Beyond 2014: SA’s three-way split

2014-03-09 10:00

The EFF has assumed the ideological left, leaving the ANC in the centre and pushing the DA even further right

No doubt, there has been cross-pollination between the two: political figures have entrenched themselves in business and economic interests have influenced electoral politics.

Nevertheless, the two-sided equilibrium has remained relatively stable since the adoption of the Constitution.

But the upcoming general elections threaten to shift this status quo. Specifically, we may swing from a bipolar equilibrium towards one that is “tripolar”.

This new equilibrium would consist in three new coalitions: one in the “centre”, one on the “left” and one on the “right”.

What form might these new coalitions assume? The first “centrist” coalition will comprise the ANC, the SA Communist Party, “black business” formations, and a significantly diminished and divided section of union federation Cosatu.

While talking tough on inequality and unemployment, this pole will continue to occupy the economic middle ground and orient itself around policies like the National Development Plan.

Power for this pole will be maintained through relative electoral dominance, which will serve not only as a mechanism through which to impose its economic perspective, but as a tool in the administration of patronistic relationships.

The second and newest pole will see an alliance between disaffected sections of Cosatu, affiliates of the National Council of Trade Unions (such as Amcu) and “radical” leftist political formations like the Economic Freedom Fighters.

With the disintegration of the Zwelinzima Vavi-Sdumo Dlamini unity pact, it seems possible the nine Cosatu affiliates associated with Vavi will either attempt to steer Cosatu away from the alliance or break away from Cosatu altogether. This will enable a coalition much less willing to make concessions on economic policy.

This formation’s power will stem from two sources: its ability to disrupt strategic production in the minerals sector and its capacity to harness the disaffection of an ever-growing South African underclass.

Leveraging off the anger evidenced by the proliferation of vociferous and violent protest, this coalition will also build legitimacy by attacking corruption and state-sponsored violence.

The new coalition will wield power as much through the streets as through Parliament, and follow a dual strategy of political opposition and anarcho-syndicalism.

The third, and unchanged, coalition will be between the DA and big business. Although numerically smaller than the ANC, this sphere of influence will exert its power through the influence of traditional South African capital.

Although less coordinated than the other two alliances, it will continue to be united by a fundamentally laissez faire economic outlook and operate through chambers of commerce, employers’ associations, wealthy individuals, industrial associations and the DA.

Further, the coalition may also play the role of political kingmaker: in some provincial legislatures and the National Assembly, the ANC will need its support to pass key legislation.

Smaller opposition formations will use it as a focal point for the anti-Zuma, anti-corruption agenda. This coalition will also continue to portray itself as more “diverse” and offer concessions on issues like BEE to attract segments of the “black” electorate.

For each alliance, this shift in the political landscape will present problems and opportunities in equal measure.

If the ANC can deal decisively with its moral decline and chart a coherent centrist path forward that deals with inequality while avoiding authoritarianism, it will emerge from this period the better for it.

On the other hand, if it continues to apologise for the violence and corruption that has characterised the Zuma era, it may never recover from the backlash this will eventually create.

Similarly, if the “pro-poor” alliance can convince South Africans of the viability of a “radical” economic programme and channel the anger of South Africa’s militant youth into a constructive political force, it may emerge dominant in 2019.

If it fails or splinters, this will embolden both the ANC and the “coalition of the right”, and signal a return to bipolarity.

Finally, if the coalition of the “right” is prepared to embark on a transformatory agenda that convinces South Africans of its authenticity, they too stand a chance of gaining in 2019.

But if it is unable to shake off the influence of apartheid interests and attitudes, it may face the prospect of a steady post-2019 decline as the electorate loses hope in the false narrative of a “transformed DA” and the state gets tougher on business.

Several other post-election scenarios are also possible, as is the possibility of a game-changing shock that alters the distribution of political power in a different direction.

But what seems certain is that the bipolar compact that has characterised the first 20 years of our democracy will not persist in the same form for the next two decades.

Mpofu-Walsh is pursuing an MPhil in international relations at the University of Oxford

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