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SA’s beleaguered business community has a lot riding on the country’s May 29 poll.

After years of navigating a flatlining economy — primarily the result of stark failures at critical state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and Transnet — the country’s private sector has rallied behind the state in a pragmatic and  patriotic fashion.

In an attempt to leverage their skills in the hope that the three key sectors of energy, logistics and crime can be better served through co-operative initiatives with the state, the private sector is playing its part. But the question remains as to whether the ANC’s policy parameters will shift sufficiently to meet the interests of the business sector, thereby providing a genuine commitment to public-private partnerships, deregulation, ending embedded patronage networks and embracing skills over party loyalists.

Above all else, there remains a deep internal battle within the governing ANC over the long-standing issue of state intervention and the role of the state in driving growth and redistribution. Dubbed the “developmental” state, the ideological framework behind this more “statist” approach continues to hamper a full embrace of the private sector and acts as a perpetuator of opportunities for the looting of state coffers through tender irregularities and the protection of vested interest players in key sectors.

With the advent of election 2024 these issues take on a new dynamic based on political polling, which suggests a weakened ANC at below 50% of the vote, therefore requiring some type of coalition arrangement to govern.

While SA’s business sector has spent about R170m in support of critical interventions to assist the flagging state just in the past nine months, the threat of a new political dynamic post May 29 should spur the sector to go far beyond its working relationship with the government. 

The focus should therefore be on ratcheting up their lobbying with the ANC for a coalition outcome that favours not only the continuation and enhancement of the working partnerships but highlights the immense danger a catastrophic collation scenario can bring to the table.

Stark choices

If opinion polls are accurate, the ANC will need one or more coalition partners to govern. Should the party’s support levels plummet to the low 40%, it may require a larger opposition party to coalesce with. The choices for the SA economy couldn’t be more stark, depending on the coalition partner chosen.

A severely weakened ANC could be tempted to look to the populist EFF for its political salvation. Should this occur, the more pragmatic approach of the Ramaphosa administration to building public-private mixes could be dealt a fateful blow as centralisation and state control resume as the pre-eminent policy orientation.

Similarly, with avowed nods to more radical land redistribution policies, intervention in the broader banking sector and a desire to firmly place the SA Reserve Bank under the political control of the state, both investor sentiment and policy reforms may retard SA’s rebirth for decades and even irrevocably damage the country in the process.

Such a worst-case scenario is by no means a given. Even for a reeling ANC, the choice of working with the EFF presents clear and present dangers including the risk of the red berets undermining the SA constitution, fermenting internal dissension within the ANC itself and eroding any clout President Cyril Ramaphosa may have left.

Any decision by the ANC to seek a partner in the EFF would therefore require a major “health warning” that even a shell-shocked ANC would see coming. Yet this remains a scenario SA’s business community needs to lobby against. Since the ANC and EFF already co-operate in some shambolic local authorities, the dangers to replicating this at national level must be spelt out — and loudly so.

Best proactive policies

This is precisely the role the business community should now be involved in. As the country hurtles towards what could be a messy election result, the better options need to be identified, put to the ANC, and a case needs to be built for a post-election dispensation that eschews populism in favour of best proactive policies alongside ideological pragmatism.

Fortunately, the ANC will have choices beyond the EFF. And, the option of a broader centrist coalition with parties that comprise the multiparty charter, and even newer more market-friendly players, presents a host of more positive outcomes.

On the assumption that the ANC will remain the largest and most influential political party by some margin, the party has the chance to look at a broad-based centrist grouping, thereby sidelining more radical parties.

Assuming an ANC at about 43% of the vote and a centrist block at about 30%, SA could easily enjoy a post-election coalition reflecting the broad views of at least 75% of its population.

Such a centrist coalition would immediately strengthen domestic and foreign investor confidence, and provide Ramaphosa with a platform for real reforms and more broad-based and inclusive support.

There are also other permutations. The ANC could scrape home with just more than 50% of the vote and govern unfettered, or it could drop just below the threshold and require one or two smaller (and relatively innocuous parties) to provide the added safely.

With either of these two options the country will once again fail to reform adequately since a rudderless ANC will continue to be hamstrung by its increasingly fragile internal volatility and lack of ideological clarity.

The role for business in the next two months is to begin the process of steering the post-election ANC into making the right decision about who its political bedfellows should be.

This should be seen as uber-lobbying, which aims to guide the country towards better governance options through a process of engaging the key role players who may eventually have to hammer out some type of coalition or power-sharing dispensation.

Business should not just sit on the sidelines waiting for a result, it should be intimately involved already in providing the vision for a different SA after May 29.

Since the private sector has become increasingly vocal in critiquing the government and putting its money where its mouth is to build partnerships, the logical next step is political intervention. This requires extreme subtlety and sensitivity. But for SA business it is an intervention that could be its most consequential yet.

• Silke is director of Political Futures Consultancy.

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