Editorial: The beginning of the end for the ANC as party is unable to change

Unless there are some dramatic reversals after the Mail & Guardian goes to print, it seems clear that the ANC has lost Nelson Mandela Bay, and might well have lost Tshwane too.

For the ANC to lose the country’s capital to the opposition, and for it to lose a metro named for its most famous son, in its Eastern Cape heartland, would be serious blows.

These opposition victories have been predicted for a while. But, now that they are actually happening, the knowledge will be gut-wrenching for many. The majority of South Africans have a deeply personal, emotional connection to the 104-year-old movement; for them, it was always more than a mere political party.

And what does the ANC do when it faces such losses? Look at what it did, or didn’t do, after narrowly losing Cape Town to a Democratic Alliance-led (DA) coalition in 2006. The ANC was slow to react, stunned that it had lost this jewelled city. It soon descended into ugly, self-paralysing infighting, while the DA, hungry to prove itself in a way that the ANC no longer was, consolidated its hold on Cape Town and, bit by bit, used its base there to win the whole province.

In the Western Cape, the ANC has repeatedly failed to capitalise on the DA’s mistakes and missteps. It has not worked out something even resembling a realistic strategy to win back the province. It is as though the ANC, having been the beloved first choice of most South African voters for so long, simply doesn’t know how to be the political underdog. It certainly doesn’t know how to act like an effective opposition party.

Election after election, the ANC has hung on to its past glory and kept its place in the hearts of most South Africans. It has relied on emotional appeals to its liberation history and traditional loyalties. This time round, though, it’s not enough.

Even as the ANC, particularly in Gauteng, begged for one last chance to rectify its mistakes, the sentiment from its voting base was clear: “We’ve given you chance after chance.”

The party had a chance, after the 2014 national elections, to deal with its most glaring leadership failure – Jacob Zuma – but squandered that opportunity. The ANC and South Africa still have a president that the opposition is able to use as a symbol of rampant corruption.

And so ANC voters, deeply conflicted and mournful, have made their choice clear – by not choosing at all.

The DA won the metros it did, not because it achieved the task of swaying loyal ANC supporters. It won because these once-passionate supporters stayed at home, or didn’t bother to register at all.

Election data shows that the DA mobilised its traditional base of supporters in the suburbs, which saw big registration rates and even bigger voter turnout. By contrast, the townships, the ANC’s traditional voting bases in the metros, saw stagnant registration rates and dismal voter turnout. Small numbers of ANC supporters shifted to the DA and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), but most have been battered into inaction by the repeated, arrogant abuses of power by the party they once loved.

We know what happens next. If the DA maintains the sheer ambition that has driven it over the past few years, it will use its new footholds to make a grab for the provinces in which these metros are located. It will use coalitions, its enormous donor-funding muscle, and its organised party machinery to grow.

It won’t go all the way, not in its present form, but it could learn to mutate in the right way.

It could change its name and leadership, as it has done in the past, to shake off the persistent perception that it serves only white interests, a perception that current leaders such as mayoral candidate for Johannesburg Herman Mashaba and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille have done little to dissipate.

A good shakeup of the party’s leadership and branding could help it find its way into the heads, if not the hearts, of an increasingly disillusioned black middle class. Even then, it will face a stiff challenge from the EFF, which – with a fraction of the official opposition’s resources and years in the game – has repeatedly managed to upstage the DA, often looking like the real opposition.

Either way, the view from this point is that the number two and number three parties of South African politics, so dramatically different, will continue to grow, and new political formations will also come to the fore, all of which contribute to a decline in support for the ANC.

The ANC will keep struggling along. It could eventually become just another political party, no longer the beloved political home of the majority of the electorate. It will win sometimes, lose more often than it’s used to, but never recapture the persuasive force it was once able to command.

It could, just about, get its dominance back if it undergoes a major shakeup – but supporters have demanded change for so long, with so little in the way of results, that most are likely to give up.

There’s too much at stake for the party’s top dogs to allow real change. With a high level of cronyism and corruption entrenched in the culture of the ruling party, it is probably unable to change.

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