Voters are not to blame for opposition parties’ woes

I have heard several analysts blaming voters for the sluggishness of our opposition parties. One suggested recently that perhaps ANC voters suffer false consciousness. Another two argued that the Democratic Alliance is expected to be perfect and the ANC only barely decent. A fourth, sympathetic to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), has suggested that the media appear, either by design or inadvertently, to love President Cyril Ramaphosa uncritically, thereby helping the electoral prospects of the ANC this year.

Blaming voters and the media for the state of our main opposition parties is misguided. The most serious reasons why opposition parties are in real danger of underperforming in this year’s elections are those that mostly have to do with their own behaviour.

Let us first state the obvious about the extent to which the ANC is a gift even to a useless opposition party. Our economy is growing at less than 1% a year. Inequality, a recent compelling Oxfam report tells us, isn’t just a growing global problem, it is gigantic. In South Africa it’s not just wage inequality; asset and wealth inequality are staggeringly high.

Fuelling this inequality is the shocking data about how, between 2011 and 2015, South Africa began to experience increased levels of both poverty and extreme poverty after several years of slow but useful decline in the poverty levels. Unsurprisingly, these realities live side by side with unemployment figures that normally prefigure revolution in other parts of the world.

This state of the state, and the state of society at large, are in fact worse than the economic indices suggest. We are now also fed, through several commissions of inquiry that are running concurrently, a daily televised series of testimonies about the true extent of the looting in the state and the private sector.

The ANC-led government has presided over a criminal level of subjugation of our democratic institutions.

Given the monopoly of power the state wields in our society, the ANC specifically must be the centre of any analysis of what went wrong over the past 25 years. The fact that private interests also figure in that diagnosis does not change the extent of the legal, political and moral blameworthiness of our government.

Now consider the real possibility of what might happen in May this year notwithstanding the above facts. The ANC-led government will probably not only be returned to power, despite the state of the state, it may well be returned with at least 55% of the vote. Indeed, many analysts would suggest that even that estimate is possibly too conservative; the ANC might well score a few percentage points higher.

That optimistic scenario (from Luthuli House’s perspective) is feasable, even with the memory of how much of a hiding the ANC deservedly received in some metros in the 2016 local elections.

This is where I disagree strongly with analysts who blame voters for the state of opposition politics. It is shameful for a government this implicated in our societal woes to be guaranteed a victory after a quarter of a century of often pedestrian government and sometimes criminal behaviour.

Voters aren’t idiots. Opposition politicians and party strategists are not more rational than voters. Opposition parties should be deeply embarrassed that they are not guaranteed to drive the ANC below 50% of the vote in this year’s elections, despite the state of the economy, and given the revelations about how our democracy’s foundations have been ruined under ANC leadership.

It is important to state the obvious about opposition parties’ behaviour that undermines their prospects. Take the DA. With only five or so months to go before the elections, we do not know what the party’s plans are to rectify the economy, to deal with inequality apart from growing the economy, to return democratic institutions to a healthy state, to ensure that economic growth plans lead to job creation and shared value, and to eliminate those remnants of apartheid spatial geography that exacerbate inequality.

I am even willing to give the party a pass on questions of ideology, for now, because people do not eat ideology. All I want to see are fresh, detailed and compelling policy proposals for our most serious economic and social crises. Instead, what we get are silly slogans, all of them poorly thought through, that simply reveal an obsession with pejorative campaigning, an anxious search for quick communication wins, rather than opening a serious conversation with voters that demonstrates an ability to fill the vacuum left by the leadership rot of the ANC.

How can you blame voters? Are they supposed to come up with policy ideas for the DA? Are voters supposed to warn the DA that it sounds incoherent to go into partnership agreements in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay with the EFF and to then suddenly also tell the public to keep their political rivals out of the Western Cape? Must voters explain why it is a turnoff to see a premier advocating for the rule of law to be disrespected?

Don’t tell me voters suffer from false consciousness. These are schoolboy errors being committed by the DA and the rational response of thinking voters is to doubt whether they should support a party this addicted to shooting itself, multiple times, in both feet.

The DA’s problems are of its own making — and the same is true of the EFF. Here you have a successful entrant into the political “market” that defied the scepticism of many analysts in 2014, including myself. They captured, despite an addiction to spectacle politics that made some people jittery, the crux of our discontent in the Zuma years.

Unlike the DA, the EFF had a far clearer initial set of differentiators, both in terms of their praxis and their main areas of policy focus, from the ANC. Indeed, Jacob Zuma’s removal was in important part a result of the EFF’s politicking. Despite its small size, the party scared the ANC so much that it influenced the governing party’s resolutions on several issues, including land and education.

But over the past 12 to 18 months the EFF has been its own worst enemy. Voters are not to be blamed for the slide towards crass racist speech from some EFF leaders. Voters are not to be blamed for poor theorisation about the moral limits of violence in bringing about change in a constitutional democracy. Voters are most certainly not to be blamed for the EFF’s panic about not having an easy target after Zuma left the political stage. Voters are not to be blamed for the EFF’s fears about putting Ramaphosa on trial during these elections and taking the president head-on. All these problems are endogenous to the EFF and the DA. They have nothing to do with voters.

The mistake that some analysts are making is similar to the many mistakes DA politicians make. That mistake is the expectation that you are entitled to voter support, given the ANC’s record. How many elections of underperformance will it take before opposition parties accept that discontent with the ANC does not logically equate to a compulsory vote for the opposition? Parties still have to engage with and persuade voters. And voters cannot be persuaded by blaming them or accusing them of being irrational or victims of false consciousness.

A week is, of course, a long time in politics. Five months is even longer. It is up to the DA and the EFF to get over their weaknesses, take criticism from the public seriously, and to rethink their electoral strategies. If the DA cannot get close to 30% of the vote, then Mmusi Maimane’s position as party leader should be challenged. If the EFF cannot get 10% of the vote, despite the conditions of millions of poor black voters, then the party should critically examine Julius Malema’s leadership abilities.

It would be a huge embarrassment for opposition parties if the ANC comes even close to getting 60% of the vote.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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