The outcome of the 2014 general elections should be a powerful lesson to the country’s major parties – the governing ANC and the official opposition the Democratic Alliance. It was a call by South Africans for soul-searching and a warning against complacency. The two parties ignore this call at their peril.
The majority of South Africans have, for the fifth time, given the ANC a mandate to govern nationally – albeit with a slight drop in support. In most of the provinces it will govern, the ANC also saw a decrease.
It is in the country’s economic heartland, Gauteng, and the metros such as Johannesburg, that it now looks the most vulnerable. Yet a total of 62% for the ANC, nationally, is still a solid mandate – and we fully accept the results of that poll as the will of the voters. That 62% reflects the fact that the majority of South Africans still trust the party of liberation with the power to govern on their behalf.
Some ruling party leaders do admit that the drop in support and the decrease in the number of South Africans voting at all are reason for concern. Others in the ANC leadership remain complacent – or in utter denial. They are on a hunt for scapegoats for the party’s losses, particularly in areas such as Gauteng, where the ANC’s share of the vote dropped more than 10 percentage points.
The media, especially this newspaper, have been criticised by ANC supporters and office bearers for pointing out that too much power had helped to corrupt the party of Nelson Mandela.
Our editorial on the matter, just before the poll, triggered invective showing a dangerous political intolerance from some ruling-party leaders and supporters. In their book, giving our views as a newspaper is only acceptable when we endorse the ANC, as we did in previous national elections (at least up until 2004). If and when we do not endorse the ANC, suddenly we’re not allowed to have a view.
Democracy can only thrive when there is a fierce contest of ideas and opinions. We will continue to defend our critics’ right to express their views about us, even when they are at their harshest and most unfair, but we will condemn any intimidation or bullyboy tactics. Contrary to the ANC’s belief, we are not an opposition party. We are part of the free media Mandela described in 1994 as having “sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring, without fear or favour”.
We repeat our belief that if the ANC, or any governing party for that matter (the DA in the Western Cape, for instance), takes the mandate of its voters for granted it should and will be punished at the polls. That is how democracy works. It does not mean one party’s monopoly on power. In fact, several ANC leaders, including national executive committee members, have expressed similar views, cautioning against what they aptly term “the sins of incumbency”. Former party leader and outgoing deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe warned in April 2011: “Our movement is in a stage when for the first time we have come face to face with the allurements of office and the blandishments of power, which [have] upended many a noble struggle throughout the history of revolutions.”
Motlanthe reminded students at Walter Sisulu University that the post-1994 period has thrown up the challenges of access to power: “Among some of these challenges are issues such as social distance between the governors and the governed; bureaucratic elitism; arrogance of power; careerism; venality and corruption; moral and ideological
degeneration among rank and file; and use of state institutions to fight inner-party battles.”
This is what we warned the ruling party about. We stressed that a dilution of its power was, in our view, the only way to halt such rot or teach the ruling party a lesson.
Some voters have started doing just that. The decrease in ANC support, particularly in Gauteng and other urban centres, and the growing support for splinter parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, should be a wake-up call to the ruling party. Coupled with the likely formation of a workers’ party headed by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, this shows that there is room for a solid party of the left able to chip away at the ANC’s dominance.
On the centre-right, ANC leaders’ dismissive labelling of the DA as the party of the last remnants of white rule is slowly being discredited. The DA’s recent growth cannot be confined to a tiny ethnic group.
Yet the DA’s overstated buoyancy is its own enemy. It has tried to discard its racial tag as a party of petrified minorities, but its cosmetic posture on the issue doesn’t stimulate any confidence that it has truly changed character. Its party lists, though they include some black candidates, continue to reflect the old guard, for example in the Western Cape and Gauteng.
The departure of the DA’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, its vacillation on policy positions such as affirmation action, and its wobbly identity – these could cripple its growth. DA voters have given the party an opportunity to transform itself and to reflect the country’s racial diversity.
Betraying this trust means the DA will not rise to its full potential, no matter how many millions of rands it pours into slick campaigning at each election. Democracy is a learning curve, and all the parties must learn as we proceed. The electorate is learning fast.