Can South Africa’s white-led opposition win in 2024?

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On April 1, John Steenhuisen was re-elected leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s largest opposition party, in a triennial congress in Midrand, just outside Johannesburg.

In his speech to 2,000 party members, he made clear the DA’s intent to wrestle power away from the governing African National Congress (ANC) in the 2024 national election and to prevent any possible alliance with another rival, the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

“During the remaining months before next year’s election, the DA will make it our number one priority … to prevent an ANC-EFF coalition,” Steenhuisen said in his speech.

Next year’s election is seen as the most important one since the dawn of democracy and the end of apartheid in 1994. Already, there are fears among the ANC faithful that after three decades in power, the party may not garner the necessary 50 percent of votes needed to stay in power.

Africa’s most industrialised nation is struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic and the ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A third of the country is unemployed and crime rates have soared, boosting the rise of xenophobic militias which blame immigrants. Rolling power cuts, or load shedding, are now routine for up to six hours daily.

Corruption scandals involving government officials have become a regular affair. Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa pardoned his predecessor Jacob Zuma who was jailed after refusing to testify about corruption and crony capitalism – which became known as state capture – during his tenure.

The ANC is also facing a pushback as its support base gradually erodes due to a changing demographic. According to data from the Electoral Commission (IEC), there are about 27 million registered voters: approximately 10 million of those are in the age groups of 18-29 and 30-39.

For voters in these age groups, the heroic status of Nelson Mandela, the iconic statesman and first president of post-apartheid era South Africa has taken a knock for his insistence on unity, not justice.

All of this has bolstered the DA to take a shot at unseating the governing party. Steenhuisen says the DA is the government-in-waiting and has a plan to clean up the country.

Still, the ANC’s deep grassroots support could make it hard to defeat. Even without any merger, Ramaphosa and the EFF’s charismatic leader Julius Malema separately pose a monumental challenge to the DA’s inroads into the rural and urban areas.

Race still matters

Born in 2000 after a merger of the parties that were part of white minority rule, the DA describes itself as “broadly centrist”. It governs the Western Cape – the third-largest province in the country which in the first quarter of 2022, contributed 14 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – and the City of Cape Town, the legislative capital, which is seen as the best-run municipality.

The party is hoping to build on that base to snatch power at the national level in 2024. In parliament, the ANC remains the majority party with 230 of the 400 available seats. The DA has 84 seats, EFF has 44 and 11 other parties share the rest.

Steenhuisen who joined the DA from inception, has been a member of parliament since 2011. He was the party’s interim leader from November 2019, having served as the chief whip of the DA in parliament for five years.

His supporters say the 47-year-old is the man to lead the party to victory in the 2024 election. The party’s Gauteng province leader, Solly Msimanga, told Al Jazeera that Steenhuisen will “stabilise the party dynamics as we gear ourselves for the 2024 election”.

Analysts are divided over whether the DA under Steenhuisen can make a serious mark in next year’s election.

“I think the DA is projecting as a bigger player [than] it really is, but at the same time it remains the largest opposition party and has a footprint around the country,” said political analyst Daniel Silke.

Levy Ndou, political analyst and politics lecturer at the Tshwane University of Technology, said it was too early to tell whether the party can indeed “defeat the ANC”.

Historically, the DA’s strongholds have been among the white demographic. An exodus of high-profile Black leaders from the party in the last decade has also hurt its positioning as an inclusive institution in a multicultural nation like South Africa.

Former party leader Mmusi Maimane left in 2019 saying there was a “disagreement about the vision and direction” of the party. Current Tourism Minister Patricia de Lille, previously elected as Cape Town mayor under its platform, resigned in 2018, saying “When people abuse you, you must walk away”.

However, DA leader in Gauteng Solly Msimanga dismissed what he called an “obsession”.

“Why is it that when people leave the DA, then it’s a Black issue? Our plan is very clear we want to build our own narrative and story, and we want to ensure we are able to carve out our value proposition to the people in SA and this is what matters,” he said.

Nevertheless, race still matters heavily in South Africa, where more than a third of the population lives in poverty while most of the wealth is controlled by the white minority.

A game of numbers

In South African politics, like many other places, winning an election is also about the numbers.

According to the IEC figures, in 2019, the DA received 20.77 percent of the 2019 vote, a downswing from 2014 when it garnered 22.23 percent of the vote but an increase from 2009 when it received more than 16 percent of the vote.

But the governing party’s support also declined from 62.15 percent in 2014 to 57,50 in 2019. In February, the ANC’s internal electoral report predicted that the party’s support will drop to 37 percent, keeping the DA at 27 percent and the EFF at 10 percent.

Multiple private polls have also weighed in. One by the market research organisation Ipsos shows that 43 percent of registered voters are likely to vote for the ANC, with the DA polling at only 20 percent.

Another poll released in early October by the think tank Social Research Foundation predicted that the ANC would garner 45 percent of the vote, while the DA would get 31 percent.

“It’s a leap of faith for Steenhuisen to project himself as the next president as the DA has been a 20-25 percent party, and I think we [are] looking at an uncertain 2024 election,” Silke said.

Meanwhile, analysts say the DA’s talk of a mooted alliance between the ANC and the EFF is a narrative driven by the latter’s controversial pro-immigration stance and reallocation of land rights to instill fear among the electorate.

The DA is itself seeking a coalition with many smaller parties, but its history of failed partnerships could hinder its progress in that regard.

In 2016, it ran coalition governments in the major cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane in Gauteng, and the Nelson Mandela Metro in the Eastern Cape. Within three years, these coalitions collapsed and all the DA mayors were kicked out of office. Following the 2021 local government election, the DA again went into coalition with smaller parties to run Johannesburg but failed again.

Given that past, analysts say the DA’s path to power remains complicated. The big question now, they add, is how many voters frustrated by the other heavyweights and looking for a new political home, can it attract into the fold?

Even the born-free generation (those born after 1994) will prove tough to convince, despite being disenchanted with the ANC. First-time voter 20-year-old Colby Adonis, a human resources student in Cape Town, is one of those who remain unimpressed by the DA, especially its pro-Zionist stance.

“I think they have a direction for the country, but at the same time they are contradictory; they speak on one thing, then they do another,” he told Al Jazeera. “In terms of service delivery, they do a lot for the city of Cape Town and are very efficient but I cannot vote for a party that is supporting what is happening in Israel; innocent children are dying.”

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