The next general election is only five months away and most political parties have begun to select candidates for their national and provincial lists, according to their own internal rules. Last weekend ANC provinces held list conferences to consolidate and finalise the nominations from thousands of branches across the country. The Democratic Alliance is constituting its electoral colleges to interview candidates for their lists.
Running parallel to this is the parties’ election manifesto process.
In between a busy schedule of threatening journalists, trashing stores and bizarrely fighting the judicial commission on state capture, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is hosting consultations on its manifesto with stakeholders.
The volume of political coverage and debate will be turned up, not to mention the barrage of opinion and electoral polls. Much of this will shed more heat than light. This week’s poll released by the Institute of Race Relations is a case in point. The poll shows the ANC gaining support to between 56% and 59% of voters, depending on voter turnout. This suggests the return of voters who stayed away during two election cycles in 2014 and 2016.
More important is the debate it seems to have triggered between the DA’s John Steenhuisen and veteran journalist Peter Bruce on talk radio station 702 this week. The debate exposes a subtle and publicly unacknowledged shift in the DA’s analysis of South Africa’s political landscape, a shift that suggests the early onset of a degree of panic inside the official opposition.
In a Sunday Times column, Bruce had suggested that the best way to bolster and defend President Cyril Ramaphosa’s reform agenda in the ruling party would be for ANC voters to return to the party and maintain, if not increase, the ANC’s electoral majority.
The attractiveness of the argument is obvious, even if one is not committed to the outcome of an increased electoral majority for the ANC. Until at least after the 2019 elections, Ramaphosa is fighting on two fronts: the clean-up of state entities at the centre of state capture, and to defend and consolidate his own position in the ANC, not least against a Jacob Zuma factional resurgence.
It is now an open secret that the remnants of the former president’s supporters are waiting to use weak electoral support for the ANC as the excuse to mobilise against Ramaphosa with a view to removing him at the party’s 2020 national general council. If Ramaphosa can restore the party’s support to anywhere near the 60% mark (the ANC’s support collapsed to 54% in the 2016 municipal elections), he would be all but immune to such manoeuvres and would convince any remaining doubters that the Zuma era is well and truly over. That would make the task of reunifying the party and reforming the state much easier.
Against this, Steenhuisen argued that the best way to guarantee success for the Ramaphosa reform agenda would be to weaken the ANC electorally. That, obviously, means voting DA. This is in line with the views of former party leader Helen Zille, offering a glimpse into a conceptual shift in the DA’s understanding of the political landscape.
Whether the party itself realises this or not, this shift will have repercussions for how the DA conducts its election campaign, and how successful that campaign is likely to be, not to mention changing the yardstick the party uses to measure success.
According to Zille, the choice facing voters next year and beyond is between the ideals of liberal democracy and constitutionalism, as represented by the DA, and racial nationalism and the return of the command economy, represented by the EFF.
The first question to ask of this analysis is why voters are facing such ideologically stark choices between two relatively small opposition parties that:
- Are governing together in at least two of the country’s most important metros, suggesting they are not the oil and water we are being told they are; and
- Cannot realistically hope to win the election next year, nor even be the biggest party in a coalition.
- In other words, where is the ANC? How can the party, which is projected to get a clear majority at the polls, not count as one of the choices voters have at the polls?
According to Zille and Steenhuisen, the ANC is the broad canvas upon which their heroic fight against the evils of racial nationalism will play out. South Africa’s ruling party of the past 25 years (and probably the next 10) is background noise at best and, at worst, the bloated carcass over which the DA and EFF will wrestle in the years (and elections) to come. This, they argue, is because the ANC will eventually splinter, and the remnants of the split will throw their weight in with either one of the big political currents under way, the DA’s liberalism or the EFF’s nationalism.
This is fanciful stuff, even for a party distinguished by its overblown sense of its own relevance.
The ANC and its alliance, notwithstanding Zuma-induced electoral decline, represents the largest support bloc in our electoral politics. This is especially so if you expand the count to include its various offshoots, such as the Congress of the People and the EFF.
Even if one accepts that the ANC is riven by such internal contradictions that it must eventually split, each of the splinters would be comfortably larger than either the DA or the EFF. It is nonsensical to think that either of those parties would be the recipients of ideological refugees (and voters) escaping from the exploding ANC supernova. If there is a rupture in the ANC (either an internal split or a breakup of the tripartite alliance), it is still probable that the party governing the republic would still come from among these splinters, not the opposition.
So why has the DA shifted from the idea that the future of South African politics is in coalitions against ANC? That idea seemed to be vindicated on August 3 2016, when the party snatched three big metros by working with a coalition of smaller parties, the EFF especially.
The subsequent history of that disastrous experiment probably explains the DA’s about-turn. All the other parties are too small to be a factor in any electoral calculations, so they can be of no use to the DA. The EFF, on the other hand, is unreliable, committed to nothing but the maximisation of patronage and prone to proto-fascist extremes and, frankly, is an offshoot of the worst parts of the ANC, not the ruling party “good guys” that the DA used to hang its hopes of political realignment on.
And now the polls are beginning to suggest the DA’s panic may be well founded.
In truth, South Africa’s opposition parties need new voters. The old ones are no good. After a decade of violent abuse, these voters are too ready to give the ANC another chance at the smallest sign of change in the ruling party’s attitude. Luckily for the opposition, there is an ever-larger cohort of young adults who have never voted before, and they may not be as loyal to the ANC.
If the DA and the EFF find a way to speak to them (and for them) honestly and consistently, they would eventually need neither splits, nor coalitions, nor stayaways from ANC voters.
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy