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Jacob Zuma has made a dramatic comeback in South Africa’s elections. Will he have the last laugh over Ramaphosa?

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South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) party faces a mammoth challenge as it needs to form a government with its political rivals after suffering a seismic blow in last week’s election.

On Wednesday, the ANC’s national spokesperson insisted that any coalition government would be in the interests of unity and stability and hinted at a government of national unity of some kind.

“The ANC has taken the position that we must all act in the interest of our country and its people, and work on a national consensus on the form of government that is best suited to move South Africa forward at this moment in our history,” Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri told a press briefing.

Still, some of the same parties that sought the ANC’s demise will now have to play a part in governing South Africa.

For decades, the ANC could rule alone, but support for the the party plummeted to around 40% in last Wednesday’s elections, down from 57% in 2019.

Analysts and opinion polls had forecast losses for the ANC but a pivotal factor in the party’s staggering decline was former President Jacob Zuma and his newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, which capitalized on widespread discontent within the ANC’s traditional voter base.

Zuma’s revenge

Zuma – a fierce critic of current ANC leader and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa – was forced to resign as president in 2018 and has been looking for political revenge ever since.

His MK party, named after the ANC’s former armed wing, appears to have achieved just that – formed just five months ago, it is now the third-largest party in South Africa, receiving almost 15% of the vote.

Zuma positioned MK as “a party that is meant to restore the ANC to its former glory,” said political analyst Tessa Dooms, programmes director at the Rivonia Circle non-profit organization/political think tank in Johannesburg. She says many MK voters saw this ballot as a protest vote.

Despite Zuma being barred from running for parliament by the Constitutional Court because of a previous contempt of court violation, the 82-year-old’s face remained on the ballot paper.

Zuma is no stranger to controversy or the courtroom. He has faced hundreds of corruption, fraud and racketeering charges over the years. He has always denied all of them and became known as the “Teflon President” because few politicians could have survived the scandals he weathered.

Ramaphosa replaced him as president when Zuma was finally forced to resign. Later revelations of “state capture” – or rampant corruption riveted the nation in an anti-corruption commission. Much of the focus was on Zuma’s relationship with the influential and wealthy Gupta brothers.

With the ANC’s popularity now at an all-time low and as Ramaphosa’s political future hangs in the balance, Zuma could have the last laugh. But it is too early to tell.

Due to the poor election showing, South Africa’s political landscape has been fundamentally altered, leaving the ANC with the daunting task of forming a coalition government.

In many countries, coalition talks can take months, but South Africa’s constitution gives rival parties a short window to do something they have never really done before: come together.

According to the constitution, rival parties have a mere 14 days to create a coalition after the final election results are announced.

The outcome of these talks will likely determine Ramaphosa’s future as president.

Ramaphosa’s allies in the party are digging in. On Sunday, ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula warned potential coalition partners that the president’s resignation is “not going to happen.”

The potential coalition partners present starkly different political ideologies and policy priorities.

A marriage of convenience

First, there is the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), a broadly centrist and pro-business party that has heavily criticized the ANC for many years.

Led by John Steenhuisen, it is seen by many as a party for White South Africans, something the DA rejects. Steenhuisen has not ruled out going into a coalition with the ANC.

A DA-ANC alliance, however it would form, would likely keep Ramaphosa in his job, say analysts.

“The only way Ramaphosa stays is through a DA-ANC coalition. Outside that, the other parties, MK and EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), have made it clear the first point of negotiation is he must go,” said TK Pooe, a senior lecturer at Wits School of Governance.

If the ANC were to pair with the DA, which received 21.8% of the vote, their combined support would amount to more than 60%, an outright majority. However, this relationship would require both parties to make some major compromises.

While in government, the ANC’s flagship policy for driving economic inclusion and racial equality in post-apartheid South Africa has been its Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment policy, known as triple-BEE or simply BEE.

The BEE policy has been criticized by some as neither broad-based, nor empowering.

In contrast, the DA has said it would replace BEE with an “Economic Justice Policy” that “targets the poor black majority for redress, rather than a small, connected elite.”

The DA is also against the ANC’s flagship National Health Insurance Act (NIH) in its current form. The act, which was signed into law two weeks before the election, seeks to provide universal health care for all and gradually limit the role of private health insurers.

However, both parties believe in the primacy of South Africa’s constitution and both have promised to crack down on corruption. Awkwardly, the DA is currently pressing corruption charges against the ANC’s deputy president, Paul Mashatile.

In a move to appease internal critics, the ANC-DA coalition could be expanded to include smaller parties, or the ANC could form a minority government with a “confidence-and-supply” agreement with opposition partners like the DA and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), where they remain outside of government but support it on key votes in exchange for policy concessions.

A bitter pill to swallow?

If the ANC decides to pursue coalition talks with MK, then Zuma will want Ramaphosa out, solidifying his revenge.

However, if South Africa’s president maintains his grip on the ANC, a coalition with MK is unlikely.

The MK party’s manifesto also demands an overhaul of the country’s constitution to restore more powers to traditional leaders.

By appealing to his Zulu base, Zuma’s party has also stirred ethnic and tribal tensions, a strategy that, while electorally effective, risks deepening divisions in South Africa, Verwoerd added.

The ANC’s policies, grounded in the principles of non-racial and non-tribal governance, are at odds with this approach.

It is also currently unclear how much MK actually wants to govern. Despite doing well at the polls, the party has demanded a re-run, threatened court action, and suggested boycotting the first sitting of Parliament. However, it has provided no evidence of voting irregularities.

The other option for a coalition is the EFF, led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, who was expelled from the party more than a decade ago. The breakaway party espouses land expropriation without compensation and sweeping state nationalism, including nationalizing the Reserve Bank.

Malema has said he would give the EFF vote to the ANC on the condition that his deputy, Floyd Shivambu, becomes Minister of Finance in an effort to control fiscal policy.

South Africa’s business community and middle class are broadly nervous about an EFF–ANC coalition and its effect on investor confidence. The DA calls it part of a “doomsday” option because of the potential impact on investment and trade.

The EFF won just under 10% of the vote, so any coalition with the ANC would need to include at least another party in the mix to give it a healthy majority. The IFP, with almost 4% of the vote, could be such a kingmaker.

Aside from a classic coalition deal or a “confidence and supply” agreement, another hypothetical option on the table would be a “government of national unity” (GNU), bringing in all the major parties.

This scenario would hark back to the post-apartheid era when South Africa operated under a GNU to oversee the new constitution, led by Mandela as president and FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki as deputy presidents, between April 1994 and February 1997.

With less than two weeks to finalize coalition agreements, South Africa’s political future remains uncertain; the ANC must navigate this complex landscape to form a stable government and address the challenges that have led to its diminished support, while Ramaphosa’s leadership hangs in the balance amidst Zuma’s dramatic comeback.

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