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Change the world


For the first time in three decades, the African National Congress (ANC) lost its grip on Parliament and three provincial legislatures following South Africa’s general elections in May this year. Will the country sink or swim? Nelson Mandela University academic and political analyst Ongama Mtimka is hopeful.

“We are critical, but stable,” says Dr Mtimka, Acting Director of the Raymond Mhlaba Centre for Governance and Leadership and executive chair of the South Africa Political Risk Institute.

“A tsunami has just swept through the old political order, presenting time for the new.

Since we are not in a great state economically, this is a vote of no confidence in both the political and economic systems. We are stable, though, because democratic traditions have been entrenched. Politicians have mostly accepted the outcome, bar a few outliers.”

Dr Mtimka, who holds a DPhil and MPhil from Mandela University, has a rich and in-depth understanding of the political playing field both locally and abroad. Involved in academics for over a decade, he is also treasurer of the South African Association of Political Studies and secretary of the African Association of Political Science.

With the ANC and its main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) forming a government of national unity, together with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and eight other parties, the playing fields have altered dramatically.

In a recent article for Journal of Democracy, Dr Mtimka observes that the 2024 elections were the first in which the ANC was no longer expected to win outright as in previous elections.  The pre-election polls predicted this loss.

Those predictions were spot on: the ANC secured a scant 40.2 percent of the vote, losing its majority, with the Democratic Alliance returning to 22 percent, former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Party 14.6 percent and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) 9.5 percent.

“These elections have ushered in a new era of South Africa opposition politics and the end of ANC dominance. The ANC has had to form a government with its former rivals. This moment therefore also represents a potential turning point for South Africa’s democracy: an opportunity to usher in an inclusive and well-functioning political economy or fall down a path of further factionalisation, division, and gridlock.

“The first major hurdle was to overcome debilitating ideological stand-offs that preclude pragmatism and compromise. Would South Africa emerge from coalition talks a more pluralistic, inclusive democracy, or would it become paralysed by gridlock? It’s clear South Africa has entered a new chapter in its political history.”

Insightful political commentators are a rare breed and critical necessity in the dog-eats-dog world of both local and global politics.

Gqeberha-born Dr Mtimka, who grew up in Peddie, says his greatest influences were his entrepreneurial grandfather and father – in that order. “They were a lovely modelling of manhood and hard work.” This fostered his determination to make a meaningful contribution to current affairs by exploring the complex politics web; and keeping an eye on those in charge.

What does this “new era” of opposition politics look like? And how will it affect, in real terms, the ordinary South African?

Dr Mtimka sees an inclusive and well-functioning political economy, if all goes well. “Changes from a dominant party to a multi-party democracy will serve to upset patronage networks that hinder the effective operation of government and enable the development of a more impersonal and merit-based system of rule.

“The individual power of politicians and their cronies declines, and this bodes well for fairer and wider distribution of benefits, be they business, employment or social development opportunities.”

The crushing of dominant-party politics is cause for relief, says Dr Mtimka, as a multi-party democracy enforces a coalition, doing away with the problems inherent in majority-rule government: a weak opposition, an overbearing governing party and a too-close relationship between Parliament and executive.

That a former liberation movement was able to seamlessly accept losing its majority – and not attempt to fiddle with the results, or precipitate a political crisis – is commendable, he argues.

“We have seen that even the United States is not immune to disputed election outcomes. The ANC and President (Cyril) Ramaphosa have set an example in this regard. It bodes well for deepening democracy on the continent, even though circumstances may differ.”

From a global perspective, concerns have been raised by some about the foreign policy implications of a coalition between the ANC and the DA, which have vastly different stances on foreign policy, he says, particularly regarding relations with BRICS, Russia and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Is it possible, then, for politicians to actually work together for the good of a country, despite ideological challenges?

“This remains to be seen,” says Dr Mtimka. “There seems to be enough will at the moment – and I am happy that this will has been imposed directly by voters.”

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