Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Pandemic gives SA politics a klap

When President Cyril Ramaphosa imposed the Covid-19 lockdown in late March, all normal political activity was brought abruptly to a halt. 

Parliament, the provincial legislatures and local government followed suit, with the responsibility of running the country shifting to the National Coronavirus Command Council, set up by the president to co-ordinate responses nationally to the pandemic. 

The body officially advises the cabinet on legislative and other responses to the pandemic and will continue to operate until the end of the Covid-19 emergency. 

Elective conferences scheduled by the governing ANC and the Democratic Alliance for 2020 had to be placed on hold, as were the branch general meetings the ANC needed to hold for its regional and provincial conferences to go ahead.

Parliament and councils set about introducing hybrid systems to allow committee meetings, plenary sessions and other work to continue while abiding by social distancing protocols. The political parties adopted a similar approach, with the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), national working committee and its top six officials meeting online. The DA has also gone virtual, managing to hold a successful policy conference and an elective federal congress using online conferencing tools.

The ANC will, from January, start holding virtually the 20 regional and provincial conferences it postponed, starting with North West and eThekwini. Ramaphosa will go online to deliver the party’s traditional January 8 message, this time from Limpopo, and the ANC is also likely to make use of technology to hold its mid-term national general council meeting, set for May 2021.

ANC moves on corruption

The lull in the ANC’s internal political battle, which came with the lockdown, did not last long. The large-scale looting of the Covid-19 emergency funds quickly brought corruption by the party’s people back into the public eye. 

The outcry over the awarding of a R125-million personal protective equipment contract to companies linked to Thandisizwe Diko, husband of presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko, led to her dismissal and that of Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku.

The Ramaphosa faction, faced with a public backlash ahead of next year’s local government poll, took a bold step at its NEC meeting in July and passed the landmark “stand-aside” rule. The meeting affirmed the resolution of the 2017 national conference that leaders charged with crimes should effectively be suspended from party and state roles until the outcome of their trial. Until then, the leadership had adopted the stance that accused members were innocent until proven otherwise, and had, in the main, failed to act against accused members.

The decision, re-affirmed at subsequent NEC meetings, has resulted in a number of top ANC leaders, including corruption-accused secretary general Ace Magashule and Masuku being called to face its integrity commission and subsequent action by its disciplinary committee.

The fightback by Magashule’s supporters at the NEC has, thus far, failed, with the last NEC meeting of the year endorsing the stand-aside decision and the call on leaders facing charges to abide by it. The NEC also instructed the party’s officials to draft clear guidelines for implementing the decision and to report back by its first meeting of the new year.

In the provinces, attempts to push the anti-corruption agenda have had varying results, mainly because the office of the secretary general had failed to draft guidelines for dealing with their recall. 

On December 15, the integrity commission ruled that the resolution should be implemented and that Magashule should stand aside. Should he not do so, the party should recall him, it said.

In North West the recall of five ANC council leadership trokias by the interim provincial committee was reversed by the NEC after a fightback from branches loyal to ousted chairperson and premier Supra Mahumapelo. A cabinet reshuffle in the province was also placed on hold, as was the recall of the leadership of another six municipalities.

The clean-up appears to be paying off for the ANC at the polls, if the results of the local government by-elections, held on 11 November and 9 December, are anything to go by.

The ANC fared better than expected in both sets of local government by-elections. In November, it retained 64 wards, lost two and gained six. In December it retained 12 wards, lost one and gained five new wards.

EFF fails by-election ‘test’ 

Despite hogging headlines for most of the year over its interventions regarding hair-product advertising, school racism and other matters, the Economic Freedom Fighters failed to capture the hearts and minds of the voters when it came to the two rounds of local government elections.

The party, whose consistent growth at the polls saw it take 10,79% of the national and provincial vote in 2019, fared far worse in the 95 by-elections on 11 November and the 24 on 9 December, failing to win a single ward. 

The party did poll slightly higher than in 2016 (less than 1%) .

With a countrywide local government poll to be held next year, the EFF leadership will be concerned about its poor showing. The party managed only to elect proportional representation councillors in the 2016 local government poll and a similar outcome may lie ahead unless the party’s groundwork and mobilisation around emotive political and social issues pays off between now and next August.

The Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance took a knock in the November and December by-elections. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

DA moves to the right

The DA spent most of 2020 consolidating its move to the right, which it began in 2019 with the purge of its leader, Mmusi Maimane, and his supporters and gained momentum with the election of John Steenhuisen and Helen Zille as party leader and federal chairperson respectively in November this year. 

Steenhuisen, who had been elected interim leader after Maimane’s departure, saw off a challenge from KwaZulu-Natal MPL Mbali Ntuli, for the leader’s post. Zille, who had been elected as federal chairperson in October 2019, retained her post after defeating Gauteng MPL Michael Moriarty. 

The exodus of black leaders from the party, which started with Maimane and Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, continued. Mashaba successfully registering his breakaway party, ActionSA, with the Independent Electoral Commission at the beginning of December after several failed attempts to meet the criteria set by the electoral commission.

From a policy perspective, the DA also tried to win back voters it lost to the Freedom Front Plus in 2019, sharpening its rejection of interventions aimed at addressing historical racial and economic injustice. 

In the first round of by-elections, the DA retained 14 wards, lost nine and gained two — a net loss of seven seats. Five of these went to the ANC. Of the two wards the DA gained, one, in the Eastern Cape, was taken off the ANC. In the Free State, the DA took a ward off an independent candidate. It lost ward five in Potchefstroom to the Freedom Front Plus, but did not take any wards off its competitor for the white, conservative vote.

In the December by-elections, the DA retained six wards and lost two, both in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape, to the ANC. 

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

R350 social relief grant not enough to live on

Nearly half of the population in South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — is considered chronically poor.

More top stories

Young and jobless? Apply for one of 287 000 education...

Education department urges young, jobless people to apply for teaching assistant vacancies

Officials implicated in arts council mismanagement will be brought to...

The National Arts Council vows that every cent from the sector’s Covid-19-relief programme will be disbursed to artists, after auditors uncover maladministration

Covid-19 vaccine mandates: a constitutional balancing act

South Africa’s laws allow the government to implement mandatory Covid vaccinations but, if it chooses this path, it must do so responsibly

Popularity will not guarantee mayoral selection — Ramaphosa

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised a more rigorous mayoral selection process, which will involve the party’s top six

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…