Over the past few weeks after the 2021 local government elections, I have had an opportunity to read 11 articles giving various perspectives on the electoral performance of the ANC and possible causes thereof. The writers of these articles are diverse; three are serving in the leadership structures of the ANC, four are party members and four are academics who have written incisive articles and have unquestionable credentials on the subject matter. Three of these writers are from Gauteng, two are from the Northern Cape, four from the Western Cape, one from the Eastern Cape and two from KwaZulu-Natal.
The three ANC leaders and four members, understandably, perceive the gut-wrenching erosion of the ANC electoral fortunes as a vicissitude in the evolution of democracy in South Africa. The academics, on the other hand, see this as bittersweet. It is sweet because dominant parties in a democracy tend to impede the growth of democracy, erode accountability and may tend towards rent-seeking and corruption. It is bitter because the weakening of the ANC introduces an era of coalitions, which, in most cases, tend to be unstable and often unpredictable. The academics are thus of the view that such instability is something that South Africa can ill-afford because our democracy is still in its formative stages.
All 11 writers undertook an unrestrained journey to diagnose the reasons for the decline. The word “decline” is used consciously rather than the word “demise”, because even the recent electoral performance of the ANC indicates that it is far from a demise. The ANC still remains the dominant political force in the country, where, of the 226 local municipalities, the ANC outright won 167 with more than 4 500 council seats. The second biggest party, the Democratic Alliance, won only 22 municipalities outright. In more than 60 municipalities there are hung councils and in more than half of these hung councils, the ANC obtained a greater share of votes and council seats.
I partly agree with seven of these writers who observe that the 2021 elections could be a bellwether of what might happen to the ANC in 2024. I use the term “partly” because I do not agree with the narrative that the ANC will get less than 50% of the votes in 2024. The expectation is that the ANC will win the general elections, albeit with a reduced majority if its electoral base continues to abstain from voting.
In the past few years, the ANC has been in an unenviable position — divided at the core, unable to pay its employees for months, the secretary general on suspension, internal battles fuelled by manipulation of the election candidate list process. This is in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and its related socioeconomic problems of increased unemployment and poverty. This enervated state of the organisation was compounded by the visibly poor service delivery capacity of ANC municipalities.
The combined effect of all these factors was a demoralised support base of the ANC. Despite these challenges, the two biggest opposition parties were unable to deal the ANC a substantive blow and instead their electoral support consolidated, the DA at about 20% and the Economic Freedom Fighters at about 10%. The inability of the two largest opposition parties to make any major inroads is due to the fact that for now there is no credible opposition to the ANC. What this suggests is that it is not only the ANC that suffers from a credibility crisis.
The credibility challenge of opposition parties can be demonstrated in the fact that the decline in the electoral support of the ANC is mainly because of electoral abstention by ANC supporters. This saw a voter turnout below 40% in most ANC urban strongholds. This suggests that the majority of disenchanted ANC supporters decided to withhold their votes than to vote for any other party.
The abstention by ANC urban voters suggests a serious shift in the spatial dimension of the party support, or what many call the ruralisation of the party. This is because the ANC used to enjoy popularity in both urban and rural areas, but in recent years this popularity has been substantively moving to rural areas, leaving the ANC with a narrow urban base. But the high level of urbanisation in the country renders reliance on rural support unsustainable.
Eight of the writers argue that leadership paralysis in the ANC is the primary cause for the decline, and furthermore that weak leadership reinforces factional battles. Factional battles in turn reinforce lack of accountability, which then reinforces widespread corruption. They argue that the collective effect of weak leadership, factionalism, lack of accountability and corruption led to the political disengagement of the ANC electoral support base. Any of these can be selected because they are related and reinforcing; the festering of one giving birth to and incubating the other. There are thus four reinforcing pathologies.
These pathologies led to significant abstention on the part of ANC supporters. Similar developments took place in 2004, when the opposition was in disarray, and their supporters abstained, catapulting the ANC to a record 70% electoral victory with roughly the same number of votes as in 1999.
Since the 2009 elections, each election in the country was punctuated by a major breakaway in the ANC. With national elections, these breakaway groups assume a national dimension, and with the recent local government elections the breakaways assumed a local dimension that resulted in a record number of independent candidates and service delivery forums contesting the elections. Most of the independent candidates and service delivery forums are the offshoots of the ANC and so in their contestation of elections they subtract from the ANC numbers. While it is accepted that the four reinforcing pathologies are the drivers of poor electoral performance by the ANC, at the substantive level our failure to progressively and properly manage internal party dynamics and tensions is at the heart of the haemorrhage. Thhs leads to breakaways that demoralise our supporters and thereby corrode the ANC’s social base. A demoralised support base will abstain from voting and thereby undercut the electoral support. It is recognised that political parties with continuous internal party squabbles do not win elections.
Breakaways do weaken the main political party. The establishment of the National Freedom Party in 2011 as a breakaway from the Inkatha Freedom Party cost the IFP its status as the official opposition in the provincial legislature and lost a number of municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal. The recent breakaway in the Pan Africanist Congress with the establishment of the Azanian People’s Convention wiped out the party in the political landscape of the country. Breakaways are inevitably corrosive.
I am of the firm view that the longevity of the ANC incumbency might come to an end with the advent of any new breakaway or the collapse of the tripartite alliance. In its current organisational state, the ANC does not have the capacity to absorb the effect of any further splits. Rescuing the ANC now is about reaching out to each other because an all-out war and a zero-sum game between the different factions might cost the ANC its political hegemony. This reaching out includes proper management of the alliance relations.
The management of internal party dynamics reminds me of a political training session organised by the South African Student Congress (Sasco) for new members at the university. During those years we were deeply infatuated with Marxism. The facilitator was Mashapa Nale, who took us through a gruelling lesson on student struggles and where Sasco fits into the whole equation, took us through the ideological leanings of Sasco as a Marxist-Leninist student movement and also the scientific revolutionary analysis. In his brief exposition of Marxism, Nale emphasised the importance of understanding how society evolves and works and its inherent contradictions and furthermore emphasised the point that all human progress is the product of contradictions in society. His categorisation of contradiction is what most of us as Marxist-Leninist aspirants were absorbed by, specifically the antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions. Antagonistic contradiction is the notion that compromise between different social classes is impossible, and their relations must be characterised by external conflict. Non-antagonistic contradiction lies in the same class with the same interests and may be resolved through mere debate.
Nale further explained that Sasco is a student movement with members that approximately have the same interests but different views on almost everything, including policy or leadership preferences. Those differences generate contradictions in Sasco, but such contradictions are non-antagonistic because we are all in the same organisation, and we all pursue the same objectives. Such contradictions, even though they may sometimes be intense, must be resolved through debates. It is now almost 30 years since that political lesson, but I vividly remember him calling this “the art of managing internal organisational squabbles”.
This art requires a tolerance of differing views, the need to be understanding and to be organisational when dealing with matters affecting the organisation. We need tolerance because on many occasions it takes time to resolve such contradictions. We need understanding, because some of the contradictions are very deep, nuanced and complex, and cannot be taken at face value. We need to be organisational, which requires putting the organisation and its interests first when dealing with matters affecting the organisation. The art of management of internal contradictions is thus central to internal cohesion of the organisation.
Like many other political parties, the ANC has been struggling to consolidate its internal cohesion post-1994. This could be largely attributed to the failure to properly deploy the art of management of internal disagreements.
The failure to properly manage the challenge of internal disagreements and tensions has contributed to breakaways that corrode the social base and electoral support of the ANC. The 2021 local government elections are a clear demonstration thereof, where many of the parties, civic movements and independent candidates that contested these local government elections are direct offshoots of the ANC. The continued failure to properly manage internal tensions weakens the ANC and is the main cause of the terminal decline in its electoral support.
