Business Day

Zuma is the loser, despite ANC poll win

- Tim Cohen

FOUR big questions arise out of the local government elections: who won; who changed their votes; will the results pull the African National Congress (ANC) economical­ly leftwards or rightwards; and how do the results affect President Jacob Zuma?

The first shouldn’t be a question at all, but the results have a “glass half full, glass half empty” character. The ANC won convincing­ly, but neverthele­ss lost support. Consequent­ly the question is whether this is aberration­al — as the ANC would have us believe — or the start of a new trend — as the Democratic Alliance (DA) would have us believe.

The situation is unnecessar­ily complicate­d by the fact that the Independen­t Electoral Commission (IEC) has, incredibly, got the results wrong. Most of the reporting on the election results was based on the IEC’s calculatio­n of the proportion of national support won by the parties. To do this, the IEC averaged out the percentage support gained by the parties in the proportion­al representa­tion (PR) vote, plus the aggregate ward vote, plus the district council vote (at a lower weighting due to fewer voters being eligible to vote for these councils). By this count, the ANC got 63,65% of the vote, and the DA 21,97% for example.

This seems reasonable, but isn’t. Voters who live outside the metros get a third vote for a district council. Because the ANC has high support in rural areas, this third vote weighs in favour of the ANC. The IEC did not include this calculatio­n for the 2006 elections, so most of the comparison­s are with the PR vote from 2006, when the ANC got 65% support. From this perspectiv­e, it seems the ANC didn’t lose much — a bit more than one percentage point.

But it did. Exclude district councils, so now everyone has the same two votes, and the ANC comes in at just below 62% — double the decline the IEC suggests. Likewise the metro-heavy DA wins 23,9% of the vote, not 21,9% as the IEC says.

Even judged by the correct figures, the ANC’s fall does not seem calamitous. But in this election, as in the previous general election, the ANC was saved by the Congress of the People’s implosion, and by the dismal showing of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The IFP gained only 16% of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal, compared with 38% in 2006. Even with the amazing performanc­e of the IFP breakaway, the National Freedom Party, the ANC is now the clear majority party in the province at municipal level, with just under 57% support, compared with 47% support in 2006. But even this is actually lower than its share in the 2009 general election, when it won 64% of the vote.

The ANC is right to say this is not a cataclysmi­c setback, but is faking when it claims the results mean nothing at all. The ANC lost ground in all provinces except KwaZulu-Natal compared to the previous local election, and declined everywhere compared to the general election. It has almost totally lost the support of all three ethnic minorities. And in terms of power on the ground, the effect is also more than it might seem. The DA controlled outright six councils before the election, and now controls 18, with more to come through alliances. The DA’s proportion of the black vote increased from 1% to about 6%.

So something is happening, but we don’t quite know what it is. That question could be answered somewhat if we had a clearer idea of the profile of the people who changed their votes.

South Africans like to explain support shifts in ethnic and class terms, but DA strategist Ryan Coetzee tells me neither really works. Black DA voters are not necessaril­y upwardly mobile “black diamonds” or aspirant mid- dle class. More than half don’t have matric; half earn less than R2 000 a month; a third live in rural areas; 60% are under 35.

Coetzee says the divide is more what might be called “psychograp­hic” rather than “ethnograph­ic”. Hence, the success of the DA’s new “Mandela-esque” campaignin­g method.

The oddest thing about the election is ANC heavyweigh­ts scratching their heads about losing the votes of ethnic minorities and wondering aloud why such a thing would happen. I’m not sure that the ANC has become the party of black nationalis­m, but it has moved in that direction, or allowed itself to be portrayed that way. The ANC having done that, it is not surprising the turkeys have decided against voting for Christmas, and ethnic minorities have peeled off. But the ANC also lost black voters who don’t share the party’s “chip-on-the-shoulder”, mistrustfu­l, victimised outlook. And those people, happily, come from all classes.

So, will this small shift cause any change in economic policy? It’s possible to argue this all ways. A further slide left could be justified by the need to “shore up the defences” and “consolidat­e the base”. A shift right could be justified because it can now be demonstrat­ed that the ANC’s decision to entertain nationalis­ation, for example, is a vote-loser. Or it could be argued that economic policy was not really a fac- tor in this election, partly because local elections are more focused on bread-and-butter issues.

Nationalis­ation is a thermomete­r issue, but in some ways, it’s a bad example. The ANC Youth League’s support for nationalis­ation is really an issue of black nationalis­m rather than economic policy. Simply put, the argument is that whites own too much of the economy and the way to resolve that is through nationalis­ation. That’s politics, not economics.

Yet nationalis­ation is symbolic of a range of policies that have hardened the ANC’s economic dirigisme, from opposing the Walmart investment, to keeping interest rates a bit lower, to licensing restrictio­ns, to opposition to free trade, to the virulent opposition to privatisat­ion. But sadly, there seems to be no sign that the ANC is interpreti­ng these results as an economic critique. Rather, it’s seen as a “service delivery” critique and, depressing­ly, the connection between economic prowess and performanc­e is not being made.

There is no doubt that Mr Zuma is weakened by all this. The “man of the people” president is no more popular or able to solidify the party behind his leadership than his reputedly ascetic predecesso­r. He is indistinct as a leader, buffered by factions, organisati­onally all over the place, and consequent­ly struggling to connect.

The new leadership race in the ANC has now begun.

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