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The plethora of recent opinion polls ahead of the May 29 vote present a divergent series of future scenarios, all with profound consequences for the country. 

Considering that SA’s last unexpected and unpredictable change of government was in 1948, the notion of the ANC dropping below 50% is cause for substantial concern since the certainty of political control and administrative continuity, embedded since 1994, looks set to evaporate within six weeks.

Three well-explored scenarios await. Should the ANC score closer to the 50% mark, its coalition arrangement will focus on smaller parties less likely to be obstructionist and disruptive. While this narrower “muddle-through” option should not be discounted, it is the more extreme options that will determine whether both SA and President Cyril Ramaphosa sink or swim. 

Anything closer to the ANC at 40% shifts the pendulum towards the most critical decision for the party of liberation: choosing the populist, established EFF or new uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), or the centrist multiparty charter (MPC) as coalition partner to be able to govern. 

Naturally, the ANC at below 50% will be a shock to the system for such a dominant political force that has a venerated historical contribution to the democratic struggle.

As with most political parties that perform poorly — and anything below 50% must be seen as problematic outcome for the ANC — the resultant internal recriminations will further threaten the governing party’s cohesiveness in the months to come. 

Blame game

A blame game of ANC-size proportions is likely to unsettle and potentially upend the careers of some of its most senior leadership — including Ramaphosa himself. 

Ramaphosa will ultimately be the fall guy for a performance that relegates the ANC to a lesser player in our body politic. But, while his position will be critically weakened, he faces further stress in his choice of coalition partner(s) should that be necessary. 

The ANC is likely to undergo its most divisive stress test in choosing which political parties to coalesce with in a future governing agreement. The choice of political bedfellows could either hasten Ramaphosa’s demise or provide him a lifeline should he wish to continue as president. 

An ANC coalition with the EFF is likely to make life extremely difficult for Ramaphosa. Given that he will already be weak following a below-50% result, a disruptive partner such as the EFF would pile on the policy headaches for a demoralised ANC. 

The EFF’s severe personal critiques of Ramaphosa in the past will haunt any coalition arrangement with the ANC and may well make his tenure as a second term president virtually untenable.

Whether Ramaphosa would want such a humiliating role given the ANC’s fall from grace will determine just how long he manages to cling to the presidency and how he views his potential successor at the ANC’s next elective conference in 2027. 


Similarly, a strong MK showing will increase the pressure on Ramaphosa. Former president Jacob Zuma, who now heads MK despite nominally still being a (suspended) ANC member, has been crystal clear in his disdain for the president as he attempts to claw his way back to a national position with the express intention of avoiding the long arm of the law and exacting revenge on those who, in his view, threw him to the wolves of the Zondo commission and National Prosecuting Authority. 

For Zuma, it won’t be enough for MK to gain 10%-plus of the total vote. His desire will be to damage Ramaphosa’s ANC as much as he can, thereby further undermining the president’s authority and position. Should MK succeed in contributing to the ANC losing KwaZulu-Natal and pushing the national ANC vote tally closer to 40%, Zuma will have scored a significant victory in weakening — possibly terminally — Ramaphosa’s political career.

In this way, he will attempt to lobby for a new leadership structure in the ANC closer to his political philosophy and more loyal to his historical position in the party. That would allow Zuma to shift MK closer to a reconstituted ANC reborn in the image of Msholozi.

Indeed, both MK and the EFF could co-operate to engineer the end of Ramaphosa as a stepping stone to a broad reunification of the liberation movement, with new ANC leadership that is largely supportive of the world view and modus operandi of the Malema-Zuma axis.

Significantly, average recent polling puts ANC plus EFF and MK support as high as 60% of the electorate — not dissimilar to ANC national vote tallies in past elections.

Ramaphosa’s ANC would have to be no more for such a scenario to play out, but restoring the ANC and regaining control of the levers of power is a forceful aphrodisiac for Zuma and Malema alike. Getting their hands on the ultimate liberation movement will be far more attractive than pursuing their own smaller political entities on the periphery of power and without access to resources. You can do a lot more with a 60% political block than you can with just 10% — not to mention reclaiming the symbols of the struggle.

Ramaphosa’s future

Under all of these scenarios, Ramaphosa’s future appears tenuous. Only a national result above 50% would throw him a leadership lifeline. But the ANC will have to pull a proverbial rabbit out of the hat to secure this via an outstanding campaign in which both former and new, young ANC voters turn out enthusiastically to vote. Neither of these seem likely at present.

By this stage, Ramaphosa may wish to be far away from the Union Buildings. Yet there is one remaining scenario in which he may be thrown a political lifeline. Should Ramaphosa preside over an ANC at close to 40%, his better choice would be to do a deal with the DA-MPC. He may well find such an arrangement conducive to extending his own political shelf life and avoid the back-stabbing that would be inevitable with an EFF deal.

Whichever scenario eventuates, Ramaphosa faces a tough period ahead. With a poor performance looming for the ANC and his populist opponents baying for his blood, his time in office appears limited.

Despite the criticism of his lacklustre performance, he still can chart a better course, but his options are narrowing. He will either have to bite the bullet on a pragmatic centrist deal and hope he can take his wounded party with him, or flounder with more radical political bedfellows that make no secret of wanting him out.

Tough choices indeed for a president who has already shown signs of having had enough.

Silke is director of Political Futures Consulting.

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