‘199’ is the 2024 election’s magic number: hit it, and everything changes

Government Communication and Information System / Flickr
Government Communication and Information System / Flickr

This article was first published by Daily Friend on 8 June 2023 and again on 4 January 2024

South Africa finds itself in an economic malaise. In response, the African National Congress (ANC) government has adopted, and is in the process of adopting, racial quotas in employment and the nationalisation of private healthcare. At the highest echelons of politics there appears to be a deep desire to worsen, not solve, our problems.

It is no surprise that South Africans are, rightly, politically tired. 

This tiredness, however, has induced a sense of despondency. It might be that after 2024 the ANC will remain the governing party – likely as the leader of a coalition. But South Africans should be heartened that this would occur under an entirely new set of political circumstances.

199: the magic number

There are 400 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. This is where most of South Africa’s laws are adopted, and it is theoretically where accountability over government conduct is ensured. After the 2019 elections, the ANC managed to secure 230 of these seats, giving it a comfortable majority and confirming that South Africa remained a ‘dominant party state’.

South Africa adopted a system of proportional representation during the transition of the 1990s to ensure everyone’s vote was truly counted and that minority interests were well represented in Parliament. Proportional representation, indeed, tends to encourage political splintering, as political mavericks and opportunists realise they can go far in politics with as little as 40,000 votes.

The ANC’s dominance has been exceptional under these circumstances, but this is changing.

It is more than likely that next year, South Africa will finally, for the first time in decades, cease being a dominant party state, even though the ANC might remain the largest single party and might even retain power. Because if the ANC attains 199 or fewer seats in the National Assembly, it will officially have lost its parliamentary majority and be officially dependent on at least one other party.

This changes everything by opening the doors of opportunity. It then falls to the committed opposition to seize these opportunities.

Rats and mice

Many political watchers agree that the ANC will be able to throw together a ‘rats-and-mice’ coalition containing neither the Democratic Alliance (DA) nor the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to help keep it in power. But even if this is the case, it will still represent a defeat for the ANC. Doors to political reform will be opened.

This is because there is no rat-and-mouse party in South Africa that supports the ANC as a matter of dogmatic principle. Those who follow the ANC tend to be political opportunists seeking patronage, position, or prestige. All it would take for them to abandon their support of the ANC would be for the opposition to offer them a better deal.

Yes, this does require that the opposition gets crafty, clever, and perhaps adopts a touch of Machiavellianism. But no matter how unlikely it is for South Africa’s opposition parties to get quite this pragmatic, from 2024 this phenomenon will enter the realm of possibility. That realm is opened because Luthuli House will no longer have an irresistible whip that extends over 200 or more seats in the National Assembly.

When it gets bad enough

With no guaranteed majority in Parliament, the ANC could – for the first time – have a hard(er) time unilaterally imposing its policies on South Africa. 

Depending on how fervently the opposition opposes a given bill, then, it can convince – the mechanism of convincing is a matter of practical consideration – the rats-and-mice in the ANC coalition to vote it down. It is, after all, the nature of rats and mice to abandon sinking ships and go where their chances of survival are greatest.

This is not the ideal, courtly system of government we might all desire. But it is a long shot better than what we currently have, where the ANC goes through the formal motions of acting like it cares what other parties believe (the Constitution guarantees a system of multi-party government, after all), before one-sidedly adopting legislation and regulations. 

Our desire for a civil, well-ordered, and ethical legislative branch might also simply be the stuff of fantasy as South Africa moves into an era of coalition politics. While we must remain principled about the values that underpin public policy and law, we should seriously consider becoming considerably more pragmatic about how we can best see these values defended and advanced.

There might come a time when the ANC puts forward a bill so potentially deleterious to constitutional democracy or the economic prospects of the country that the opposition takes the leap, and gets in the mud to pry the rat or mouse from the coalition of corruption.

No nirvana

This is not to say that 2024 will represent another ‘miracle’ moment that South Africa is so well known for, where nirvana, freedom, and prosperity will immediately follow. 

Instead, 2024 – whatever the outcome – will represent the moment that South Africa ceases being a dominant party state and when, for the first time in three decades, the political imperatives of the ANC finally become debatable and politically contestable.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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