I sat down with two Cabinet ministers this week and, over lunch, enjoyed some interesting speculation about the ANC’s prospects in 2019.
I say “lunch” but it was just a few sandwiches and chips, washed down with a cold draught. Nothing fancy, nothing that screamed “government expense account!” Certainly nothing that would have required the guidance of the Ministerial Handbook.
Despite this, there was still a lot of haggling over the bill, although in the end I fortunately did not have to pay anything. Which was just as well, considering that I was bluffing when I grabbed the bill for a casual look-see.
The night before, President Cyril Ramaphosa had made a surprise appearance at the South African Music Awards (Samas) to a rousing reception. As soon as he walked on stage, the hall broke into one of the ANC conference songs: “Phakama Ramaphosa, ixesha lifikile (Stand up Ramaphosa, the time is now).”
One of my lunch companions was impressed, and reasoned, rightly I think, that the warm reception from artists, music industry executives and fans was indicative of the mood among black professionals — that the ANC is acceptable, even fashionable, again.
Although other audiences have not broken into song, this is not the first time Ramaphosa has reached out to this constituency, traditionally important to the ANC but recently alienated from it. Several nights before the awards, the president had been urging a Sandton gathering of professionals and academics to “return to the ANC”, which he promised had now regained its path.
Even his campaign to capture the party presidency relied heavily on wooing this constituency back into the structures of the ANC first, then as contributors of time and money to the ruling party and, finally, as dependable ANC voters next year.
During the campaign, he reserved his most charming performances for audiences with the “clever blacks”, a term used disparagingly by Jacob Zuma to describe black professionals who were critical of the ANC under his leadership.
“There is going to be no gatekeeping. There will be no resistance. The door is wide open. Please come in,” he once told a 2016 campaign stop. “This is your movement … what will you do for it?”
Ramaphosa was flanked by Gauteng chairperson Paul Mashatile. He was perhaps Ramaphosa’s most important and dependable campaign ally, the ANC boss in the home of the clever blacks. It was Mashatile who reached out and built bridges to Mpumalanga’s David Mabuza and broke the back of the dangerous “premier league” group, which for a while looked as if it would deliver the ANC conference to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and pave the way for the continuation of the corrosive Zuma project.
The elevation of Mashatile to ANC treasurer general and the emergence of Gauteng as the bellwether in our national politics means Ramaphosa must make a big play for the province in 2019. His concern that (black) middle-class professionals should “come back home” to the ANC is one of the surest signs of a Gauteng-centred and Gauteng-driven strategy for 2019.
The ruling party will have to win the province convincingly next year. It will not win the Western Cape back from the Democratic Alliance and, given the ethnocentric backlash against Zuma’s ousting, it could very well be in trouble in KwaZulu-Natal too. Both my Cabinet lunch companions feared the Inkatha Freedom Party might be able to win the province, perhaps at the head of a coalition, if rural and working-class Zulu voters do what the black middle class have been doing over the past decade.
If this nightmare scenario does indeed take place, and it is accompanied by the loss of Gauteng, the party that swept all before it in 2004 will have lost the nation’s three most important provinces and half its eight metropolitan local governments in a decade. It would be the last bitter disbursement from Zuma’s disastrous legacy.
But is a toenadering with the black middle class really the best way for the ruling party to reverse its fortunes and stave off humiliation in Gauteng next year?
“Do you think,” one minister asked, “we can hold on to the 62% from 2014?”
The short answer to that question is “no”, and I would have been happy to leave it at that. But there is a longer answer, and it has to do with what I think is a misdiagnosis of the ruling party’s urban voter problem. As the worst symptoms of the Zuma malady began to bite, it was not only the urban black middle class who lost their enchantment with the party of liberation. The disenchantment was mirrored by the urban working class, with disastrous electoral consequences for the ANC, particularly in 2016.
To turn the ANC’s fortunes around will require at least as much effort in reassuring the urban poor and working-class constituencies as is currently being expended on the professional strata, perhaps even more so. Look at the party’s electoral results in the urban townships from 2014 onwards and the challenge is stark. Even where the ANC has managed to hold on to its majorities, turnout has been lower than normal, and the margins of victory are nowhere near the heydays of 1994-2004.
In an electoral configuration that distributes seats proportionally, the margin matters as much as the victory, and the ANC has been undoubtedly hurt by lower turnout in urban townships.
A resounding reception at the Samas or good wishes received during early morning walks along the Sea Point promenade are not signs that this picture is changing. Indeed, despite the endurance of the Ramaphoria, Ramaphosa’s ascendancy has resulted in few clear wins for the urban working class. The ANC and Ramaphosa, not to mention communist and union allies who claim to speak for the black working class, would do well to remember that.
It may be symbolically important that the demographic that has gained the most from ANC rule over 25 years should find its way back “home” to the party but the support of clever blacks alone is not enough to avert the electoral disaster that is still potentially unfolding.
Not an easy message to deliver to people who have paid for your lunch, no matter how spartan it was.
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy