What may be in store for the country’s upcoming elections, reformist approaches, and the global relevance.

Recent coverage in The Economist captures why South Africa’s upcoming election matters: “South Africa is the most industrialized economy in Africa, the continent’s business hub and its most influential actor on the global stage”. Many key issues for the West ranging from terrorism to the influence of China play out on the world’s second largest continent, where South Africa is a big player.

Socially and symbolically, if South Africa overcomes “its history of repression and racism, that would offer hope to all countries, in Africa and beyond.”

Yet agreement largely ends there. To stop the rot and Afro-socialist influence in South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), the latest edition of The Economist argues a vote for the ANC is preferable to voting against it – particularly as the historic classical liberal opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has been facing potential stagnation (due in part to internal challenges) and accusations of compromising its core values. Polling third is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) a self-described Marxist-Leninist party, which split from the ANC under Jacob Zuma.

In South Africa’s proportional voting system, the electorate votes for a party, and the party delivers the representatives. Based on the percentage of votes the party receives, a proportionate number of seats are allocated to each respective party. Determining who gets seats, including the Presidency, is done within the party – not by direct vote.

The thinking goes that since the purported economic and good governance reformer President Cyril Ramaphosa -first elected by an ANC Parliament last year to replace the corrupt Jacob Zuma – is the face of the ANC in the general election; a strong mandate for the ANC is a mandate for the President and his market-oriented reforms. In contrast to a wide margin of victory, should the ANC suffer at the polls, its powerful party leadership, the National Executive Committee, will recall Mr. Rampahosa (the good guy) the way they did Mr. Zuma (the bad guy).

Anthea Jefferey of the Institute of Race Relations thinks otherwise, arguing an ANC triumph at the polls will strengthen the ANC, not Ramaphosa. “Even if the ANC wins 60% or more, Ramaphosa will still be subordinate to ANC secretary general Ace Magashule in the party hierarchy. Ramaphosa will still command only a bare majority on the ANC’s powerful national executive committee (NEC).” (Magashule is the subject of a recent book, Gangster State.)

Jefferey further argues, “when a 60% vote for the ANC is combined with a likely increased showing for the radical EFF, the two-thirds majority needed to amend the property clause and other core constitutional provisions will have been secured. This will give the ANC yet more reason to press ahead with damaging radical shifts, rather than abandon them.”

The Democratic Alliance (DA), the country’s official opposition, rooted historically in classical liberal opposition to apartheid – where its single MP Helen Suzman took on the regime for 13 years alone in the Legislature- is asserting a vote for smaller parties today undermines their opposition. Others argue the party is compromising its historic liberal values for votes, while losing its core principles with little to show for it (if you can vote ANC-lite, why not just vote ANC? critics contend).

Discussions of a split by more classical liberal members have arisen, according to Bloomberg’s latest coverage.

Unrelated to a split or splinter movement, a new Capitalist Party of South Africa (ZACP) has already formed, with a name and acronym which draw a direct contrast to the South African Communist Party (SACP), currently aligned within the ruling ANC.

Smaller parties may seek to draw the DA closer to its original values, doing so the way the Communist Party drew the ANC toward the hard left in the 1950s, or more accurately the way the EFF seeks to from outside the ANC, through its vocal Parliamentary presence today.

Voting for smaller parties does not split the vote at a national level, argues prominent political commentator Ivo Vegter, who has welcomed the formation of the capitalist party. He says he supports the DA in provinces where the party has a realistic chance of unseating the ANC or keeping it out of government. (However, as The Economist rightly asserts, this is not going to happen federally).

Thus, “[w]hether a seat in Parliament belongs to the DA, the ZACP or any other party that opposes socialist policies and corruption makes no practical difference to the strength of the opposition.”

“As long as the party you give your vote to espouses principles in which you believe, it can make a valuable contribution in Parliamentary debates. It is arguable, in fact, that a party of principles such as the ZACP could be more effective than the official opposition, whose principles have been watered down by the need to appeal to what it calls a ‘broad church’ of voters.”

However, smaller parties can have a challenge spreading their members across multiple legislative committees at any given sphere of government, compromising the quality of those inputs. As a former chair of a legislative committee myself,* I believe there is a greater role for think tanks and policy specialists directly on these committees – as guests of elected representatives. Such additional well-researched inputs are welcomed more often than is appreciated and can influence major bills and engender bipartisan cooperation that is less newsworthy than the grandstanding on the main floor of Parliament, which receives much of the news coverage.

In summary, two dominant assumptions are being challenged in South Africa and the success of those challenges will be seen in the upcoming election – with potentially significant consequences for the future direction of the country in the short- to medium-term.

The first challenges the idea the ANC is able to reform, simply because it led by a self-declared reformer (whose power is derived from the party, not the electorate). The second is the idea that smaller parties split the vote, undermining opposition politics because the opposition party has fewer seats.

Coalition government remains arguably the best hope for good ideas to prevail in South Africa. It has happened in its major cities already, with varying degrees of success.

Among the young, voices for liberty are emerging on campuses, while grass-roots support for business-minded reforms have been evident for some time. Will we see prominent new voices outside the established parties in Parliament, in the vein of Helen Suzman’s sole voice for 13 years in South Africa’s pre-democratic party?

It may eventually be that the ANC gives up on its low-growth economic policy (and threats of ever-more socialistic policy) and settles reluctantly for hard-needed reform, when confronted by the reality that it cannot make a dent in unemployment and the attendant electoral risks over the long-run. But while this scenario may be hoped for by reformers outside the ANC, it is not an action plan to drive reform externally.

Public opinion polling shows a majority of South Africans are middle-of-the road voters, with little disposition for radicalism and holding pragmatic views in most regards. Unemployment and ongoing economic woes can lure a significant leftward lurch. The future is never a foregone conclusion for a country regarded on the left and right of US think tank policy as a “vitally important country”.

The battle of ideas rages on. Now the political dynamics in the upcoming election may reflect diminished belief in the potential of internal ANC reform harkening back to the Mandela era, combined with an interest in smaller parties by historic liberals disillusioned with the official opposition at present, buoyed by the liberal legacy of Helen Suzman.

*Full disclosure: the author served in the DA-led Cape Town city council from 2011 to 2016 and is a member of the Institute of Race Relations cited above.