South African Elections: Implications for the UK

“Our people have spoken,” said President Ramaphosa, at the announcement of the final results of the 2024 general elections. These words were reminiscent of 1994, which ushered in a historical transition of power and the end of apartheid, under the  leadership of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC).

However, a second zeitenwende, moment of history, is now unfolding in South Africa. The political terrain is changed with the loss of the dominant majority of the ANC after 30 years in power.

Changing the political landscape dominated by the ANC was never going to be an easy feat. This is shown by the election results thus far: 1994 (62.65%), 1999 (66.35%), 2004 (69.69%), 2009 (65.90%), 2014 (62.15%) and 2019 (57.50%), which all gave the ANC a comfortable majority. Such was the power of the ANC, and such was their hold on the majority of the population.

In the early years, their time in office was fairly successful – presiding over a country from 1994-2009 which made important socio-economic progress. In this period, according to the World Bank, “The country made considerable strides to improve the well-being of its citizens since its transition to democracy in the mid-1990s”.

However, in the last decade, the ANC’s performance was severely compromised by state capture, which resulted in the looting of state funds, damage to the economy and state-owned enterprises (SOEs), decaying infrastructure and a decline in public services. This was compounded by an  unemployment rate of over 30%, especially impacting young people, crime, low economic growth and high levels of inequality.

While the ANC’s majority fell to 57.50% in 2019, it was the outcome of the local government elections of 2021, that pointed to the sign of things to come in 2024, with support for the ANC plummeting for the first time to 46%, down from 57% in 2014. Furthermore, polls in the lead up to the general elections were showing, for the first time, a consistent fall in support for the ANC below 50% in the 2024 general elections.

The outcome of the 7th general elections in which the ANC received only 40.19% of the votes translated to a massive 17 percentage point loss in votes. This development marks a seismic shift in South African politics. It reflects the transformation and journey of a society from the liberation struggle to democracy and one-party dominance, to a coalition-led government in a period of only 30 years.

This momentous event reflects a snapshot in South Africa’s history where not only a pragmatic shift was made, to prioritise service delivery, but also importantly an emotional one; voting against a party that had become synonymous with the hope and aspirations of the majority of South Africans and associated with the iconic Nelson Mandela.

It is envisaged that coalition talks will take place between the ANC and the centre-right Democratic Alliance, which received the second largest number of votes at 21.80%. The other option is a coalition arrangement with the radical left party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which received 9.52%, and another smaller party. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which is an ethnic Zulu based party, received 3.85% of the votes. It too could play an important role.

A further option will be a coalition with the populist MK party (Umkhonto weSizwe) which received 14.59% of the vote. The MK party, founded by former ANC President Jacob Zuma, proved to be the biggest surprise. It became the 3rd largest party, after only being recently launched.

The possibility of a Government of National Unity (GNU) is also being mooted, similar to the one created in 1994. At that time, it was focused more on achieving unity in the country, as the ANC had obtained a majority.

South Africa’s history of the performance of coalition government’s at a local government level has often been fractious and unstable, and the leaders of political parties will need to demonstrate the same level of wisdom as in 1994, as they move the country forward into uncharted territory.

The wait is over, and the people have voted for change. As South Africans absorb the birth of a new era in national politics and the sun sets on the dominance of the ANC, it is understandable that the excitement generated will be replaced by uncertainty as complex coalition negotiations unfold.

However, it is the maturation of South Africa’s democracy and the strength of the democratic institutions over 30 years which could serve as a guide to the future.

Implications for the UK

In terms of the UK’s “Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world,” the promotion and protection of the UK’s core national interests of sovereignty, security and prosperity of the British people is a priority.

In this respect the UK’s approach to Africa in general relates to promoting mutually beneficial development, security, support for clean infrastructure and climate adaptation, and the promotion of trade and investment.

In addition, the UK’s commitment to multilateralism and the support for the reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to include Africa, and to support Africa in global institutions like the G20, is also an important priority for the UK. One of the key countries identified in the Review for the UK is South Africa.

David Lammy, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, also recognised the place of Africa on the global stage in a major foreign policy speech. He said, “African countries play a growing role in shaping global politics and there are also remarkable economic opportunities that should not be ignored”. It is in this respect that South Africa, as the largest and most industrialised economy in Africa, remains a critical partner for the UK.

Bilateral relations between South Africa and the United Kingdom are historical and remain strong, covering a wide range of areas of cooperation such as education, science and innovation, and health. The relationship is managed through the Bilateral Forum at the level of foreign ministers, which meets biennially. The 12th session of the Bilateral Forum was held in May 2021 in the United Kingdom and the next session, which is outstanding, is due to be held in South Africa.

South Africa is the UK’s number one exports destination within Africa, and the 13th most important supplier of South Africa’s imports. Total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and South Africa was £10.8 billion in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2023.

South Africa has always been viewed as a dependable international partner promoting a rules-based international system. While the perception has sometimes been created that the country’s non-alignment policy was favouring countries hostile to or in competition with the UK, like China and Russia, the UK and the West in general has viewed South Africa as an important strategic partner. It has accepted that it has often pursued an independent foreign policy based on its own priorities and history.

The 2024 general elections outcome could therefore have important implications for UK- South Africa relations. In terms of a coalition  government, an ANC/DA coalition could see policy continuity, but with less of an emphasis on historical relations with countries and organisations that supported the liberation struggle.

The DA, as a centre-right and business friendly party, would be expected to prioritise relations with the UK and the West. The coalition would recognise that they are major investors in the country, who will play an important role in growing the economy, creating jobs and providing much needed investment, a key priority for the party.

At the other end of the spectrum an ANC/EFF or MK coalition could result in a shift away from the West and more of an emphasis on “anti-imperialism.” Relations with the UK and the West could be impacted by a populist government, creating market uncertainty, and stalling and reversing foreign direct investment from the West and negatively impact the economy.

Either way, it will be important for the UK to engage with the new administration and to utilise the opportunity to attend the Bilateral Forum to give much needed impetus and direction to this important strategic relationship.


South Africa has entered a new era of coalition politics at a national level. The ANC, whilst remaining a major party in any coalition, has lost its parliamentary majority and importantly its soft power hold on the country. Once again, both locally and internationally, the world will watch with interest. South Africa has a new story to tell, and only time will reveal the outcome of this next chapter in South Africa’s remarkable journey.

Mohamed Cassimjee

Mohamed Cassimjee is a BFPG Associate Fellow