What’s Next for South Africa After Voters Rebuked Its Reigning Party?

South Africa is headed for big change.

Precisely what that change looks like, and whether it will alleviate the many hardships that South Africans face, remains the million-dollar question.

The African National Congress, or A.N.C. — which has governed with sizable electoral majorities since the start of democracy in South Africa in 1994 — won only about 40 percent of the vote in last week’s election. The poor result means that it is now negotiating with rival parties to become partners in forming a government.

“In their desperation, I wonder what kind of choices they will make,” said Bhekindlela Cebekhulu, 40, a theater performer in Soweto.

Will South Africa have a white president soon, or might parties promoting socialism seize ownership of his home, asked Mr. Cebekhulu, who said he voted for the A.N.C. after standing in line for more than an hour. Most of all, he said, he worried about former President Jacob Zuma’s threats to change the Constitution.

The nation’s top legislative body, the National Assembly, must meet within two weeks of Sunday’s official announcement of the election results and elect a president.

Officials with the African National Congress have said they want their leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, to continue for a second term. Mr. Ramaphosa’s fate probably depends on the negotiations.

South Africa seems to be staring down two paths.

The election results could jolt the African National Congress, and whoever enters the national government, to more aggressively address the poverty, joblessness, crime and inequality afflicting the country — lest it lose even more support. Or, political polarization and bickering could deepen, meaning little is done to fix problems.

The new government should at least produce “steps in the right direction,” said Hlengiwe Ndlovu, a governance lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But if there is political dysfunction, she added, the country could “break into chaos, into violence, into a state of collapse.”

Here are the key leaders determining South Africa’s future, and the impact they could have.

Cyril Ramaphosa and the African National Congress

The biggest question for Mr. Ramaphosa, 71, and his party is what arrangement they would prefer. All of them carry risks.

They could team up with the Democratic Alliance. But that could isolate some of their core supporters in Black townships and rural communities because the Democratic Alliance has been staunchly against policies that give preferences to Black people in employment and ownership.

Another option is for the African National Congress to reunite with Mr. Zuma, who used to lead the party but helped form a new one that ran against his former allies in this election. But bringing Mr. Zuma back into the fold could undermine the A.N.C.’s stance that it is rooting out the corruption that has been endemic within it for years. Mr. Zuma, an archenemy of Mr. Ramaphosa, his former deputy, was forced to resign in 2018 because of withering corruption allegations.

The party also could turn to another former member, Julius Malema, who was a firebrand youth leader before it expelled him. Mr. Malema started the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party, a decade ago. Though Mr. Malema’s socialist stance is embraced by some within the African National Congress, it could push the party in a direction that it does not want to go.

There is the possibility of simply governing as a minority government. That means the A.N.C. would negotiate with other parties on an issue-by-issue basis. Some have also suggested forming a “government of national unity” in which all parties in Parliament are brought into the fold.

All options are open, Fikile Mbalula, the party’s secretary general, said on Sunday. But it won’t be forced into a bad arrangement, he said: “We are talking, but we are not begging.”

John Steenhuisen and the Democratic Alliance

The Democratic Alliance has been one of the A.N.C.’s harshest critics, leveling personal insults against its members and taking it to court over some of the laws it has passed.

Led by Mr. Steenhuisen, 48, who is white, the party abandoned a more diverse leadership when it lost the white conservative vote. It leaned in to some issues that are championed by some on the far right — issuing a news release that lamented, without evidence, a “sharp rise” in the murders of farmers and advocating for the continued use of the Afrikaans language at Stellenbosch University.

Still, in some ways, a Democratic Alliance coalition with the A.N.C. would make sense. The party earned nearly 22 percent of the vote, making it the second-largest party. The A.N.C.’s current leadership generally advocates a centrist economic approach similar to that of the Democratic Alliance. Big business would probably welcome this coalition. Analysts say this partnership would probably protect and strengthen state institutions. And the Democratic Alliance has a good track record of functional governance in the Western Cape, the fourth-largest province, and might serve as a check on government graft, analysts said.

