SA’s po­lit­i­cal Houdini rolls the dice of pop­ulism

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

EVEN at the best of times, it is dif­fi­cult when deal­ing with politi­cians to sift the wheat from the chaff. At elec­tion times, it is well nigh im­pos­si­ble.

The prime ob­jec­tive of all po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the clos­ing stages of the lo­cal govern­ment elec­tions to be held on Au­gust 3 is now less to win new vot­ers than it is to re­as­sure the faith­ful and rally the hes­i­tant. Only masochists or ide­o­logues schlep to the polls if they know the re­sult is a pre­or­dained drub­bing of the party they sup­port.

That’s why all the politi­cians duck and dive, ex­ag­ger­ate and lie with the goal of get­ting to polling day with the max­i­mum mo­men­tum of favourable pub­lic­ity and sup­porter op­ti­mism in or­der to max­imise the turnout of their vot­ers.

At the same time, they will do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to dispirit the sup­port­ers of their po­lit­i­cal foes.

There are lim­its im­posed by de­cency and tra­di­tion. Nor­mally, the pres­i­dent of the na­tion, while not re­main­ing aloof from the fray, would be care­ful to en­sure his party po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment was within the am­bit of the stature and con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tions of his role as head of state.

This is a con­cept Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma has al­ways had trou­ble with. He is not a man for moral and eth­i­cal bound­aries. In Zu­ma­land, Num­ber One is Zuma, then comes the ANC, then comes South Africa and its peo­ple.

In his mind, as ev­i­denced by the Nkandla scan­dal, our money is his money. Another ex­am­ple of lack of bound­aries is his bed­ding daugh­ters of his Strug­gle com­rades with un­happy con­se­quences of a rape charge, as well as an un­fore­seen preg­nancy.

Dur­ing this elec­tion cam­paign, Zuma has with dis­tress­ing ease shrugged off his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as uni­fier of the na­tion, pro­tec­tor of the rights of all South Africans. The DA was, he told a Them­bisa rally last week, the “brain­child” of the white op­pres­sors and blacks should unite against the op­pres­sor un­til the land was re­turned.

“Where does a black per­son get the guts to as­so­ciate with the op­pres­sor?” he de­manded rhetor­i­cally.

The an­swer is coded but was ob­vi­ous to ev­ery­one at the rally.

One doesn’t hob­nob with the op­pres­sor. One fights and de­stroys the op­pres­sor.

This is dan­ger­ous stuff, not far re­moved from the race hate of the EFF. That such sen­ti­ments come from SA’s head of state and not from EFF fire­brand Julius Malema is a re­flec­tion of how hope­less Zuma is as a states­man.

But he is not a hope­less strate­gist. His mo­bil­i­sa­tion of vot­ers along race lines – in­eluctably, other races and eth­nic­i­ties will even­tu­ally also be tar­geted – sig­nals the ANC is mov­ing left to ac­com­mo­date what it per­ceives to be the big­ger threat of EFF pop­ulism, rather than to the right to counter DA in­roads.

And as the Na­tional Party demon­strated in its nasty apartheid petrie dish over the course of 46 years, race pol­i­tics works well in SA.

Although th­ese are merely lo­cal elec­tions, Zuma is play­ing for per­haps the high­est stakes yet in a ca­reer stud­ded with au­da­ciously suc­cess­ful po­lit­i­cal gam­bles. He has en­er­get­i­cally fronted the ANC cam­paign at ral­lies up and down the coun­try. He is lit­er­ally the ANC’s face in the scores of thou­sands of posters and bill­boards that fea­ture his toothy smirk.

The ANC head of elec­tions let slip that the party has spent R1 bil­lion rand on this cam­paign, a fig­ure since de­nied. What­ever the ac­tual amount, the spend­ing has cer­tainly been lav­ish for a party that is tak­ing fi­nan­cial strain.

If the ANC in­curs se­ri­ous losses on Wed­nes­day it is un­likely Zuma can sur­vive the en­su­ing in­ternecine party war­fare to serve out the full term of his pres­i­dency. Such losses might start the fall of the domi­noes.

The 2006 loss of Cape Town to an op­po­si­tion coali­tion ul­ti­mately spelt the end of the ANC’s con­trol of the Western Cape.

Now fur­ther metropoli­tan losses are pos­si­ble in Pre­to­ria and Jo­han­nes­burg, as well as Port El­iz­a­beth, ac­cord­ing to the opin­ion polls. If that hap­pened, it would mean the al­most cer­tain loss in the 2019 gen­eral elec­tion of Gaut­eng, pow­er­house of the na­tion, and pos­si­bly se­ri­ously erode ANC dom­i­na­tion of the Eastern Cape, the spir­i­tual home of the ANC.

Of course, even the best polls can be wrong. And how­ever gatvol the av­er­age ANC vot­ers are, they have a deep emo­tional con­nec­tion with the party of lib­er­a­tion and with a party that, for all its faults, has by means of so­cial grants, hous­ing, wa­ter and elec­tric­ity de­liv­ery done a lot for the poor.

So Zuma is by no means down and out. SA’s own Houdini might yet again slip his con­straints to emerge tri­umphant. Fol­low WSM on Twit­ter @ TheJaun­dicedEye

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