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Upcoming National Elections Complicate Efforts to Reset US-South Africa Relations

Originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, this article covers challenges faced by the African National Congress (ANC) in next year’s elections in South Africa and outlines how the Biden administration can close gaps by increasing its engagement with domestic political actors in South Africa.

President Joe Biden and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa shake hands in the Oval Office
President Joe Biden and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa shake hands in the Oval Office.

It is incredibly difficult to predict what will happen in the 2024 South Africa National Elections. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) certainly appears to be struggling to maintain the support of constituents due to poor performance, internal infighting, and inter-party conflict. Meanwhile, the political fortunes of the ANC’s opponents—the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)—appear to be on the rise. 

These interrelated developments complicate efforts to reset US-South Africa relations. In the shadow of the alleged South African arms transfer to Russia, the upcoming elections matter a great deal to American interests in South Africa and beyond. This leaves the Biden administration with little choice but to direct the United States government to become more engaged with domestic political actors on the ground. The same can be said of American media outlets, non-profit organizations, and think tanks, who are pursuing their own interests. This includes conservative political actors who might see the recent breakdown in US-South Africa relations as a strategic opportunity to score points in the lead-up to next year’s elections in the United States. This begs important questions about how the Ramaphosa administration and ANC, respectively, will perceive and respond to these changing patterns of engagement

Declining Fortunes of ANC

The declining power of the ANC is the most important political trend in South Africa. Polling suggests that the single-party dominance of the ANC could be nearing an end. This may be a surprise to the casual observer, but support for the party has been in steady decline over the last two decades. In 2004, the ANC led by Thabo Mbeki secured over 70 percent of the vote. In 2019, the ANC led by Cyril Ramaphosa was only able to secure 57.5 percent. The most recent polling, conducted in March 2023, suggests that support for the ANC may have fallen as low as 45.9 percent for the next election. The declining levels of support are a big problem for the ANC.

Power Struggles within ANC

Making sense of the declining political fortunes of the ANC demands consideration of one of the key patterns of action within the party. Since the Polokwane Conference, the ANC has faced a series of internal power struggles that have gripped the nation. In 2008, Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign from office for alleged political interference in the investigation of Jacob Zuma. In 2012, Julius Malema was expelled from the party for painting Zuma and the party in a negative light, among other things. He went on to found the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party. In 2015, Malema alleged that Cyril Ramaphosa was a murderer in parliament. This led to the ejection of Malema from the chamber. In 2018, Zuma resigned following a corruption standoff with Cyril Ramaphosa and the party. At the time, Malema played a significant role in the campaign to remove Zuma from office. 

The infighting has continued since Ramaphosa replaced Zuma. In 2021, Ace Magashule attempted to suspend Ramaphosa from office. At the time, allegations surfaced that Zuma was one of his co-conspirators. That attempt failed. In 2022, another attempt was made over a corruption scandal that was kicked off by a close ally of Zuma. In that case, both Malema and Zuma played a significant role in the campaign to remove Ramaphosa from office. That attempt also failed. 

The infighting shows no signs of subsiding. This year, Magashule was expelled from the party. Zuma opted for temporary exile in Russia over the risk of returning to jail at home. Malema staged public protests calling for the resignation of Ramaphosa and advocated for a potential pardon for Zuma. Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the Jacob Zuma Foundation joined the EFF. Soon after, Malema called on Zuma to do the same. It is therefore no surprise that so many South Africans have lost confidence in the ANC. When familicide becomes normalized and conspiracies explode without warning, a party loses the appearance of incorruptibility.

Rising Fortunes of the Democratic Alliance

While the ANC is floundering, the political fortunes of the main opposition party, the DA, have steadily risen over the last two decades. In 2004, the DA led by Tony Leon secured 12.4 percent of the vote. In 2019, the DA led by Mmusi Maimane was able to secure almost 21 percent. The most recent polling suggests that support for the DA may now stand at over 23 percent. Their problem is that is nowhere near enough to win a majority. 

To compound matters, the DA has been embroiled in its own infighting. In 2019, Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba resigned from the party. On his way out, Maimane alluded to racial politics as a factor limiting the potential of the party. 

This history makes it unlikely that the DA can ever attract more than a third of the vote on its own. To rule the country, the DA will always need to form a grand coalition with other parties. In 2024, that will pose a huge hurdle for the DA leadership. Absent the disintegration of the ANC, there are no easy options. It seems unlikely that the DA can ever reach common ground with the second major opposition party, the EFF. So, the only alternative is to pursue a “moonshot pact” with some of the remaining minority parties. This includes a wickedly complex patchwork of unlikely bedfellows. Examples include the center-left United Independent Movement (UIM) and the right-wing Freedom Front Plus (FFF+). Such a coalition will be hard to get off the ground. And, it will be prone to instability if it does.

Rising Fortunes of Economic Freedom Fighters?

The political fortunes of the EFF have also risen since it was founded. In the 2014 election, the EFF secured approximately 6.4 percent of the vote. In 2019, that rose to 10.6 percent. The most recent polling suggests that the EFF may have suffered a surprise contraction in support to 8.4 percent. However, that number may be misleading given the apparent decline in support for the ANC since the poll was conducted. The more recent polls in Western Cape project that the EFF will replace the ANC as the official opposition in that province. That would be a major win for the party. And they could build on that momentum. Either way, the EFF promises to be a disruptive force in South African elections, especially if Zuma is ordered to return to jail. Their allegiance lies with their far-left support base who feels vindicated by scandal after scandal befalling the ANC. It does not lie with external political parties. That would make them an extremely difficult coalition partner for either the ANC or the DA. That said, both sides may need them to be able to form a government.

