Nelson Mandela was the only ANC president to sit in on a focus group. Before the 1994 election, as violence threatened the polls, he sat behind a one-way screen and observed as a focus group of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) hardliners heavily criticised him.
Professor David Everatt, now head of the Wits School of Governance, signed a contract, along with a partner, with then ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa, to conduct elections research for the party. They set up shop in a building in the Johannesburg CBD. When Mandela arrived, the streets around it were cordoned off. Everatt met the presidential hopeful and walked him up, leaving his bodyguards outside.
Mandela, Everatt says, listened in silence from another room as he watched the IFP group discuss what an “idiot” they thought he was. They said he was out of touch, having been in prison for all those years, that he was old and should retire, and that he did not know how to run a country.
The would-be president said nothing, but after that he would pepper his public speeches with their criticism and “throw it back at them”.
Everatt shares this anecdote on the eve of the May 8 election, and talks about polling in Gauteng. Since 1994, he has tracked the growth and now decline of a party that many thought was a monolith that could not be beaten. In that time, just two ANC presidents — Mandela and Ramaphosa — have polled better than the party itself.
But in 2016 the party was struggling with a president in Jacob Zuma who did not poll well. No longer working for the ANC at a national level, Everatt and his team had confined their work to Gauteng. Publicly, party provincial officials maintained that the local government elections would go well. But, thanks to Everatt’s polling, they knew the result would be catastrophic. The ANC lost Johannesburg and Tshwane, two of the province’s three metros. Its support also dropped below 50% provincially for the first time since 1994.
“I said: ‘This is how badly you are going to lose, and you are going to lose Tshwane and Johannesburg.’… We polled everything within 0.5% accuracy of what happened,” he says.
The really big blow started two years before. Everatt says: “2014 was terrible. When Zuma first came in it was the ‘Zunami’, the relief at the end of the Mbeki years … I think there was a large gap between popular sentiment and where the government was [under Mbeki].”
This, he says, extended to talk about “the undeserving poor”.
“Five years later we were in such shit, and that’s why people like myself and others just retreated from having anything to do with the national ANC.”
Everatt began working solely with the ANC in Gauteng, with what he calls the “progressive rump” of the party.
In the 2014 election, the ANC lost slightly over 10 percentage points, only narrowly holding onto the province. Polling placed the ANC’s support at 56%, but it came in at 53.5%.
“We were battling everything … Everyone just wanted to blame the entire defeat on Gauteng. That was the first message that came through — ‘You lost the election for us, it’s all you,’” Everatt says, referring to the reaction of the ANC nationally. “I had to do the analysis, which showed that we lost more votes in KwaZulu-Natal, which Zuma and his acolytes did not want to hear. Various members of the PEC [provincial executive team] had to go into [the] national [executive committee] and have that fight because everyone immediately said: ‘Oh it’s Gauteng, you’re so trendy, you’re so progressive, you’re so critical of us.’”
He describes how Zuma scoffed at “clever blacks” and how this was the more deep-seated issue at play at the time. But 2016 proved worse. Everatt describes it as “miserable”.
“I think the cynicism of those last five years, the absolute disregard for principle, for moral rectitude, for anything, was breathtaking and you are seeing some of the last kicks of that dying horse through comments by some of the leaders now who have been retained.”
But things are changing. Everatt says: “People like Ramaphosa would always say: ‘Things will change. The ANC has been around [for] 100 years, just chill, things will change because if we don’t improve, it will die; then you have nothing to worry about anyway.’
“The ANC is just like life; you have heroes, you have utter bastards, you have criminals, you have clever people. It is just life, so go into it with a level head and do what you can do.”
Everatt’s polling predicts that the ANC will hold onto Gauteng with 56% of the vote. This would be an astonishing feat if it happens — it will mean a huge comeback from the massive decline and outright loss of the 2016 election.
But he is hopeful, saying the nature and character of the electorate in Gauteng always tends to force the ANC to “work harder” here. This is made all the harder by several large-scale failures of governance, such as the Life Esidimeni scandal where 143 mentally ill patients died. “Life Esidimeni wasn’t a fatal blow, but it was an incredibly powerful blow.”
While he believes that the ANC can retain the province, the next five years will be its last shot. “If the ANC stuffs up again, I don’t think public sympathy will remain. This is the second and last chance to get it right.”