/ 8 May 2019

To unseat the ANC, South Africa’s opposition must put aside their egos

As South Africa goes to the polls on May 8 to vote
As South Africa goes to the polls on May 8 to vote, there is one thing the party can, and indeed should, urgently learn from Nigeria — how to build a credible, successful opposition party and a winning coalition. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)


There are so many things Nigeria can learn from South Africa — the self-sacrificial leadership of its original ANC political elite, its booming business climate, its well-run, multi-generational businesses, its high quality tertiary education system (South Africans may complain, but their universities are world-class), and its still-glittering (in spite of xenophobia) global brand.

But as South Africa goes to the polls on May 8 to vote, there is one thing the party can, and indeed should, urgently learn from Nigeria — how to build a credible, successful opposition party and a winning coalition.

For a country whose democracy has admirably been stable, and whose politics has markedly been sophisticated, its inability to do this, despite its free press, vocal civil society, and independent judiciary, is a surprise. But it is time for change.

The opportunity for change lies in the fact that, despite the power brand the ANC possesses, and its almost certain national victory in these polls, citizens continue to express intense dissatisfaction both with the party, and with the nation’s trajectory over the past two decades.

The problems are now clichés: poverty (47% of South Africans live under the national poverty line of US$43 a month), income inequality (the highest in the world) and plunging life expectancy, if some research is to be believed. All of this in spite of rising GDP.

So it is no surprise that while its president, charming and thoughtful as he is, continues to record sky-high approval ratings, his party, the ANC finds its popularity declining.

According to an Ipsos poll less than a year ago, 54% of South Africans say: “The future of the ANC is uncertain because of the leadership issues within the party”. This includes 52% of the ANC’s own voters. Just one in every five citizens (20%) sees the party’s future as bright.

This is an incredible opportunity for opposition politicians. This opportunity is important not just because the ANC hasn’t in the past many years justified retaining the goodwill it initially earned from South Africa’s people, but also because free and fair democracies only perform at optimum in a space of healthy competition.

Presently, the ANC has no competition. In the same Ipsos poll, despite the dislike of the ANC, there is no growth in affection for the two main opposition parties — certainly neither the Democratic Alliance nor the Economic Freedom Fighters will come close to unseating the ANC nationally in these polls.

The problem? To dislodge an organic champion like the ANC, those who seek to undo it must engage in the often excruciating work of actually building an alternative brick by brick. Unfortunately, many opposition parties are are wont to indulge in flights of fancy and delusions of grandeur, and in South Africa it is no different.

To build a party that can actually do real battle with the ANC on a national front, politicians must realise that outrage is not enough, that fine speeches don’t deliver electoral change. The battle is in two fields: first, by building a real, enduring connection with citizens – not just by contrasting yourself with the other party or candidate, but by proving yourself with your own actions. And second, by boots on the ground organisation, building in every district and every province a people-driven structural alternative to the ruling political party.

To do this will require the delaying of gratification, the submerging of egos, and the understanding that 50% of something significant is much better than 100% of something weak. And a coalition — that most difficult of compromises for politicians with their huge egos and their army of co-dependent praise-singers — is often the easiest route to dislodging a common enemy.

This will require a submerging of short term ideology in favour of long term national transformation.

It’s not impossible. Nigeria has done it, when the All Progressives Congress formed to challenge President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party in 2015. With former foes burying the hatchet, mutually suspicious allies becoming partners, and unlikely comrades linking arms, it resulted in a realignment of political forces, and a radical expansion of the playing field that took the ruling party by surprise.

The All Progressives Congress won that election, and remains in power today.

For South Africa’s opposition parties, this is a salutary lesson. If they are serious about unseating the ANC, the hard work needs to start now.

Jideonwo is founder of Joy, Inc. He also sits on the board of StateCraft, Inc., which has worked in elections and for governments in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Senegal. It has no clients in South Africa’s elections this season.