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Analysts Say Lack of Credibility Undercuts Opposition Parties’ Quest for Power in South Africa

FILE - Voters cast their ballots in Diepsloot, near Johannesburg on Wednesday, May 8, 2019.
FILE - Voters cast their ballots in Diepsloot, near Johannesburg on Wednesday, May 8, 2019.

WASHINGTON — Analysts say the lack of credibility on the part of opposition parties in Africa leaves room for ruling parties to dominate elections even as voters become increasingly dissatisfied with their performance.

At a panel discussion focused on South Africa 2024 elections held virtually on Tuesday, most of the analysts predicted a win for the ruling African National Congress party, or the ANC, while others expressed skepticism about the formation of a coalition to unseat one of Africa’s old political parties.

The online discussion was held by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank based in the U.S. state of Philadelphia, with panelists from the Southern African nation, in attendance.

Professor Victor Ojakorotu, deputy director at the Mafikeng North-West University’s School of Government Studies, said disorganization among South Africa’s opposition parties undercut their desire for political power.

"The inability of the opposition to present a united front…will still keep the ANC in power, because what we are seeing now….the DA (Democratic Alliance) is saying that (they) are not ready to work with the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters). These are two major opposition political parties — one would have expected the EFF and DA to work together as a united front in order to remove the ANC from power. But the reverse is the case, so it is left for us to see what we happen in 2024," he said.

There are over a dozen opposition parties in South Africa — the Democratic Alliance (DA), a centrist party, and the left-leaning Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), are among the major opposition parties and have repeatedly been able to win elections.

In August, seven opposition parties — comprising the main opposition Democratic Alliance and other small parties — formed a coalition in hopes of forming the next government, if the ruling party fails to gain an outright win in next year’s election.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the ANC’s first rally toward the 2024 vote in Soweto in early September, he said the governing party will not join a coalition after the vote because they are confident of victory.

"Fighting corruption and promoting integrity is one of the commitments that we made. We have embarked on a wide range of measures that were recommended by the state capture commission (a judicial commission of inquiry into allegations of fraud, corruption and state capture within the public sector), and we are going to implement the recommendations that have been made," Ramaphosa said.

Robert Mattes is an adjunct professor at the Nelson Mandela School for Public Governance at the University of Cape Town. He said efforts at building "a larger coalition" to counter the ANC is still not solid because the opposition has "more unpopular actors put together in one bundle."

Mattes said attempts by the opposition parties to employ "negative" narratives against the ANC to "push voters toward them" have largely failed because the parties lack "trustworthiness."

"The opposition needs to provide a positive reason to attract those voters, otherwise they leave the electorate," he said.

"And so, I would not be surprised even if the ANC is still highly unpopular — that if turnout falls to 40% or 38% in the next election — which is entirely plausible — that the ANC would still win say 55% to 56% of a shrinking electorate."

Charles Ray, chair of the Africa Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute said in the 2024 elections, he foresees "disaffected youth" rising up against abuse of power and corruption in the ANC, "which I don't see being addressed by the opposition."

"These young people live in townships, don't have jobs and can't keep their refrigerators or computers going because the power is out," he said.

He said this scenario "complicates" the ability of South Africa and the United States to reset relations, which he said has been on "a collision course since last year" over Pretoria’s neutral stands on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

"To me, this really underscores some tensions that have been there all along," he said.

"The ANC has a large segment that's never been trustful of the U.S. — that's always been sort of pro-Russian, if you will. And I don't think we in the U.S. ever really took that into account, and addressed it effectively until the Ukraine situation happened."

Michael Walsh, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Africa Program, said there are attempts by "some people in Washington to throw all the weight of the U.S. government behind a political party in South Africa."

"That's a mistake," Walsh said adding "The U.S. doesn't intervene in democratic elections overseas. We're supposed to be promoting democracy, and that's the competition of ideas, the promotion of free and fair elections."

He continued: "So, there is a party in South Africa that it seems to be more aligned, but that doesn't mean that the country (South Africa) is more aligned, and it doesn't mean that it would be the right thing for the U.S. to push support toward one group or another."

In 2019, the ANC won 57.5% of votes cast, but its share dropped below half in local elections two years prior, although the party won 24% of the popular vote over its closest challenger — the Democratic Alliance, The Associated Press reported.

Amid its economic challenges, exacerbated by a long load-shedding program that has infuriated business owners and locals, the analysts urged stronger collaboration between South Africa and the U.S. premised on mutual respect, national sovereignty and values.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.

Correction: The Foreign Policy Research Institute is based in the U.S. state of Philadelphia and not Washington as earlier reported.