Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 18, 2024 Updated 1 Days ago

With some political manoeuvrability and the strong leadership of President Ramaphosa, the ANC is expected to continue to remain in power.

Coalition government and future of South Africa’s foreign policy

Background

On 29th May, South Africa held its seventh national election. The results hardly came as a surprise when the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) lost its parliamentary majority. Since it transitioned to democratic government in 1994, the ANC has always held the absolute majority in the South African Parliament. Indeed, since 1999, the ANC’s vote share has consistently declined (refer Figure 2). However, this time, it fell drastically to 40.2 percent from 57.5 percent in the last election of 2019, and for the first time in the history of South Africa, the country will witness a coalition government at the national level. 

Later, the ANC called for a ‘National Unity’ coalition, where any party and every party can join and participate in the governance along with the ANC. As it stands now, three parties agreed to join the ANC-led Unity government, which includes the Democratic Alliance (DA), along with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Patriotic Alliance (PA), and have agreed to join the coalition. Interestingly, the centrist DA, the second-largest party, has been the principal opposition. Also, in contrast to the left-leaning ANC, PA is a far-right party. Given this extreme contrast, some prefer to call it a coalition government instead of a unity government. The new government will continue to be led by the incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

The new government will continue to be led by the incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

After marathon calls and negotiations between the ANC and other parties, it was decided that ANC leader Angela Thokozile “Thoko” Didiza would get the Speaker of the Parliament position and DA leader Dr Annelie Lotriet would be the Deputy Speaker. The rest of the cabinet positions are expected to be allocated according to the number of seats a party gained.

Messy political riddle of coalition 

South Africa’s election has undoubtedly delivered a shocking reality check to President Ramaphosa by denying his party an outright majority in the Parliament. Moreover, although his party got way more votes than its nearest rival party, this setback will severely restrict his policy choices. As Ramaphosa will remain dependent on other parties to keep the government functional, it will most certainly impact the stability or the direction of Ramaphosa 2.0. 

The nature of South Africa’s fractured democracy was exposed when more than 250 parties, the highest in the history of elections in South Africa, registered for the election. As around 50 political parties contested the election, some also viewed it as political pluralism. Ironically, only a few nurtured national-level ambition or demonstrated any comprehensive national vision. Their poll manifestos were limited to domestic issues without any foreign policy implications. Most of these parties participated merely to inflict some damage on the ANC’s vote bank. 

The nature of South Africa’s fractured democracy was exposed when more than 250 parties, the highest in the history of elections in South Africa, registered for the election.

Further, the parties in the coalition are yet to develop any common minimum agenda as their ideas of governance are highly diverse and often contradictory. For example, DA, although agreed to join the coalition, staunchly opposes ANC’s Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. South Africa introduced the BEE program to improve the representation of black people in the economy, thereby redressing the historical injustice of the apartheid era, resulting in their social and economic exclusion. DA also opposes the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill and the creation of a state fund towards providing free healthcare to every South African resident. 

Image 1: South Africa Election result 2024

Image 2: Election result from 1994-2019 

Implications for the continent and beyond

As there exist several ideological divergences, this would undoubtedly impact South Africa’s foreign policy. Nowhere is this crack more palpable than regarding the question of great power politics. On one hand, DA wants to have a pro-West, pro-business foreign policy. On the other hand, former President Jacob Zuma-led uMkhonto weSizwe (MK and firebrand radically left Malema-led Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) would be in the opposition alliance “Progressive Caucus”. Contrary to DA, the opposition alliance has a pro-Russia approach. The newly formed MK party expects South Africa to keep its distance from the West and has a pro-BRICS policy. As a result, the new government will have its task cut out concerning its foreign policy and, above all, the tricky balancing act against China, Russia and the West. 

As there exist several ideological divergences, this would undoubtedly impact South Africa’s foreign policy. Nowhere is this crack more palpable than regarding the question of great power politics.

Furthermore, South Africa has important stakes in many other international issues and forums. This January, South Africa went to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Israel of genocide. However, the DA’s proximity to Western positions, its support for Israel and its strategic ambiguity over the Palestinian cause could significantly alter South Africa’s Palestine policy. On the other hand, as MK and EEF have joined hands, they would pressurise ANC to raise South Africa’s anti-Israel stand, thereby bolstering South Africa ‘s voice for Palestine. 

Irrespective of these complex contradictions, the priority of the new government would be the revival of its sluggish economy and the creation of employment. Hence, Ramaphosa 2.0 must shape a pragmatic foreign policy that encourages trust from the investor community while avoiding having to choose overtly one power over another as a dominant partner. South Africa’s growth and stability are intrinsically linked to all the superpowers as well as the Global South, including its fellow BRICS nations. Under these circumstances, South Africa must retain its nonalignment approach and strategic autonomy vis-á-vis its foreign policy.

Conclusion

South Africa is a major international player, as reflected in its membership in forums like G20, BRICS, and other international issues. It is also the largest economy of the African continent, recently surpassing Nigeria. The fact that multiple parties across the aisle will be forced to work together can work as a blessing in disguise. It can create social cohesion among different segments of society as each party represents different sets of electorates. However, South Africa lacks any legislative or constitutional framework regulating how the proposed unity government should be set up. Considering the vast internal ideological divergence, at times, it would be difficult to get a clear policy position. 

Undoubtedly, South Africa finds itself in uncharted water. Nevertheless, with some political manoeuvrability and the strong leadership of President Ramaphosa, the ANC is expected to sail the ship safely. South Africa still draws strength from its democratic framework, which continues to serve as a pillar of inclusion and stability. Therefore, instead of panicking, countries across the world must demonstrate flexibility in working with the new coalition government. 

The functional details of the coalition are not clear yet and will slowly shape up in due time. Notwithstanding, a stable South Africa would be crucial not only for its people but also for the continent and beyond.


Samir Bhattacharya is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Author

Samir Bhattacharya

Samir Bhattacharya

Samir Bhattacharya is an Associate Fellow at ORF where he works on geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in the changing global order. He has a ...

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