PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: General election 2024 looms with no riskless choices

The Groundhog Day of hope and resilience phraseology in the political economy lexicon is depressing enough, but there is also some truth to it. SA has ticked over for this long since 1994 on a surplus of hope and resilience and a deficit of reform and implementation.

As I sit writing this in the painfully pleasant surroundings of Cape Town’s Vineyard hotel, the future as status quo can seem very comfortable. Anyone making decisions over SA’s future in such surroundings might be tempted with the status quo. The downside risks are there but not quite close enough to panic or take risks on solutions to course correct.

Yet unlike past elections, next year holds much more risk — and perhaps much more opportunity — than usual. In past elections like 2019, one would give the cursory presentation on various party stances and support, engage audiences with some little nuggets behind the curtain, and everyone would go back to their business given minimal risk of the narrative ending up being much different. So it turned out to be. The 2021 local elections led to drama,  but the initial (wrong view) of many was that the local election never quite has the level of impact on larger businesses that the national one has.

What we’ve seen since is a grinding down of business sentiment nationally, caused by the sliding of service delivery in major non-Western Cape metros and municipalities — particularly Gauteng — led of course by potholes and water but also many other issues.

Still, after those elections there has been a degree of hunkering down and resilience.  The 2024 elections, however, allow a much greater set of choices over SA’s long-term direction and so the potential outcomes — good and bad — are all the bigger and more dramatic. The debate on this is only just starting to kick off among various segments of society. The state-of-the-nation address (Sona) provides a kicker to this debate to occur but little really to shift the outcomes — as reforms remain ongoing but slow to bring about the end of various components of the polycrisis. SA in the middle of next year will probably look about the same as it does today — load-shedding still ongoing though not worse as the economy continues to become more resilient, Transnet issues being resolved from a policy angle but practically little to show for it, inequality and unemployment roughly the same, and growth still weak.

What becomes important then through the 2024 elections is the problem that such an electoral event is meant to solve.

Unfortunately, it is not a policy problem. Despite their detailed differences, at a very broad-brush stroke the ANC (by its actions more than its words) and DA are not hugely different on the major issues. The EFF by contrast has its priorities which are perhaps only peripherally policy-based.

While we can say there is a difference between the parties on their bias to implement, this is perhaps not the right way of looking at things. The Western Cape and the Cape Town metro have show strong biases to implement while the DA has shown much less ability to do this in coalition in the Gauteng metros, given both the coalitions themselves, but perhaps more importantly a bureaucracy that is set against them that might become an issue at national level. The EFF meanwhile has had too minor a role in current and past coalitions to really talk about implementation.

To talk about variances in corruption between parties is perhaps missing the point of the bigger issue here linking all of this, which is political will.

The ANC has a political-will problem. I think a lot of the commentary last week that inserting an electricity minister to override fights between mineral resources and public enterprises is deeply naive and does not solve the underlying political problem, which is the president’s alone to solve, and that is political decision-making.

Neither the DA nor the EFF (nor smaller parties) can solve that in a coalition next year — it is the ANC alone that can. To think that somehow any other parties can force a solution to an ANC internal political problem is odd. Moreover, the very action of having a coalition can create a fudgy outcome — of damage to the ANC and DA in particular — which simply holds the status quo in place.

We are seeing this in Gauteng metros at the moment where there is a large backlash against (perhaps unfairly) a perception that the DA has not met (the higher) bar that was set for them.

The 2024 elections on the horizon therefore become about a choice. How do you fundamentally solve the root of the reform issue in SA, which is a political problem in the country when the electorate is slow to shift despite being pummelled with such huge shocks now? While the ANC might dip to about 45% — in the grand scheme of things not a huge amount is likely going to change next year, just the continuation of existing trends. There is unlikely to be a large slump of the ANC to say 30% or a rally of the DA or EFF to 40%.

What is therefore obvious is that a much broader realignment of politics is required after 2024 — with only a tail-risk chance it happens before from new upstart entrants.

An uncomfortable choice is therefore on the horizon. There is an ANC/DA coalition which might well turn out to be a fudgy status quo of ongoing but sluggish reform where the poor remain poor and the rich are quite comfortable, with both parties further damaged by a lack of change but no broader realignment into 2029. As such, a social breaking point is still possible, with the tax base not wide enough to offer wider support, though investment, growth and markets just about hold on.

Or there is an EFF/ANC coalition which would — to not put too fine a point on it — blow everything up, as the live rails of SA policy that have never really been touched, are touched. Yet this scenario would — could — catalyse a much more dramatic realignment of the body politics in SA and lead to real and positive change in the long run — albeit going through a quite dramatic and unsettling “bottom” before (probably, but not guaranteed) coming out on the other side. All manner of threats to democratic institutions might happen in this scenario.

All this might be complicated still further if the ANC removes Ramaphosa after the 2024 elections on a poor result. This might render the choices more complex by what comes after as the other side of the coalition. Again this risk is often ignored and coalitions are thought of through the current lens.

2024 then is about risks if we assume that a fundamentally more positive outcome isn’t possible without a catalyst to shift the political ecosystem. The playing off of these different scenarios should make it clear that there are no simple binaries here — and no riskless choices.

• Attard Montalto leads on political economy, markets and the just energy transition at Intellidex, an SA research-led consulting company. This article first appeared in Business Day.