The other problem with the EFF is that they are willing to go to extremes to advance their cause. They have sowed discord across the country on a number of occasions by playing racial politics and advocating for violence. They also have blatantly advocated for the interests of major power adversaries of the United States, including China and Russia. This in turn raises the concern that the EFF could achieve surprise results in the election that would force the ANC to make a decision to submit to their demands in order to rule as a coalition or hand over power to a DA-led alternative, or vice versa. That’s the situation that should most worry Washington. Many pathways to stronger bilateral cooperation will close should the EFF be able to attract too many voters away from the ANC.

Imprecision of Pollsters

Imprecision in polling is a well-known phenomenon—in South Africa and elsewhere. Consider what just happened in Türkiye. Earlier this year, many observers were shocked when the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) outperformed expectations in the Turkish national elections. At the time, there was a widespread perception that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was destined to lose the election following the worst economic slump in decades and the fallout of the 2023 Türkiye-Syria Earthquakes. Polls seemed to back up those hypotheses. Glossing over the margins of error, they showed Erdoğan trailing Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the weeks leading up to the election. In the end, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to seize a victory in a run-off election though.

Herein lies the problem. South Africa may pose an even bigger challenge for pollsters due to a range of contextual factors that could impact the precision of their polls. Since the end of apartheid, voter turnout in South Africa has steadily declined. In 2004, turnout was 77 percent. In 2019, it fell to 66 percent. That’s the official figure. It could have been much lower. Perhaps more importantly, support for democracy appears to have dropped to an alarming level. According to the AfroBarometer Survey (2019/2021), only 40.4 percent of South Africans surveyed believed that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. To further compound matters, there are relatively high levels of voter sympathy toward violent protest actions for political change. And there is a considerable risk of voter suppression misinformation and disinformation by state-sponsored and/or non-state-sponsored actors seeking to advance their own causes. Such complex factors will weigh heavy on the minds of those trying to predict South African voter behavior in next year’s election. They could also present a long-term challenge for the maintenance of a flawed democratic system in South Africa.

Imperative for the Biden Administration

The outlook for the 2024 South Africa National Elections is fraught with great uncertainty. The political fortunes of the ANC appear to be on the decline, while the political fortunes of the DA and, perhaps, the EFF appear to be on the rise. In the background, the infighting within the ANC continues unabated. This in turn makes the elections a potential target of opportunity for third-party actors seeking to intervene to advance their national interests. One to watch is Russia, from where Zuma just returned. Given these political realities, it is no wonder that American media outlets, non-profit organizations, and think tanks have started to intensify their engagement with domestic political actors in South Africa. Simply put, it is in their own interests to do so. All of this has left the Biden administration in a bit of a lurch. They will have little choice but to direct the United States government to intensify engagement with domestic political actors in South Africa. Although this is likely to elicit criticism among some South Africans, it would be irresponsible for the White House not to do so. There are too many national interests at stake. South Africa increasingly lies along the faultlines of major competition in the world. It is also a major regional trade partner of the United States. The United States government needs to have a better grasp of what is happening on the ground in the run-up to the election across all levels of South African society.

Challenges for Both Administrations

The Biden and Ramaphosa administrations will face considerable challenges as they try to navigate the run-up to next year’s elections. Both will find it extremely difficult to predict what will happen in South African politics. There are far too many intervening variables. Both will also find it quite difficult to predict what will happen in US-South Africa relations between now and the elections. The recent crisis over the arms transfer to Russia serves as a case in point. The upcoming BRICS summit may emerge as the next one. 

Another horse to wrangle will be the actions of civil society. Both administrations govern democracies where civil society members have considerable agency to act in their own perceived interests. Neither government can direct nor control their actions like their counterparts in China and Russia. Normatively, that is a good thing, but it will nevertheless pose diplomatic challenges. Consider conservative political actors and their supporters in the United States. They will be looking to score points to advance their interests in the upcoming elections in the United States. Incidents like the alleged South African arms transfer to Russia provide a useful opportunity to do so. These sorts of challenges are likely to lead to significant misalignment between the actions of civil society and the interests of the administrations between now and the elections in South Africa.

Questions for the Ramaphosa Administration

The potential impact of these political developments will greatly depend on how the Ramaphosa administration and ANC, respectively, respond to the changing patterns of engagement that they observe between the US government and South African domestic political actors. There is a considerable risk that they will perceive these changing patterns of engagement as threats and respond accordingly. If so, that would almost certainly lead to further deterioration in bilateral relations between South Africa and the United States. A potential mitigation of this risk is the ongoing efforts to stabilize the strategic partnership. These talks are occurring at the most senior levels of government. Should they bear fruit, bilateral relations might improve as a result of these changing patterns of engagement. 

In Washington, there is a clear and present need for a better understanding of South Africa. After decades of neglect, there are glaring gaps in knowledge about South Africa among American policymakers. This includes the townships and former “homeland” areas where there appear to be relatively high levels of sympathy for violent protest action. The restoration of US government ties with domestic political actors will almost certainly improve the quantity and quality of information available to these policymakers. That would not only help to paint a truer picture of South Africa in their minds. It might also lead to a much broader, deeper, and more nuanced appreciation of the unrealized potential of bilateral relations between South Africa and the United States.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

This article was originally posted on Foreign Policy Research Institute and was approved for cross-publication.

About the Author

Michael Walsh

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

Michael Walsh is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Africa Program.

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more