From being the single dominant party in South Africa to its dismal electoral showing in the recent local government elections, the ANC has been on a steady decline. These elections marked a sixth election where the ANC experienced a persistent decline in its electoral support. The seeds of this terminal decline were sown in the 2009 general election, when the ANC lost about 4% of its national share of the votes, and continued to the 2014 general election, when the ANC lost more than 5% of its electoral support. With the 2016 local government elections the trend of shedding votes became a full-blown challenge, with the ANC for the first time getting below the 60% threshold. The 46% attained in the recent local government elections indicates that the ANC continues to experience an overbearing challenge that could lead to its demise. This is due to the fact that the reasons for the decline that were identified during the 2009, 2014, 2016 and 2019 elections were not addressed, but fermented and led to successive electoral backlashes. Unlike the other election outcomes, the 2021 elections marked a tectonic shift in the political equilibrium of the country as 66 municipalities are without a decisive winner that has resulted in hung councils. The ANC could not regain majority in the four metros that were lost in 2016, and furthermore lost a majority of seats in the eThekwini metro. By the ANC’s standards, this latest electoral performance was a bloodbath. The over-enthusiastic political observers and writers are of the view that this terminal decline, if not soon arrested, will turn full cycle with the ANC losing incumbency in either the 2024 or 2029 elections.
This article examines the ANC trajectory post-independence and especially in the aftermath of the 2021 local government elections. At the heart of the terminal decline in the electoral support of the ANC is its lack of leadership capabilities to organisationally deal with internal contestation for leadership positions and policy preferences. As mentioned above, these contestations largely contributed to breakaways that are accentuated by a decline in the subsequent electoral performance. In most cases these breakaway parties managed to enthuse a significant support to emerge as major opposition parties. The first breakaway post-1994 led to the establishment of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) after the expulsion of General Bantu Holomisa. The effect of the establishment of the UDM was felt by the ANC in the Eastern Cape. What followed was the breakaway post-Polokwane Conference in 2007 that led to the establishment of the Congress of the People (COPE) by some prominent figures. This split was driven by the failure to manage the internal organisational dynamics generated by the groups aligned to the leadership contestation of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. After the 2009 elections COPE emerged as a significant opposition party, having eroded a sizable portion of the ANC vote. The establishment of the EFF coincided with the 2014 general election and the newly formed party was able to obtain 6.35% of the votes, mainly from the ANC. It continues to show signs of modest electoral growth in subsequent elections and now consolidates around 10%.
The ANC attaining less than 50% of the national vote is a rude awakening and Fikile Mbalula correctly characterises these outcomes as a “warning shot”. What does this characterisation mean? In a military and police context a warning shot is an intentionally harmless gunshot with the intention being to ensure direct compliance or to signal impending danger. In Mbalula’s view this disappointing electoral outcome was an intentional harmless warning by ANC supporters to ensure compliance with their collective aspirations to avert an impending danger. If the ANC does not improve on its capacity to manage internal dynamics in a non-antagonist manner, the impending danger might become full-blown as soon as 2024. If the ANC continues to manage internal dynamics through external conflicts rather than through internal debates then unending internal battles can be expected in 2022. Next year will be a single most challenging year that will test the skill of ANC leaders in managing internal dynamics through compromise and reaching out. Among the issues that this leadership will have to deal with is implementation of the step-aside rule that led to the suspension of the secretary general, more than 30 regional conferences, eight provincial conferences, and the national policy conference that will culminate in the 55th national conference. The year 2022 could thus be a decisive year in seeking to reverse the bleeding or to accelerate the loss of power. All of this depends on the party’s capacity to manage its internal dynamics. For all the role players, there is no alternative to reaching out to each other and building a platform for cooperation as the alternative of an all-out war will be catastrophic and destroy what is left of the ANC. This conciliatory approach should be bolstered by the ANC developing organisational capacity to seize the moment, create strategic initiatives and leverage opportunities.
There are many opportunities for the ANC to recover lost ground and this includes:
• The ANC remains a governing party. The advantage that comes with that is what all parties wish for;
• A renewal programme gives real hope for the revitalisation of the ANC;
• The ideological vacillation of the EFF has caused a great deal of consternation from its support base. As the force of the left, at least at the rhetorical level, the expectation was that the EFF would have used its electoral strength to shift the centre of gravity left-wards. The EFF’s apparent support for the DA has shifted the balance to the right and has presented the ANC with an immeasurable opportunity. The most recent outcome on the right agenda is its vote against expropriation of land without compensation; and
• With more than 4 500 councillors on the ground, this comprises extensive electoral machinery which gives the ANC an unmatched reach.