When the ANC's monopoly goes

South Africa’s political system is designed for coalition government, argues political analyst Leon Schreiber in a new book.

South Africans should brace themselves for a seismic shift in the political landscape: Welcome to Coalition Country! New political groupings and alliances are about to replace the dominance of a single party – long enjoyed by both the ANC and the National Party before it.

This political transformation could take place as soon as next year, should the ANC win less than 51% in the 2019 general election, rendering it powerless to govern on its own. What is more, the ANC will be “woefully unprepared” for the coalition era, says political analyst and commentator Dr Leon Schreiber in his provocative new book Coalition Country – South Africa after the ANC.

Leon Schreiber

Schreiber is a Senior Research Specialist at Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies unit. Last year the Mail & Guardian included him on their list of the Top 200 Young South Africans.

In Coalition Country, published by Tafelberg, Schreiber calls on South Africans to get to grips with a coalition future, which he sketches in three possible 2024 scenarios: a multi-party coalition led by the DA and EFF (excluding the ANC); an ANC-EFF coalition; and a DA-led minority government.

Schreiber explained in an interview with Noseweek that he did not include a fourth scenario in which the ANC, bolstered by Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership, stays in power, “because that is the status quo scenario and a lot of people are thinking and writing about that already”. His book, he says, “is about what happens next”.

Renowned journalist Ferial Haffajee has called the book “brilliant”; City Press Editor-In-Chief Mondli Makhanya, described it as “gripping” and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille has raved about Coalition Country.

Schreiber avoids explicitly claiming in the book that the ANC for the first time will lose its 50% share of the vote in next year’s elections, but he says the trends show the situation is heading that way. “It’s not so much about when it happens – whether in 2019 or 2024 – the point is, when it happens we need to be prepared. It can be argued that Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as president has somehow changed the game and so the ANC is in a stronger position than it was before. I agree, the ANC is in a better place than four months ago but I think it is still much more up-in-the-air than people imagine… I am not convinced that Ramaphosa’s ascension to the throne has fundamentally altered much. ”

He adds that “a lot can still change in the year leading up to the election; the way the ANC handles the land issue, in particular, could still have a dramatic impact”. Even under Ramaphosa, he says, coalitions are highly possible – “provincially in Gauteng and perhaps even in North West/KwaZulu-Natal; not impossible nationally in 2019; and probable in 2024”.

Schreiber says that although it may be hard for many South Africans to conceive of the new coalition era, two decades from now it will seem almost absurd that the country’s politics were once dominated by the African National Congress. He says he wrote his book “to start a conversation”.

“I realised we have become socialised in South Africa to think of our governing party as a dominant, all-conquering beast. We had the National Party in power on its own from 1948 till 1994 and now we’ve had the ANC, operating in the same rubric of overwhelming dominance.

“This year is the 70th anniversary of the NP having come to power, which means we have effectively had seven decades of one-party rule. I’d define one-party dominance as a party that consistently gets more than 50% nationally but which also controls more than half of the nine provinces and more than half of the 278 municipalities.”

Schreiber says that, having lived in West Germany where there have been coalitions in government since 1945, he noticed the very different understanding there of how government works and of how important compromise is in their society. A German friend of his, who supports the Social Democrats, told him that if he ever got the sense that the Social Democrats would get more than 50%  in a national election, he would vote against his own party just to prevent that.

In his book, Schreiber digs deep into how South Africa’s electoral system actually works. Though it resembles a winner-takes-all system, proportional representation encourages coalitions.

“To put it in theoretical terms, agency has overruled structure in terms of the electoral system in South Africa. The agency of the ANC, or its ability to sell its liberation narrative, was stronger than the impulses of the structure of the electoral system. This whole book is an assertion for an argument that soon the structure will reassert itself; that you cannot go against the grain of the rules forever; that as soon as the ANC loses its monopoly on legitimacy and on its liberation narrative, and once other things become more important to people and it falls below 50%, our world will suddenly change because we’ll actually live under the structure that our electoral system created. Then it will be a totally different world.”

Schreiber predicts that in two decades’ time, when South Africa is governed by coalitions, with no single party holding more than 50% of the vote, Jacob Zuma will be remembered “not only as a megalomaniac… but also as an example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

“In one of the most culturally diverse societies on earth and with dozens of different political coalitions in charge across the country, history students in the year 2038 will marvel at the hubris of Zuma’s 2014 prediction that the ANC will “run this government forever and ever …until Jesus comes back”.

Schreiber writes: “The history class of 2038 might well look back at the 2019 national and provincial elections as the turning point that put South Africa firmly on the path to coalition politics.”

The book documents the fast decline of the “once all-conquering ANC” but also shows how and why South Africa’s electoral system favours coalitions over single-party governments and why, soon, none of the current opposition parties will be able to garner majorities of their own. It also looks at coalition best-practice elsewhere in the world and examines what different coalition configurations are likely to mean for the country.

Recalling the multi-party negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa) in the early 1990s, when all parties had to negotiate towards the best outcomes for South Africa, Schreiber argues that soon the country will be governed by a “permanent Codesa in which different political parties are forced to work together”. He points out that the first government in democratic South Africa “was, in fact, a coalition government, so the template is there”.

He says that to survive and thrive in our coalition future, we must “urgently prepare to deal with a scale of political complexity we have never seen or experienced before”.

• Schreiber’s first and most positive scenario is that of a DA-EFF-led coalition which he labels “Primed for take-off”. He projects us into the year 2024, with the multi-party coalition that excludes the ANC. An imagined President Mmusi Maimane and Deputy President Julius Malema have taken up office in the Union Buildings. There are also multi-party governing coalitions at provincial and municipal levels. The DA and EFF have decided to cooperate because each has already branded itself staunchly opposed to the ANC. The DA’s experience in handling coalitions and in government means the party is well prepared for the challenge.

The economy is growing, government debt is decreasing and poverty is declining. Public sector reform is taking place and service delivery is improving. South Africa is on the right track towards accountability, good governance, peace and prosperity. As Schreiber portrays it: the coalition government has agreed to operate in the confines of the Constitution to eradicate corruption, professionalise the civil service, and “in a nod to the EFF”, has decided to commit to speeding up land reform by introducing a new expropriation bill and work towards the provision of free university education up to graduate level.

Schreiber foresees that Cabinet portfolios (cut from 35 to 25 ministers) will be divided among the parties and, to build relations, deputy ministers will belong to different parties from that of their ministers. The parties will have agreed that the EFF gets the Land Reform ministry, balanced by DA’s having control of Agriculture.

Cadre deployment is abolished and all appointments in the civil services are based on merit.

Plans for the exorbitant National Health Insurance system are squashed and higher education funding becomes a national priority.

In land reform – the most contentious area in the DA-EFF coalition – the partners demonstrate how cooperation can come about through constructive compromises.

“The EFF insists the department of land reform should introduce a new law making it easier to expropriate land for redistribution. In a major compromise, the DA agrees on condition all expropriation is subject to the Constitution’s call for “just and equitable compensation”.

“Land reform slowly becomes an example of compromise.”

Schreiber says more compromises are needed in the mining sector, with the EFF initially calling for the nationalisation of mines and the DA opposing this.

Skills development programmes and labour market reforms have made it easier to employ skilled workers and to fire under-performing ones.

The coalition, based on the co-operation and compromise required in a coalition system, means that South Africa is “primed for take off”.

• In Schreiber’s second scenario, an ANC-EFF-led coalition that he dubs “A Toxic Homecoming” it’s the year 2024 and South Africa is governed by an ANC-EFF coalition in which the EFF has forced its formerly dominant coalition partner to adopt a range of populist policies, including expropriation of land and mines without compensation.

The EFF has also joined the ANC in looting the state; patronage has been extended and corruption has worsened. Following a loss of investor confidence as well as undue government intervention and mismanagement, the economy is in a downward spiral and South Africa’s democracy is under siege.

“Looking back on the five years since the 2019 national elections, the damage wrought by the previous ANC administration led by Jacob Zuma seems almost quaint by comparison,” writes Schreiber.

In this second scenario, the ANC has agreed that Malema should become deputy president and that the EFF should control the mining, agriculture, trade and industry, land reform, economic development, state security, justice, higher education and communications portfolios. Effectively, the EFF gains “near total control of the most productive economic sectors”.

“In terms of the agreement between the ANC and EFF, deputy ministers are drawn from the same parties as ministers, with the ANC agreeing to not interfere in ministries that “belong” to the EFF. This results in each ministry becoming the “fiefdom” of the party controlling it.

Cadre deployment returns, the civil service grows to absorb nearly 50% of the national budget and, as the last remaining skilled civil servants flee, service delivery reaches an all-time low. Health care and education are in a state of collapse. The NHI is implemented with disastrous results.

The EFF’s call for immediate free education for all students is heeded and universities are plunged into a financial crisis. The country goes into an “economic death spiral”.

BEE requirements become even more stringent for private companies: all domestic firms to be at least 80% black-owned to reflect national demographics; foreign companies are forced to sell their shares to local empowerment partners. Those who benefit the most are the ANC-EFF elite.

Eskom and other State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) continue to deteriorate and the power crisis is used to push through the nuclear deal with Russia at a cost of more than R1 trillion. The ANC-EFF coalition nationalises the Reserve Bank, economic conditions are dire and inflation reaches 60% by 2024.

As South Africans observe the horror, they vote in the 2021 municipal elections for a range of DA-led coalitions in the metros. But the ANC-EFF alliance then moves to quash the rise of opposition coalitions at municipal level by making up reasons to put municipalities under administration. There are protests in the streets, the media has been captured, the judiciary is struggling.

•  Schreiber’s third scenario envisages a South Africa run by a DA-led minority government in 2024. Without a majority, the party is unable to address fundamental problems and needs to negotiate support in Parliament for every piece of legislation it wants to implement. This means governance is a very slow process. The DA-led government has managed to reduce corruption and maladministration and introduce some meaningful economic and social reforms. But following the forthcoming national and provincial election, in which no party is again likely to gain an absolute majority, voters are hoping that leaders can build workable and lasting governing coalitions.

In the final section of the book, Schreiber discusses ways of making sure South Africa leverages coalitions to become “an economically prosperous Germany, or even a relatively successful India, rather than a ruined Nepal (where coalitions have failed)”.

The success or failure of coalitions are not predetermined. “Some fail due to infighting, the pursuit of ruinous policies, or both. Others develop a firm basis for cooperation by fostering a culture of productive compromise, underpinned by clear procedures for settling disputes when they arise.”

He cites lessons from SA’s two most successful coalition governments to date: the Government of National Unity and the Cape Town coalition. It is critical to build what Schreiber terms a coalition culture – and civil society is crucial in this. “Civil society and citizens need to engage more actively in the search for progressive solutions to the country’s many challenges. It is only through engaging with problems, and with one another, that voters will help generate the incentives for political coalitions to be both cohesive and productive,” he writes.

Schreiber believes most South Africans will be surprised at the claims the book makes. “People who live in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Cape Town have experienced a little of how coalitions follow when the ANC loses its 50%… but I don’t think we are even close to the point where we understand just how inevitable it is.

“Our political discourse is so polarised that we see these people as fundamental enemies – and anything that’s not fighting is a sell-out.  “…people expect our parties to be enemies with one another but what we don’t understand is that once the coalition imperative becomes real, we cannot have a government unless these enemies cooperate. So we shouldn’t be surprised at any group of parties teaming up, as shocking as it may sound right now.”

What is most important, he says, is for South Africans to encourage their leaders “to make compromises based on our interests”.

• As deadline approached, and with the recent ructions in the DA dominating headlines, Noseweek felt it important to ask Schreiber whether  developments in the party  could affect the coalition scenarios he examined in his book. His response:

“The 2019 election is the DA’s best ever opportunity to dent the ANC majorities nationally and in a number of provinces. But with the internal squabbling, the party does to some extent risk squandering this opportunity.

“On the coalition front, the party’s greatest risk is probably that it loses its majority in the Western Cape, in which case it will also be replaced by a coalition.

“But a recent poll published on Business Day showed that, even amidst the current instability, 24.5% of national respondents indicated they would still vote for the DA.

“To me, this means that the DA’s base has grown over the years to almost a quarter of the electorate – quite an impressive achievement. Overall, I think there’s a chance that the DA could under-perform nationally, but not by a substantial margin. The party is still in a position to retain its Western Cape majority, and to drag the ANC below 50% in Gauteng.

“I would caution though that we’re still a year out from the election, and if the ANC’s meltdown in places like North West and KwaZulu-Natal continues, it could create a fresh opening for the DA to yet recover some of the lost ground.

“But the DA will need to get its act together to seize upon this golden opportunity,” said Schreiber.

What alternative (and creative) scenarios can Noseweek readers foresee? Send yours to editor@noseweek.co.za and the most captivating one will be rewarded with a bottle of Graham Beck bubbly.

From Piketberg to Princeton

Leon Schreiber, who is based in Cape Town, was born in Piketberg and raised in the small De Beers diamond mining town of Kleinzee, in Namaqualand. His mother was a teacher and his father started off as a diesel mechanic for De Beers and worked his way up in the company.

After matriculating from Paul Roos Gymnasium, Schreiber earned a BA in International Studies at Stellenbosch University in 2009, followed by a BA Honours in Political Science, cum laude, in 2010 and an MA in Political Science in 2011, also at Stellenbosch.

He completed a PhD in Political Science, magna cum laude, at the Free University of Berlin from 2012-2015. In the final year of his PhD, Schreiber took part in an exchange to Princeton University where he met Professor of Politics Jennifer Widner, who runs the research programme Innovations for Successful Societies where Schreiber is currently employed.

The Innovations programme researches and writes up case studies documenting examples of successful government reforms in developing countries.


Share this article:

Reader's comments

Like to add your own comment ? Please click here to subscribe - OR -


While every reasonable effort is taken to ensure the accuracy and soundness of the contents of this publication, neither the authors nor the publishers of this website bear any responsibility for the consequences of any actions based on the information contained therein.