Other political parties were negotiating broad coalitions and far-reaching voting agreements that will change the way major cities are governed but leaders of the ANC spent the earlier part of this week trying to figure out what had happened at an earlier meeting.
Insiders at a meeting of the ruling party’s national executive committee (NEC), which one attendee described as “surreal”, said it only flirted briefly with the reasons for the ANC’s disastrous showing at the polls two weeks ago. They then succeeded in convincing themselves that anyone who had not voted for either the Democratic Alliance or the Economic Freedom Fighters had in fact shown confidence in the ANC.
Leaders spent the latter part of the week muttering angrily about the future, privately sharing ideas about a fight-back strategy before the 2019 national elections.
It was very far removed from the humble repentance the party displayed just after the outcome of the August 3 elections became clear.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, among other party leaders, had said the ANC would reflect on the mistakes that had seen it lose the confidence of voters in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg.
One NEC member said that if elections were held again this week in the cities the ANC had lost, the ANC would win. “The DA is leading us today because our people did not go out to vote.”
Another said the NEC was very keen to discuss how voter trust could be restored, but then decided it had never been lost.
“They convinced each other that the ANC didn’t do well because people did not turn out because they are not confident in the EFF or the DA. Had the voters been confident they would have come out and voted and that means that the ANC can simply go back to those who didn’t vote and deal with the issues those people have. It means that those people still have confidence in the ANC,” an NEC source said.
The strange tone of the meeting was set right at the start, one attendee said, when they were curtly told that discussions about the resignation of party president Jacob Zuma would not be entertained – because that was an EFF demand in coalition discussions – and the meeting was “simply to discuss the elections and not people’s demands of the ANC”.
Attempts to bring the discussion back to Zuma, widely seen as being at the centre of the party’s poor performance, failed time and time again. Some leaders tentatively broached subjects such as Nkandla and the Gupta family, but either soon abandoned them, or their questions were stifled.
“The biggest challenge was that everyone who wanted to say the president should resign was also directly implicated in the poor performance of the party,” said a participant. “So it became very difficult to ask the president to do the honourable thing while the NEC had taken collective accountability for the failure.”
By Thursday, their thinking had morphed, for some ANC members at least, into the beginnings of a plan to target the DA at every opportunity.
It would be “interesting”, said one NEC member, to see how the DA manages consultations on budgets. Another promised “confusion” in the running of Johannesburg.
The South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) “must make the DA’s five-year term in government a living hell”, one NEC member said, on condition of anonymity, with protracted strikes and disruptions to municipal services. “They [the DA] can’t get in and fire people. Our union movement will make the city ungovernable.”
Although the same approach had largely failed in Cape Town, “we are more organised in Johannesburg than we are in Western Cape”, the NEC member said.
Another member said the ANC’s provincial muscle, and the benefits of remaining loyal, would soon be shown in the areas that had voted for the ANC.
“We have 84 wards in Johannesburg,” the ANC national leader said. “We should use our wards to implement the ANC programmes … We must implement our programmes through provincial departments in the townships. It is very easy to overshadow the DA [in Gauteng] because we are in charge of the provincial departments.”
But what has become increasingly apparent is that, while the other political parties are immersing themselves in building their cities’ and towns’ futures, the ruling elite is so desperate to regain its grip on power that it remains far removed from the business of the day.