Bantu Holomisa is a patient man. He has had to be. It is 20 years since the ANC spat the former Transkei leader out, and he has seen his political start-up enjoy a short period in the spotlight and then slowly dwindle — it has just four MPs.
But, in the past year, the United Democratic Movement (UDM) has begun to punch above its weight. Its two members of the Nelson Mandela Bay municipal council are crucial to the opposition’s majority. The Democratic Alliance secured 57 of the 120 seats in the August 2016 municipal poll, and so requires the ongoing support of not just the UDM but also of both the single councillors representing the Congress of the People and the African Christian Democratic Party.
The point is this: a competitive multiparty democracy not only challenges the hegemony of a ruling party and provides what one body of political science calls the “necessary uncertainty” that will keep a governing party on its toes because it fears the loss of power, but also brings the minnow parties back into the game.
It is hard to say that the political science theory is working here. Is there really any evidence that the ANC has responded smartly to last year’s serious electoral setbacks? No. Instead it appears paralysed by President Jacob Zuma’s grip on power, obsessed by how to extract itself from its most divisive period and corroded by the resulting factionalism of its internal politics.
So, inevitably, most eyes are fixed on the race to Midrand, where the ANC’s national elective conference takes place in December, and which has now reached what legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson used to refer to as “squeaky bum time” — the final weeks of the English Premier League.
As hundreds of ANC branches go to their general meetings to vote on both the delegates who will go to Midrand and the mandate they should (theoretically, at least) carry with them, so the backdrop is one of lawfare, intensive horse-trading that could yet yield a surprising twist and, in some regions, deadly division — or, as the now leading contender to succeed Zuma might put it, a “festival of chairs”.
Cyril Ramaphosa is undoubtedly in the driving seat. But the ANC is now a remarkably unpredictable political animal and very unstable. There are sufficient “swing states” to support the notion that, even if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign continues to fade, Zweli Mkhize could yet reconstruct the local “premier league” of provincial barons (of which he was, let it not be forgotten, a founding member) and pip Ramaphosa to the post.
Some with good ANC connections, such as Holomisa himself, have been letting it be known that they think Zuma’s plan all along was for Dlamini-Zuma to serve as a decoy, a stalking horse to prepare the way for his real preferred candidate, Mkhize.
Even though the ornate electoral college of the ANC is now taking shape, with the announcement of the audited numbers and delegates for each province, a prediction of the outcome would be unwise.
In the past, the calculation was relatively easy: the Eastern Cape’s 676 delegates would probably vote as a bloc for Kgalema Motlanthe in 2012, just as one could with great certainty have said that the 608 KwaZulu-Natal delegates would vote for Zuma in 2007.
But most if not all the provinces are divided, so understanding the split between the candidates (and their respective slates) is essential to understanding how the electoral college will vote in December, even allowing for the fact that, because it is a secret ballot, delegates can abandon their mandates in the voting booth.
The view of some of those close to the process, such as the South African Communist Party politburo, which met last week, is that if it is a “relatively free and fair election then Ramaphosa will prevail”.
Once it gets to the actual conference, the seasoned independent entity that has run the ANC’s elections since 1991 will ensure that everything remains above board. But, between then and now, a lot of jiggery-pokery could happen. The Ramaphosa campaign is aware of this and constantly frets about it.
The ANC electoral college resembles, at least in some respects, the United States electoral college, with key “swing states” now crucial to the outcome. Perhaps there is something the ANC could borrow from the American system: given how much trouble its current complex, subterranean electoral process causes, the ANC would be well advised to consider whether it should now adopt a system of “primary elections”, in which an open and competitive process is used to decide who will be the presidential candidate for the party.
As the ANC staggers towards December and the mirage of what it calls “self-correction”the opposition have their own strategic dilemmas to resolve. They need to keep their eye on the prize: 2019. And it needs a similar sort of discipline to that shown by the British Labour Party recently when it eschewed a debate on Brexit at its annual conference in order to avoid a divisive argument that would only have served to distract from the deep turmoil of the Tory party.
The opposition will also have to consider carefully the practice and culture of coalition politics. One only has to look at German politics to appreciate what an art form the building, maintenance and management of coalitions is. Although the recent German election outcome focused attention on the 13% secured by the far-right party, the Alternative für Deutschland, the most important story is unfolding now, as a long period of careful negotiation is allocated to achieving agreement on the composition of the coalition government, including its agreed programme and who will get which of Germany’s admirably parsimonious number of 15 Cabinet positions.
Which brings me back to Holomisa and the opposition. His time has come. Not only is his party a kingpin in Nelson Mandela Bay, but Holomisa himself has a crucial role to play in holding things together.
As he said in his speech at the end of September at the UDM’s 20th birthday celebration, his elder leadership position — and it is no secret — is to play the “uncle” role.
There are two very strong-minded, determined young men now competing for power but they are young. Their judgment may not always be perfect. They will also have to learn that, in politics, ruthless ambition must be balanced with a sense of timing and patience.
Holomisa has become a critical figure in the relationship between Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema. Holomisa is relishing the role and has on several occasions had to provide “marriage counselling”, for theirs is a fragile partnership.
It is clear that he has a high regard for Malema’s intelligence and political savvy. However, Maimane can be frustrating, because at times he appears beholden to other senior members of his party, such as James Selfe, and sometimes struggles to adjust tactics on the hoof.
Coalition arrangements often require compromise, agility and flexibility. And Holomisa has had to remind the DA of the need for humility on more than one occasion, including during the unpleasant saga of the UDM’s deputy mayoral position in Nelson Mandela Bay.
He asserted himself strongly on that occasion, compelling Maimane to text him shortly before the latter set off to observe the German elections, admitting that the DA had not conducted itself in the “right way”.
So, it is not only the ANC that is under the strategic cosh. As Holomisa pointed out in his anniversary speech: “We must continue to play the long game. We must act maturely … we must not allow those inevitable disagreements to get out of hand, otherwise the electorate will look at us and reach one conclusion: that the opposition cannot be trusted with government; they are not ready for coalition politics. And then they may say ‘better the devil we know’, and return to the ANC.”
South Africa is proving to be a resilient democracy. It has put state captors on the back foot and driven their nasty little spin doctors, Bell Pottinger, out of business.
Equally, South Africa’s politics have never been so fascinating or so uncertain, at least not since 1994. We are entering uncharted waters on all sides: inside the ANC and outside, in the surrounding terrain of the opposition. Both have everything to gain and everything to lose.
Although the public discourse seldom escapes from the Zupta morass of state capture and political impunity, and there is precious little real policy debate about how to govern at a time of rising external shocks and to address chronic unemployment and inequality, South Africa’s multiparty democracy is at least living the dream as it becomes more and more competitive.
Holomisa is working on the assumption that, post-2019, Malema will hold the key to power. A deal with the ANC is marginally less implausible than for the DA. Thus, Maimane will not be able to throw his weight around carelessly. An elder statesman kingmaker may be needed. Regardless of whether it is Ramaphosa or Mkhize that emerges victorious from Midrand, South Africa’s next president could yet be the man who played the long game.
Richard Calland’s latest book is Make or Break: How the Next Three Years Will Shape South Africa’s Next Three Decades (Penguin Random House)