Apr 16

Government of National Unity – The Best Election Outcome for Business

An article by Ian Kilbride, published on 16 April 2024.

Like Mission Impossible messages to Ethan Hunt (AKA Tom Cruise) this piece could self-destruct in a few weeks’ time once the 2024 national and provincial election results are declared. Like Mission Impossible, the outcome is uncertain, but we can sketch a number of plausible scenarios and as a business community prepare accordingly.

At the time of writing (April 2024), we are being showered with a confetti box of election polls forecasting the African National Congress crashing below the 50% threshold to govern. To place this in context, just five short years ago, eyebrows were raised when some 2019 election polls forecast the ANC falling below 60% for the first time, despite the removal of Jacob Zuma from office and the ‘Ramaphoria’ sweeping the chattering classes. The 57,5 % achieved by the ANC in the 2019 national elections followed by the 45,5% garnered in the 2021 local government elections was the clearest signal that the ANC was in trouble. Not only did it have less than five years to turn things around, but in fact South Africa was undergoing a sea change in political support and voting behaviour.

Demonstrably, the Ramaphosa-led ANC has not only failed to turn the country’s fortunes around, but its internal factionalism has splintered the party to the point where it no longer commands a clear majority (if at all) of popular support. The formation of former Jacob Zuma’s Umkhonto we Sizwe party right under the noses of Luthuli Houe and the huge support it is polling in KwaZulu-Natal illustrates the ANCs current malaise. The biblical injunction, “How the mighty have fallen!” comes to mind.

So, at the time of writing and accepting that forecasting the 2024 election is mission impossible, what scenarios are possible and perhaps even desirable for business?

The first is a small outright victory for the ANC. The polls suggest this is impossible, but my political nose suggests that negative sentiment towards the government, particularly the service delivery ‘gatvol’ factor, may not translate into a wholesale loss of support for the ANC in the absence of credible alternatives. Of course, the percentage voter turnout will affect the ANC vote, with a higher turnout favouring the party and the converse favouring parties belonging to the Multi-Party Charter.

The second scenario sees the ANC failing to achieve an outright majority, but securing enough seats in parliament to elect its leader as State President and cobble together a ruling majority with smaller marginal parties and rewarding them with a sprinkling of cabinet and deputy ministerial positions.

The third and more perplexing scenario finds the polling forecasts accurate with the ANC collapsing below 45% and thus requiring the support of a significant opposition party to elect the State President and form a government. For business, the doomsday scenario sees the ANC turning left and inviting Julius Malema and his red berets into the Union Buildings. This gunshot wedding would be met with horror by international investors and send shockwaves through local markets and no doubt the worst possible outcome for business. In this scenario, for business, the best that could be hoped for would be some deft political footwork by the seasoned ANC leadership to co-opt EFF leadership into accepting second tier cabinet positions without caving to the populist pressures to expropriate and nationalise.

But by some margin, the best outcome for business would be the forging of a new Government of National Unity. This is not beyond the realms of possibility. Given his own political background, President Ramaphosa excelled in melding disparate forces during the fractious political transition and compromise is in his DNA. Ironically, a particularly poor performance by the ANC nationally and provincially will hasten his own political departure and he may wish to leave the GNU as his legacy.

A GNU between a 40% ANC and a 30% Multi-Party Charter would bring together half a dozen parties, align the country towards a more centrist orientation and hold the potential for improved governance and delivery. Success would require extraordinary leadership and political maturity however, qualities not in abundance in the current repertoire. Nonetheless, such a GNU would send international investors into raptures and provide local business with the confidence not seen since the heady days of the Mandela, De Klerk, Buthelezi GNU.

Paradoxically, a GNU need not exclude the EFF. Much of the red berets’ critique of ANC government policy is trenchant and frankly, it would be sobering to have the Commander in Chief keeping a watching eye on government service delivery, corruption and profligacy. Tactically, it would be helpful for the EFF leadership to have to take real responsibility for policy, rather than spouting its populist pipedreams from the trenches.

At the time of writing, there are just six short weeks to create a political runway for a post-election Government of National Unity. It’s now time for business to call for real national political leadership to step up.