2019: A year of intense fascination for South African politics

South African flag hand painted

There can be no doubt that 2019 will be a watershed year for the future of South Africa. The year 2018 ushered in the Ramaphosa administration with the promise of a new dawn, after the calamatous nearly ten years of endemic corruption, state capture and mal-administration under Jacob Zuma. As soon as Ramaphosa became President he immediately began to address the legion of problems that confronted the politics and economy of our troubled country. He was however confronted metaphorically with the herculean task clearing the Augean stables. This was immensely complicated because he was confronted by a debilitating factional schism within the ranks of his own party, the governing ANC. This required that he proceed with circumspection and determination. As the year of 2018 proceeded, the people of South Africa became profoundly shocked by the extent of the corruption and the prejudicial consequence of state capture and malfeasance of the previous Zuma administration.

However not all was doom and gloom since as Richard Calland in a comprehensive review of 2018 is at pains to explain (‘Wild ride may lead to a better future’ Mail and Guardian (December 20- 2018-January 3 -2019) that if there is one upside to the Zuma years, it is that state capture stress-tested the Constitution. The manner in which the courts and in particular the Constitutional Courts interpreted the Constitution proved to be the saving grace of the nation… As a result Calland concludes his perceptive article with the following apt sentiment ‘[p]olitically, 2018 gives us cause to be hopeful, even optimistic, about the future’. This is also the considered view of the Institute of Race Relation in its recently released report that South Africa has a good story to tell and was on the right path, despites its formidable problems like the increase in crime (Daily News, 13 September 2018).

The year 2019, is firstly undoubtedly going to be dominated by the May general election and the related political, constitutional and economic issues that impact on the election. The vital issue is whether and the extent to which 2019 election will result in ‘a shift in the balance of power. But how much, and to whose benefit?’ (Sunday Times, article by Z Matiwane and Z Mvuma 30 December 2018). In this regard there are different scenarios. Only a few are considered.

In this regard the seminal political issue is whether the ANC, on the one hand, at a national level will in relation to its political support fall below 50%. This is a possibility since for some time now it has been steadily losing support both nationally and in most of the provinces. This it is submitted will result in a fundamental change and usher in a highly problematic era of inherently unpredictable coalition politics. If the ANC gets less than 50% say 48% or less the crucial question will be who it forms a coalition with. It is submitted that doubtful whether at this juncture of our political experience our country and its political leadership have the maturity to use coalition’s governments advantageously, especially at the national level, although at provincial level it could be a learning experience. This is indicated by the state of affairs in the three metros governments, where the ANC lost control and coalitions parties were cobbled together, by the Democratic Alliance, the EFF and other minor parties.  If, for example, ANC fails to secure a 50% majority and as a result forms an alliance with the EFF or the Socialist  Revolutionary Workers’ Party recently launched by the trade union Numsa, then the vital issue is likely to be, inter alia, how the controversial of expropriation of land without compensation, is addressed. Such an alliance would probably move the ANC towards the left of the political spectrum, whereas a coalition with the DA in the form of a government of national unity, although unlikely but not impossible, would move it into centre of the spectrum.

If on the other hand the ANC gets more than 50% of the vote the need for coalition government falls away. If it is submitted it obtains between 55% and 60% this could be perceived as a significant victory for President Ramaphosa, because it will appear that he has in difficult circumstances, consolidated the electorate and his fractured party behind him in testing circumstances. It is submitted that a result of between 54% and 50% of voter support could be challenging for him and the ANC. It will however strengthen the combined opposition and facilitate greater political accountability. 

Elections are inherently unpredictable and what is stated above is based on a measure of speculation and other scenarios are obviously possible.

On the other hand, besides the issue of the election and its result, the other important issue is that of expropriation of land without compensation, already referred to above, and its impact on the economy in general. The ANC has indicated that it wishes to amend section 25 dealing with property for this purpose before the election. This requires an amendment not only of the Constitution, but chapter 2 of it dealing with the Bill of Rights. This amendment will have to comply with the procedural requirements for amendment. There is likely to be intensive, very robust and virtually explosive discourse on this amendment and its impact on the economy and food security. A modest amendment, making what is implicit already in the interpretation of 25, explicit, will have less of a prejudicial influence on the economy and prospective food production. It is however submitted that any amendment, modest as suggested above, or more radical is likely to be subject to review by the courts and ultimately the Constitutional Court.

Other important issues that will have to be addressed next year before and after the election relate to state capture, corruption, unequal distribution of resources between the races, not only land. Also of importance is the question of poor service delivery and its abysmal record in this regard, during the Zuma administration. Although Ramaphosa’s political record after a year in office is not without merit, as Calland indicates above, he faces formidable political challenges, dealing with the amelioration of vast economic inequality of resources, poverty and corruption in a manner that will facilitate a resource driven economy requiring essential foreign investment.

As never before our fledgling democracy and its Constitution is going to be challenged. Of fundamental importance will be the political leadership of South Africa, and in particular, that of President Ramaphosa. The year 2019 is likely to politically and economically unprecedented and could provide inordinate political drama and excitement, making South African politics intensely fascinating and interesting. Ultimately it could determine whether our democracy and economy succeeds or whether we become a failed state, which it is unlikely, but still possible. In problematic political circumstances there is a guarded cause for optimism.

George Devenish is an emeritus professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.