Can the ANC rein in grass-roots coercion? (Photo Archive)
How will the ANC be remembered by historians? Certainly it will be as the liberation movement and party that played a central role in the achievement of democracy in South Africa. But will it be remembered as a party that maintained this commitment in the ensuing decades?
As the 2014 election draws nearer, and in the years to come, this will be a defining question that the ANC has to grapple with. How it answers this question will have important implications for the role played by political intimidation in electoral politics in South Africa.
After obtaining 65.9% of the vote in 2009, there is no danger of the ANC losing power in 2014. But dissatisfaction with service delivery and corruption, the president's homestead in Nkandla, Guptagate and other scandals have worn away at its credibility. Opinion polls suggest that there is potential for it to lose significant electoral support.
Since 1994, electoral competition in South Africa has revolved mainly around more affluent and racial- minority voters. But less affluent Africans vastly outnumber wealthier South Africans. The ANC's position of dominance will only really be threatened if there is a change in the voting behaviour of this constituency.
In the past, poorer South Africans have overwhelmingly voted for the ANC. Those who are dissatisfied have tended to withdraw their support from the ANC without transferring it to another party. With a few regional exceptions, no opposition party has been adopted by poorer South Africans as an alternative political home.
"Before they look at the policies, promises and candidates of another party, voters look to a party's overall image," said researcher Collette Schulz-Herzenberg.
No substantial challenge
Nothing suggests the probability of a mass defection of poorer voters away from the ANC in 2014. If there was the possibility of a split in Cosatu, leading perhaps to the formation of a workers' party, this, for now at least, has been averted.
However, though there is no substantial challenge to the ANC's position of dominance as the party of poorer black voters, there clearly have been shifts in the character of opposition politics.
Most notably, the Democratic Alliance is a far more robust and racially diverse party and is not restricting its contestation with the ANC to the more affluent parts of South Africa. In addition to the established opposition parties, there are also several new groups, including the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Agang and the Workers and Socialist Party, all of which to some degree have an eye on the support of poorer voters.
The EFF, for instance, may be well positioned to present itself as a voice for the aspirations of young, poor and disaffected voters.
As Jacob Zuma's ascendancy to power demonstrates, the criminal charges facing Julius Malema are not inevitably a political liability. But to compete successfully in the 2014 elections, the EFF will need to go beyond relying on Malema's charisma and celebrity status and develop the political machinery to mobilise voters.
But if any parties do begin to contend credibly for the votes of poorer South Africans, it is also likely that political intimidation will come more prominently into play during electioneering.
As reflected in the build-up to Mangaung, internal rivalry within the ANC has come to be characterised by various strategies to "fix" the outcome of what should be internal democratic processes. At the extreme, these strategies involve political killings. In areas where a single party is overwhelmingly dominant, as is the case in much of poorer South Africa, much intimidation is directed against internal party opponents.
Since 1994, political killings have mainly occurred in KwaZulu-Natal. But these killings give little sense of the scale or geographical distribution of political intimidation. There are likely to have been many more instances where people have withdrawn from political contests after being given notice that continued participation may result in undesirable consequences for themselves or their family members.
In response to a question about how much one fears becoming a victim of political intimidation or violence during election campaigns, 33% of respondents to the 2011 Afrobarometer survey in KwaZulu-Natal said "a lot".
In the North West, a combined 26% responded in the same way. Other than in these two provinces, only 20% (in the Western Cape and Mpumalanga) or fewer people replied in this way.
But these figures do not mean that intimidation can be dismissed as a minor problem. People who support the dominant party in the area in which they live have little to fear about openly expressing their political preferences.
Where a party maintains a strong majority of support in an area it is only likely to be among a minority that intimidation or violence, or the denial of opportunities for participation in government work programmes, for instance, are concerns.
Only when people begin to identify with a party that is not dominant in their area will they become conscious of anxieties about the risks of openly expressing their political preferences.
The Afrobarometer statistics may be taken to imply that a large proportion of potential opposition voters in poorer South Africa fear the consequences of openly expressing their political preferences.
At election time, the leaders of political parties are required to commit themselves to standards of conduct consistent with the holding of free and fair elections. This includes speaking out against violence by their supporters. But the rhetoric of political leaders is not necessarily aligned with the conduct of politicians on the ground.
For many ANC politicians, retaining ANC dominance is a sophisticated game that involves optimum exploitation of the party's historical credibility, the relative ignorance of many voters in poorer communities, as well as their anxieties and fears.
For these politicians, releasing poorer people from the fear of openly expressing "alternative" political preferences enhances the chance that other parties may make inroads into their monopoly of power over poorer communities. Related to their dependence on the resources that political power provides them access to, this is a risk that they are not prepared to take.
If it is genuinely a party of democracy, the ANC must take steps to rein in the local despots of this kind who are within its ranks, even though they contribute to securing its political dominance.
David Bruce is an independent researcher. The article is part of a Community Agency for Social Enquiry project on factors affecting political participation in South Africa. Its publication was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa. The views are those of the author.