Nelson Mandela’s deteriorating health over the past year has spurred speculation about what impact his eventual death will have on South Africa. Both inside and outside the country, there is a (somewhat overblown) fear that his death will strike at the country’s soul. Mandela certainly occupies a central place in the country’s self-image, and his death will be an occasion for national mourning. But beyond that — and the possible impact on approaching elections — his passing will likely have little effect beyond accelerating somewhat the social and political trends already at play. The political dominance of the African National Congress (ANC) will continue to unravel, and South Africa will continue its rocky but ultimately stable transition to post-revolutionary politics.
Should Mandela die before the May 2014 elections, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will exploit Mandela’s golden reputation to remind voters of its liberation credentials and reinforce the message that voting for the ANC is a vote for Madiba (Mandela’s Xhosa clan name). This propaganda will help shore up ANC support in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, and North West and may even pry more votes from disenchanted urbanites and the so-called born-free generation, who are less tied to the ANC historically but who consider Mandela a national father figure. In this scenario, the ANC would garner about 60 to 64 percent of the vote, down from the 66 percent support seen in the 2009 election, but handily above the 57 to 61 percent range that would be likely without this Mandela-effect.
This electoral boost will not last long, though, and Mandela’s death will ultimately hurt the ANC precisely where it may initially help: by further de-coupling the ANC from the liberation struggle and shining a spotlight on unmet economic promises and worsening corruption in the party. As a result, citizens will be even more inclined to step outside the party and its affiliated institutions — including members of the ANC-linked Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) — to press their demands. Popular discontent will continue to fuel and be fueled by the ANC’s and COSATU’s factionalism, and South Africa will see more violent strikes and "service delivery protests" in peri-urban communities. In the shorter term, the ANC’s declining legitimacy will continue to dampen turnout rather than drive support for any opposition party. Over the longer-term, however — probably by the 2024 election, but perhaps by 2019 — it opens up space for the emergence of a viable opposition coalition.
A number of alternative political organizations will try to capitalize on the ANC’s comparative decline. Middle class blacks will likely vote in greater numbers for the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) or for the party that emerges from a potential merger between the ANC offshoot, the Congress of the People (COPE), and Mamphele Ramphele’s new Agang party. Apart from the perception that the DA is still a "white party," there is little blocking a broader coalition between the DA, COPE, Agang, and perhaps the Eastern Cape/Xhosa-based United Democratic Movement, whose leader, Bantu Holomisa, has made political hay of last year’s Marikana massacre. Some poorer blacks would also vote for this coalition, particularly given Ramphele’s liberation credentials and Xhosa discontent with the growing Zulu influence in the ANC. This kind of formal coalition is likely by 2019. Before then, opposition parties will continue to increase legislative coordination, including ongoing efforts to secure a (sure-to-fail but symbolic) vote of no-confidence against President Jacob Zuma.
A viable challenger on the ANC’s left flank remains unlikely — particularly because the ANC will likely move left to try counter its decline and take a more populist line on land reform and mining (two fixed assets with strong symbolic ties to the struggle against white minority rule). Zuma has effectively sidelined former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, and he probably does not have enough mass support or funding to launch a revival campaign from the outside. COSATU’s Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi could organize a more radical party, and efforts by Zuma’s allies in COSATU to purge Vavi for his criticisms deserve close attention. Still, while Vavi is respected both inside and outside COSATU, he is not a rabble rouser like Malema, and most unionists (particularly increasing influential public sector workers) would remain inside the ANC-linked COSATU following his ouster.
The ANC itself is more likely to fracture along provincial/ethnic lines than by ideology, especially if current ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa — a former labor leader-turned-billionaire and one of the key architects of the country’s negotiated transition to majority rule — is not elected party president at the ANC’s 2017 conference. Zuma’s alliance with Ramaphosa at last year’s ANC national conference in Manguang was driven by political expediency, and Zuma acolytes in Kwa-Zulu Natal are already plotting to replace Ramaphosa with a Zulu candidate at the 2017 conference. If so, party factions in the Gauteng, Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Free State, and Limpopo could lead a split in the party.
Such a split and the ANC’s more populist orientation represent the clearest threats to South Africa’s long-term stability. Nevertheless, South Africa’s strong social and economic institutions — including a widely respected constitution, independent judiciary, adversarial media, robust civil society, large tertiary sector, independent central bank, and a prudent treasury — will impede more radical policy shifts and facilitate reforms in the face of sustained market pressure that will accompany the economy’s slow leak under the ANC. In addition, by virtue of its declining share in parliament, the ANC now cannot amend the constitution on its own, and previous attempts to significantly weaken the judiciary, media, and civil society have generally been repelled. In the same vein, established electoral, legislative, and judicial institutions will likely contain political violence and help clear the way for a more competitive political environment.
Mark Rosenberg is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Sub Saharan Africa practice.