The parties may bump heads over policies to eliminate the racial disparities that linger from apartheid, and on foreign policy. The Democratic Alliance firmly backs Western allies. The African National Congress has emphasized the importance of the West but also promotes strong partnerships with the likes of China, Russia and Iran.

Tony Leon, a former leader of the Democratic Alliance who is part of the team leading coalition negotiations for the party, said its voters would get past their reservations with the A.N.C. if they believed a more functional government would result. They also would want to keep the parties of Mr. Zuma and Mr. Malema out of power because of the left-wing economic policies they promote.

“I can absolutely guarantee that 80 percent, maybe more, of D.A. voters would say, ‘Make some sensible arrangement with the A.N.C.,’” he said.

Such a deal could mean reaching a compromise on policies important to the A.N.C. One of the Democratic Alliance’s critical priorities is to stop “cadre deployment,” the policy of employing party members in key positions even if they lack the qualifications. The Democratic Alliance has also promised to scrap affirmative action “because it has only enriched a tiny, connected elite,” according to its manifesto.

Jacob Zuma and M.K.

Mr. Zuma’s umKhonto weSizwe party, known as M.K., was formed just six months ago and was the most stunning spoiler in the election. It finished third, winning nearly 15 percent of the national vote, the most ever for a first-time party.

M.K. espouses a rigid platform: Take all land without compensation to bring it under state control; abolish the current Constitution; establish a house in Parliament for leaders of traditional ethnic groups; and roll back the renewable energy transition in favor of coal and nuclear power.

But many analysts say that Mr. Zuma, 82, seems less interested in policy and more interested in punishing Mr. Ramaphosa and his party. Although Mr. Zuma leads M.K., he was recently disqualified from serving in Parliament because of a criminal conviction for failing to testify before a corruption inquiry — a charge that he claims was politically motivated by Mr. Ramaphosa’s government.

Some political analysts and rival politicians say that Mr. Zuma also wants access to state power to make some of his legal troubles go away. He faces criminal corruption charges stemming from an arms deal when he was vice president some two decades ago.

M.K. officials are already demanding that Mr. Ramaphosa resign as a condition for any coalition arrangement, a demand that the African National Congress is so far resisting.

Analysts say that a major concern is that if these two parties team up, it essentially will be a return to the factionalism and corruption that have made the A.N.C. ineffective in running the government.

Voters are “looking for better operation, they’re looking for better performance on current policy,” said Ebrahim Fakir, an election analyst with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters

Mr. Malema has in some ways softened his rhetoric but is no less bold in his demands. Last week, he laid out what he would be asking for from coalition partners: taking land without compensation within six months; creating a state-owned bank and canceling student debt within 12 months; free water and electricity for all welfare beneficiaries; and a partner that would “not be a puppet or representation of the West imperialist agenda.”

But the 43-year-old leader has lost some leverage because of his party’s disappointing showing at the polls. Its support fell by roughly a percentage point, to about 9.5 percent, from the last election in 2019.

Still, as a former A.N.C. member, he has allies within the organization. And his brand of politics appeals to a faction in the party that believes the current leadership has not pushed aggressively enough to undo the economic disparities that afflict Black South Africans.

While investors might initially be shocked by a partnership between the A.N.C. and the Economic Freedom fighters because of Mr. Malema’s leftist stance, those concerns are overblown, Mr. Fakir said. This alliance would not lead to the more drastic changes that Mr. Malema is seeking, Mr. Fakir said.

Instead, there could be “an intensification of the current welfare state,” he said. The parties, he said, would probably negotiate something that resembles the Reconstruction and Development Program. That was a public expenditure program adopted toward the end of apartheid that was “a slightly more radical Marshall Plan,” Mr. Fakir said.

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