to allies from the private sector. These allegations are crucial in contextualising the confluence of challenges that South Africa has faced in recent years. 

Unemployment stands at 32.1%, whilst police forces fail to combat violent crime as the nation averages 75 killings and 400 aggravated robberies a day. Blackouts are common across South Africa as the electricity grid, operated by state-owned enterprise Eskom, verges on the brink of complete collapse, crippling small and medium businesses which are unable to effectively operate or generate profit for owners. All of these challenges can be connected to ANC corruption, which has led to a series of dramatic resignations including the Speaker of the National Assembly Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and ex-Police Minister Nathi Nhleko.

President Ramaphosa is not free from scandal either, as an investigation into his private affairs was launched after $500,000 USD in cash was discovered under his couch cushions. Although he has been ‘cleared’ of wrongdoing in this case, a police investigation continues, demonstrating the deep-rooted culture of corruption within the ANC’s leadership. 

All of these factors have contributed to the steady decline of confidence from South Africa’s voters in the ANC. The risk of losing their comfortable majority in the National Assembly, which has empowered the ANC to dominate the nation’s political culture, may come as a long-awaited reality check. This would force the party to make a challenging decision: govern from a minority position or form a coalition. 

The DA and EFF 

According to projections, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters are likely to pose the biggest threat to the ANC’s current position of superiority. While both parties provide alternatives to the traditional ANC platform, they adhere to vastly different political ideologies. 

The main opposition party of South Africa, the Democratic Alliance, advocates from a platform of classical liberalism and broadly sides with sentiments of the ‘Western world’, including supporting Ukraine in their struggle against Russia. Its primary base of support is the Western Cape Province, which holds the legislative capital of Cape Town, where the party has governed since 2009. The party is identified as appealing to White, Indian and Coloured voters, South Africa’s three primary minorities, while promoting an “open society for all”. 

The party’s leader, John Steenhuisen, has not ruled out making a deal with the ANC to form government, but has touted his much-preferred alternative coalition, the Multi-Party Charter. This big tent alliance, composed of eleven conservative and Christian political parties, hopes to collect enough votes to form government in place of the ANC by promoting a non-radicalised, anti-corruption centric campaign. The alliance currently holds 114 seats in the National Assembly, making its chances of success in the 2024 elections unlikely, although not necessarily impossible. 

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the Economic Freedom Fighters advocate for a Marxist-Leninist system of government. This far-left organisation, recognised for its members’ rowdy parliamentary performances, argues that the ANC has failed in its attempt to undo the impacts of apartheid and imperialism. It also advocates for controversial policies of land expropriation without compensation and arming Russia. The party’s leader, Julius Malema, is a populist who has gained international attention for his outlandish personality and racial controversies, including rants against Indian and White South Africans

Although only holding 44 seats in the National Assembly, the EFF may just have enough representation following the 2024 election to help the ANC form government in a ruling coalition. This alliance has been formed in smaller, local governments, but the prospect of a national coalition would require the ANC to potentially make massive policy shifts to appease their prospective other half, leading many to conclude an ANC-DA coalition the more likely outcome. 

South Africa Moving Forward

The outcome of the 2024 election will not only impact South African politics, but the wider trajectory of international relations. The ANC has moved closer to Russia and China, particularly as a member of BRICS, in recent years. This turn could be rolled back if the DA finds itself in government, taking a firmer stance on breaches of international norms and shifting towards a more Western friendly position. Alternatively, South Africa’s relationship with China could be raised to an even greater level should the EFF gain leverage and deepen collaboration with their ideological counterparts in the CCP.  

The end of May will set the tone for South Africa’s direction for the rest of the decade. Although in disagreement over policies and ideologies, South Africa’s political parties all acknowledge a fundamental truth: something needs to change for the country’s prospects to improve. Voters will determine whose platform for change is more appealing, but the rainbow nation seems in position for a political overhaul on May 29. 


Lachlan Forster is a young writer studying at the University of Melbourne, majoring in International Relations and History. Lachlan is a New Colombo Plan Scholar, studying in Singapore and Malaysia. He has been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Journal of History and Farrago Student Magazine.



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