PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: Stakes are unbelievably high — and we can’t sit this out

Well that was easy, wasn’t it? So much could have gone wrong in the past two weeks, but the fact the maths was set a certain way, that certain parties had red lines (not outrageous ones), that each party had to get things through its own structures, and the (in the end somewhat accelerated) timetable all meant there was really no other option.

In two weeks, the ANC exited its grief cycle (just about) and was forced (quite quickly in reality) to move from the initial stance of wanting various parties in parliament to prop it up through confidence and supply, to the power-sharing coalition arrangement that we have ended up with.

Last column I had a rant at many of those who had given me grief for daring to have a pre-election forecast below 45% for the ANC (even if I was still too high). Now it’s the turn of those who were convinced before the elections that the ANC would go with the EFF and/or the MK party in coalition.

There were large elements of the market and of supposedly ANC-connected corporate SA (not to mention the media) who were convinced of this. It was not just mad and wrong, but it showed a deeper level of a lack of understanding of how politics works in SA between and inside parties.


A huge number of people completely miss the fact the ANC is far more small-c conservative than otherwise expected, that the threats of the markets — for all the wailing and complaints in the political economy — are a real force, and that the style of politics, trustworthiness and risks of dealing with the EFF and MK were always completely unworkable. This is even before we get to the maths. Interestingly, it was local investors way more than foreigners who had such views — stoked again by far too much madness in the media.

A mirror needs to be held up. It is important because the political economy is going to get rocky and uncertain for the foreseeable future — basically forever in corporate planning horizons — as coalition stability, internal deal-making between coalition partners and deal-making inside parties comes to the fore and is a fact of life. Corporates and markets are not ready for this — the risks but also the opportunities for change.

The insertion of more people into the government who aren’t locked into the ANC’s internal deployment and policy straitjacket opens up opportunities to stretch the envelope, invigorate evidence-based policymaking, and bring fresh perspectives and new internal government accountability mechanisms.

Moreover, I actually think it will liberate those many sensible but sometimes (often?) excellent, thoughtful voices within the ANC to step up. This might, most interestingly, be on National Health Insurance (NHI) and foreign policy — as well as on the department of trade, industry & competition, where there is a quiet but deep seam of dissatisfaction (maybe even anger) within the ANC with the abject failure of industrial policy in the country in the past decade.

I therefore think that the broad brushstrokes “the ANC and the DA disagree on policy” line is not even an over-simplification. It is simply wrong. The ANC has been on a journey in the past five years more firmly towards the “conservative-centre-left” as I call it, while the DA has ditched many of its more loony policy elements to arrive at what one might call the centre right. Read policy documents from both in the past year and compare them with those five years ago and the convergence and distance travelled becomes clear.

Yes, the ANC often has a habit of being stuck in the ideological mud first but ends up being pragmatic when all else fails. The DA and others in the government can accelerate this eventual pragmatism in the ANC. There is certainly a further distance to travel and one must wonder if other parties can show the patience with the ANC as they make the journey. NHI is one example of the ANC knowing internally that it is unworkable and will want a decent off-ramp.

While there is a sufficient consensus 60% (basically ANC or DA veto) mechanism in the government of national unity (GNU) contract, the need for the parties to allow each other to ride a journey to the right outcome is important.

The way decision making happens in the country is going to fundamentally change, however. It is not clear even the ANC realises this completely.

The cabinet has been moribund for the past 15 years and has barely recovered in the past five years under President Cyril Ramaphosa. Now there will be other voices challenging people and likely important political subcommittees that thrash out ideas. As ever, it is not just minister to minister, but it’s the soft, hidden mycelial network among parts of government — the advisers who sit a level below them. This is where the action will be.

Similarly in parliament other voices in committee chair positions will hold ministers to account, whether those leaders are from different parties in the GNU or if they are from other parties outside the GNU.

Within parties there will be continual battles among those who want to be in coalition and those who don’t; those who want power and more votes and think they can get that from being against their own coalition involvement, and those who think they can get more votes by showing progress governing.

We have elective conferences of all parties in two to three years (and an ANC national general council next year). The DA is already murmuring internally about life after Helen Zille — for whom the outcome now is not the first preference. The ANC starts to think about life after its current leader anyway once a national election is out of the way. That will be on steroids now there is such a loss of support and of patronage and income.

The coalition’s ability to navigate a 45% party being kept out of government in KwaZulu-Natal and for all parties to navigate 2026 without self-destructing, will be exceptionally hard — a proper test of the balance of grown-ups versus the shorter-term elements in parties.

Of course, the parties will have a tough time if they cannot show a meaningful dent in unemployment, but also there are underlying trends (as seen especially in KwaZulu-Natal) of deeper disenchantment. More than this, with such low turnout this time there is a large body of people who could turn out next time for a populist or for a protest vote if the coalition cannot show some change in a relatively short period to 2026.

The stakes are unbelievably high — but sitting this period out, afraid of the stakes — is hardly an option either. So it’s all shoulders to the wheel.

Peter Attard Montalto leads on political economy, markets and the just energy transition at Krutham, a SA research-led consulting company.

This article first appeared in Business Day.