SA’s political Houdini rolls the dice of populism
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