In April 1992 Britain’s most read newspaper, The Sun, hit its readers with a vivid front page on election day. Across a photograph of Labour leader and electoral favourite Neil Kinnock, placed in a light bulb, ran the headline: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”

Against the odds the Conservatives under John Major won, and Kinnock bitterly denounced the use of such “misinformation and disinformation”. Today no newspaper here or anywhere has such sway — it is more likely that Russian hackers and bots weaponising social media could tip an election in many places, even our own in 2024.

Switching off the lights in SA after the election probably won’t be necessary or possible, courtesy of load-shedding. However, under one scenario the airport departure lounges could fill up with skilled taxpayers fleeing and capital exiting the country on an unprecedented scale, with foreign investment evaporating. So, the more serious question is: are we sleepwalking into a national disaster? And if we are, can anything be done about it?

In the A Nightmare on Elm Street horror scenario the Freddy Krueger role is played by the EFF’s Julius Malema, who threatens minorities, encourages the use of violence and will trash the remains of the SA economy and its constitution with as much glee as his storm troopers trashed 37 Clicks stores in September 2020. Drumming up support for his so-called national shutdown on Monday, his party used loudhailers to intimidate shop owners and factories to close their doors “to avoid the looting”.

The nightmare prospect of Malema and his party entering the portals of national power moves from the stuff of fantasy horror movies to political reality due to three interrelated facts, each of which is likely to loom large in next year’s poll.

It is no longer just the usual suspects in the opposition or media who now point to the serial disasters ANC governance has inflicted on the country, which rubbish any claim it once made to achieve “a better life for all”. Barney Pityana, a stalwart of the struggle and close ally of former president Thabo Mbeki, used a lecture last week on human rights to highlight what he called “the brokenness of society”, characterised by “dilapidation, wreckage, dirty piles of rubbish … people walking about … never ever looking fully human or fully happy”.

At the time Pityana was appointed by Nelson Mandela to head the Human Rights Commission in 1995, trade unionist David Lewis chaired the presidential commission on labour policy and then chaired the Competition Tribunal. He wrote recently in Business Day: “Has there ever been a bleaker period in SA’s recent history?… [It is] now difficult to find light at the end of a very dark tunnel strewn with violent criminals, perpetrators of corruption, coruscating incompetence, as well as inertia at the upper reaches of the state.”

Not that any ordinary citizen requires such high-level, struggle-credentialed eminences to confirm what their eyes and daily experience show. But now the rage against the machine of state and its overlords is of such widespread intensity that it lends credence to a slew of polls that suggest ANC support could drop below the low-water mark to which the once unbeatable party sank in 2021 (47%).

Confirming the precariousness of its position, the ANC for the first time now has a “coalitions commission” headed by David Makhura, and party insiders rate the prospects of it achieving more than 50% nationally in 2024 at no better than 10%. Of course, simply replicating its 2021 low will allow the ANC to buy off a couple of small parties, of which there will be many, without having to invoke the nightmare option of an EFF coalition. Or to consider dealing with the largest opposition party, the DA.

But what if the ANC decline is far steeper, as recent polls suggest, and a government cannot be formed with the minnows? A dress rehearsal of sorts for the EFF coalition option is under way right now in Gauteng. It is important to note that at no stage in the recent collapse of city administrations in Johannesburg and Tshwane did the ANC provincial leadership consider an arrangement with the DA —  it went straight to the EFF.

On its face, this suggests a precursor to a national arrangement in 2024 — A Nightmare on Elm Street comes to the Union Buildings. Except for this: I understand that the vanishingly small number of constitutionalists in the ANC upper reaches, and even President Cyril Ramaphosa, refused to countenance the enthronement of an EFF mayor in either place.

Hence the installation as Tshwane mayor of a fraudster-insolvent from a single-seat party, COPE (for a week, at least). In Johannesburg this meant electing Thapelo Amad from Al Jama-ah, another one-seat outfit, which believes in imposing sharia. Not good news for residents of Glenhazel or for Rhema Bible Church members. There is division in ANC ranks on the inclusion of the EFF in a future national government, but the party appears to have incoherent tactics and strategy to deal with it.

Where does all this churn and concern leave the rest of the opposition? The DA, which I had the privilege to lead at inception, has the most significant role to play. Even an indifferent performance at the polls in 2024 will leave it ahead of the rest of the opposition; a better-than-expected outcome is likely to land it about 25% of the vote. However, for a variety of reasons it is unlikely to get much beyond that. Still, in a fragmenting electoral marketplace that is valuable political real estate.

The DA is not the sole player in an overcrowded non-EFF opposition corner. For all opposition parties in this space there are at least three urgent questions to answer:

  • Can they co-operate to grow the opposition total beyond the 34% collective total (minus the EFF) achieved in 2019? Depressingly, over 29 years the total opposition percentage (excluding the EFF, which is essentially an extreme tributary from the ANC river) has barely moved since 1994 even if its composition has altered. This will change only if opposition parties stop simply cannibalising support from each other and instead draw from the pool of disaffected ANC voters or current nonvoters. Can any reasonable prospect for this outcome be attained?
  • Do other proportional list elections (not the policies enacted thereafter) offer any lessons? The reason for opposition parties moving into government in other polities has a lot to do with their degree of interopposition planning long before polling day, often among parties that otherwise detest each other but see greater harm in a splintered opposition incapable of challenging for power.
  • Even if they compete for votes, can the different opposition parties here strike a pre-election accord that commits each to a set of broad principles about strong constitutionalism, inclusive nonracialism and sound economics? And can they arrive at a joint compact on how to approach a new coalition government and whether and in what circumstances it would deal with the ANC? A crippled giant is still big, and likely to be the biggest party after polls close. Is a deal with the ANC on or off the table, and in what circumstances? That is the hard question here.

Sensible answers to these questions are difficult. But answering them does admit some hope amid the current despair. And between the uncertainty of hope and the certainty of national collapse, only a fool hesitates.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.