Pro-cyril vot­ing ad­vice pan­ics DA

In­stead of try­ing to reap vot­ers from an imag­ined ANC split, it should look to young vot­ers in­stead

Mail & Guardian - - News - Vukani Mde

The next gen­eral elec­tion is only five months away and most po­lit­i­cal par­ties have be­gun to se­lect can­di­dates for their na­tional and pro­vin­cial lists, ac­cord­ing to their own internal rules. Last week­end ANC prov­inces held list con­fer­ences to con­sol­i­date and fi­nalise the nom­i­na­tions from thou­sands of branches across the coun­try. The Demo­cratic Al­liance is con­sti­tut­ing its elec­toral col­leges to in­ter­view can­di­dates for their lists.

Run­ning par­al­lel to this is the par­ties’ elec­tion man­i­festo process.

In be­tween a busy sched­ule of threat­en­ing jour­nal­ists, trash­ing stores and bizarrely fight­ing the ju­di­cial com­mis­sion on state cap­ture, the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fighters (EFF) is host­ing con­sul­ta­tions on its man­i­festo with stake­hold­ers.

The vol­ume of po­lit­i­cal cov­er­age and de­bate will be turned up, not to men­tion the bar­rage of opin­ion and elec­toral polls. Much of this will shed more heat than light. This week’s poll re­leased by the In­sti­tute of Race Re­la­tions is a case in point. The poll shows the ANC gain­ing support to be­tween 56% and 59% of vot­ers, de­pend­ing on voter turnout. This sug­gests the re­turn of vot­ers who stayed away dur­ing two elec­tion cy­cles in 2014 and 2016.

More im­por­tant is the de­bate it seems to have trig­gered be­tween the DA’S John Steen­huisen and vet­eran jour­nal­ist Peter Bruce on talk ra­dio sta­tion 702 this week. The de­bate ex­poses a sub­tle and pub­licly un­ac­knowl­edged shift in the DA’S anal­y­sis of South Africa’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape, a shift that sug­gests the early on­set of a de­gree of panic in­side the of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion.

In a Sun­day Times col­umn, Bruce had sug­gested that the best way to bol­ster and defend Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa’s re­form agenda in the rul­ing party would be for ANC vot­ers to re­turn to the party and main­tain, if not in­crease, the ANC’S elec­toral ma­jor­ity.

The at­trac­tive­ness of the ar­gu­ment is ob­vi­ous, even if one is not com­mit- ted to the out­come of an in­creased elec­toral ma­jor­ity for the ANC. Un­til at least af­ter the 2019 elec­tions, Ramaphosa is fight­ing on two fronts: the clean-up of state en­ti­ties at the cen­tre of state cap­ture, and to defend and con­sol­i­date his own po­si­tion in the ANC, not least against a Ja­cob Zuma fac­tional resur­gence.

It is now an open se­cret that the rem­nants of the former pres­i­dent’s sup­port­ers are wait­ing to use weak elec­toral support for the ANC as the ex­cuse to mo­bilise against Ramaphosa with a view to re­mov­ing him at the party’s 2020 na­tional gen­eral coun­cil. If Ramaphosa can re­store the party’s support to any­where near the 60% mark (the ANC’S support col­lapsed to 54% in the 2016 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions), he would be all but im­mune to such ma­noeu­vres and would con­vince any re­main­ing doubters that the Zuma era is well and truly over. That would make the task of re­uni­fy­ing the party and re­form­ing the state much eas­ier.

Against this, Steen­huisen ar­gued that the best way to guar­an­tee suc­cess for the Ramaphosa re­form agenda would be to weaken the ANC elec­torally. That, ob­vi­ously, means vot­ing DA. This is in line with the views of former party leader He­len Zille, of­fer­ing a glimpse into a con­cep­tual shift in the DA’S un­der­stand­ing of the po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

Whether the party it­self re­alises this or not, this shift will have reper­cus­sions for how the DA con­ducts its elec­tion cam­paign, and how suc­cess­ful that cam­paign is likely to be, not to men­tion chang­ing the yard­stick the party uses to mea­sure suc­cess.

Ac­cord­ing to Zille, the choice fac­ing vot­ers next year and be­yond is be­tween the ideals of lib­eral democ­racy and con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism, as rep­re­sented by the DA, and racial na­tion­al­ism and the re­turn of the com­mand econ­omy, rep­re­sented by the EFF.

The first ques­tion to ask of this anal­y­sis is why vot­ers are fac­ing such ide­o­log­i­cally stark choices be­tween two rel­a­tively small op­po­si­tion par­ties that:

two of the coun­try’s most im­por­tant met­ros, sug­gest­ing they are not the oil and wa­ter we are be­ing told they are; and

the elec­tion next year, nor even be the big­gest party in a coali­tion.

In other words, where is the ANC? How can the party, which is pro­jected to get a clear ma­jor­ity at the polls, not count as one of the choices vot­ers have at the polls?

Ac­cord­ing to Zille and Steen­huisen, the ANC is the broad can­vas upon which their heroic fight against the evils of racial na­tion­al­ism will play out. South Africa’s rul­ing party of the past 25 years (and prob­a­bly the next 10) is back­ground noise at best and, at worst, the bloated car­cass over which the DA and EFF will wres­tle in the years (and elec­tions) to come. This, they ar­gue, is be­cause the ANC will even­tu­ally splin­ter, and the rem­nants of the split will throw their weight in with ei­ther one of the big po­lit­i­cal cur­rents un­der way, the DA’S lib­er­al­ism or the EFF’S na­tion­al­ism.

This is fan­ci­ful stuff, even for a party dis­tin­guished by its overblown sense of its own rel­e­vance.

The ANC and its al­liance, not­with­stand­ing Zuma-in­duced elec­toral decline, rep­re­sents the largest support bloc in our elec­toral pol­i­tics. This is es­pe­cially so if you ex­pand the count to in­clude its var­i­ous off­shoots, such as the Congress of the Peo­ple and the EFF.

Even if one ac­cepts that the ANC is riven by such internal con­tra­dic­tions that it must even­tu­ally split, each of the splin­ters would be com­fort­ably larger than ei­ther the DA or the EFF. It is non­sen­si­cal to think that ei­ther of those par­ties would be the re­cip­i­ents of ide­o­log­i­cal refugees (and vot­ers) es­cap­ing from the ex­plod­ing ANC su­per­nova. If there is a rup­ture in the ANC (ei­ther an internal split or a breakup of the tri­par­tite al­liance), it is still prob­a­ble that the party gov­ern­ing the repub­lic would still come from among these splin­ters, not the op­po­si­tion.

So why has the DA shifted from the idea that the fu­ture of South African pol­i­tics is in coali­tions against ANC? That idea seemed to be vin­di­cated on Au­gust 3 2016, when the party snatched three big met­ros by work­ing with a coali­tion of smaller par­ties, the EFF es­pe­cially.

The sub­se­quent his­tory of that dis­as­trous ex­per­i­ment prob­a­bly ex­plains the DA’S about-turn. All the other par­ties are too small to be a fac­tor in any elec­toral cal­cu­la­tions, so they can be of no use to the DA. The EFF, on the other hand, is un­re­li­able, com­mit­ted to noth­ing but the max­imi­sa­tion of pa­tron­age and prone to proto-fas­cist ex­tremes and, frankly, is an off­shoot of the worst parts of the ANC, not the rul­ing party “good guys” that the DA used to hang its hopes of po­lit­i­cal re­align­ment on.

And now the polls are be­gin­ning to sug­gest the DA’S panic may be well founded.

In truth, South Africa’s op­po­si­tion par­ties need new vot­ers. The old ones are no good. Af­ter a decade of vi­o­lent abuse, these vot­ers are too ready to give the ANC an­other chance at the small­est sign of change in the rul­ing party’s at­ti­tude. Luck­ily for the op­po­si­tion, there is an ever-larger co­hort of young adults who have never voted be­fore, and they may not be as loyal to the ANC.

If the DA and the EFF find a way to speak to them (and for them) hon­estly and con­sis­tently, they would even­tu­ally need nei­ther splits, nor coali­tions, nor stay­aways from ANC vot­ers.

Vukani Mde is a founder and part­ner at LEFTHOOK, a Jo­han­nes­burg-based re­search and strat­egy con­sul­tancy

Fresh: Op­po­si­tion par­ties need to find ways of speak­ing hon­estly and con­sis­tently to young ANC sup­port­ers be­cause they may be less loyal than older ANC vot­ers. Photo: David Har­ri­son

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