South African parties jostle to set terms of coalition talks

Jacob Zuma addresses uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) supporters in Soweto on March 18, 2024. [AFP]

South African parties jostled Friday to set out their stalls ahead of talks on sharing power, with the ruling ANC on course to lose the absolute majority it has enjoyed for three decades.

With more than 85 percent of the votes from Wednesday's election counted, President Cyril Ramaphosa's African National Congress had only 41.12 percent support, a catastrophic slump from the 57.5 it won in 2019.

This marks an historic turning point for South Africa as the party has enjoyed an absolute majority since 1994, when liberation leader Nelson Mandela led the nation out of white-minority rule and into democracy.

The African National Congress (ANC) is now all but certain to have to seek a coalition partner to secure enough backing to name a president and form a government.

"We have been talking with everybody even before the election," ANC's deputy secretary general Nomvula Mokonyane told AFP, saying the party's decision-making body would set the course to follow after final results are announced.

"Anything must be based on principles and not an act of desperation."

As votes continued to be validated, data from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) showed the centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA) held second place with 21.95 percent.

But it was not a surge by the DA that cut into the ANC's vote share.

In third place was former president Jacob Zuma's uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) on 12.6 percent, a surprise score for a party founded just months ago as a vehicle for the former ANC chief.

The radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was in fourth with 9.4 percent.

The final results are expected at the weekend, but with the trends clear, politicians and pundits were turning their attention to the prospects of an ANC-led coalition.

No pardon, no party

The ANC has dominated South Africa's democracy with an unbroken run of five presidents from the party, but if  President Cyril Ramaphosa is to remain at the helm he will have to decide whether to seek allies on his right or left.

There will be resistance within his movement to a tie-up with the second-placed DA, under white politician John Steenhuisen, whose free market programme of privatisations and an end to black economic empowerment programmes sits at odds with the ruling party's traditions.

Mandela's grandson, Mandla Mandela, an outgoing ANC lawmaker, told AFP the DA held "different ideals" making it too difficult to partner with.

The radical left groups led by former ANC figures: firebrand Julius Malema's EFF or Zuma's MK, were more likely bedfellows, he said.

But these options might also meet resistance within the more moderate sections of the ANC.

Analyst and author Susan Booysen, said the EFF was perceived as "too erratic" and "unpredictable" in its demands.

And the rift between Ramaphosa and Zuma -- who has long been bitter about the way he was forced out of office in 2018 -- was "too far reaching" to mend, she said.

MK spokesman Nhlamulo Ndhlela seemed to agree.

At a packed convention centre north of Johannesburg where the IEC is announcing the results, he said the MK "would not engage in a discussion with the ANC", as long as Ramaphosa was leader.

"We will engage with the ANC but not the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa," he said.

Any coalition partner should be willing to amend the constitution to enact radical reforms and grant Zuma, who has been declared ineligible over a contempt of court conviction, a pardon, he said.

"We will bring President Zuma back in his National Assembly (and) put him back as president, as simple as that," he said.

Ramaphosa at risk? 

That could pile  pressure on Ramaphosa. Some observers believe his position and authority within the ANC are in doubt.

"His power is gone within the ANC," said political analyst and business leader Sandile Swana.

But Mokonyane dismissed the notion that Ramaphosa's leadership was at risk, saying he "did very well" for the party.

"In the ANC we don't work that way. It's not a presidential election. It was an election that the ANC went in as a party and we are happy with it," she said at the IEC conference centre, wearing green trousers and a yellow shirt -- the party colours.

The ANC retains the loyalty of many voters for its leading role in overthrowing white minority rule and its progressive social welfare and black economic empowerment policies are credited by supporters with helping millions of black families out of poverty.

But over three decades of almost unchallenged rule, its leadership has been implicated in a series of large-scale corruption scandals, while the continent's most industrialised economy has languished and crime and unemployment figures have hit record highs.