Focusing on the way forward, this is an opportunity for parties to turn promises into action as election results weave in new players, writes Mzwanele Mayekiso.
The National elections have finally come and gone and political parties that contested are mopping up their operations. The next stage is to reflect on opportunities missed and advantages gained.
The elections culminated in a long period of campaigning that was marked by robust, at times tense, yet peaceful engagement between supporters and leaders of various parties.
The mood was indeed festive as democracy triumphed and the philosophers Democritus, Plato and others could have smiled from beyond as society carefully weighed the different electoral presentations before making their choice known on the day as the ANC was overwhelmingly returned to power for the next term.
The opposition didn’t disappoint, though, as the DA made interesting forays into a space that traditionally was alien to it, such as the townships and villages of South Africa. The EFF, a novice in the political game, had an impressive show, gaining more than a million votes.
The next few weeks will allow for serious introspection by all parties in view of the 2016 local government elections, and performance in the metropolitan areas with a huge concentration of people will be scrutinised to assess areas of weakness and strength as the focus has shifted.
The psychological mark of 20 years of democracy was the casting of the ballot without Nelson Mandela for the first time, though his memory and legacy loomed large in the campaign.
The media and some segments of society hoped that the anger of service delivery protests would affect voter turn-out and potentially shift the vote away from the ANC. While the thought of Nkandla and e-tolls dominated the news, it was not to be as the base of the ANC had other issues in mind, though they could have been troubled by them. The issues didn’t dominate decision-making.
The typical voter appears to be conservative in that they preferred the security of the ANC in power, regardless of general trends as opposed to the uncertainty of new and unknown parties.
Richard Calland, writing in Business Day, suggests that the “opposition needs to reflect on why the ANC still appeals”. Rather, shouldn’t opposition parties reflect on why they matter, so that programmes are not about the ANC, but about relevance of their message content, political culture and trustworthiness?
It is clear that voters opted for a brand they knew, which had a proven track record of liberation and service delivery, even if that delivery might not be of adequate quality. Perhaps that’s something society can negotiate through protests when discussions fail to yield desired outcomes.
The vote of confidence in the ANC happened, despite the overall mood of insurrection which saw communities rising up in violent protests in which government buildings and councillors’ homes were burnt, and protesters were killed by police.
The endorsement of the ANC by society leaves unanswered questions to political parties who hoped to leverage their growth on the basis of the general dissatisfaction with the government led by the ANC.
This proved a serious puzzle to the participant observer whose cultural and ideological bent is uncomfortable with an ANC that continuously scoops majorities above the 60 percent at elections.
The discomfort with the ANC, whose hegemony is unparalleled, has been there since 1994 and perhaps before as it dwarfed other liberation parties in South Africa. But it was more acute after President Jacob Zuma was elected in Polokwane in 2009 with tight partnership with the SACP and Cosatu when the so-called liberal wing of the party was vanquished at the polls.
It is not clear as to whether the discomfort is derived from Zuma’s lack of formal education, which can be blamed on colonialism and apartheid, as politics in SA have, at the least, nothing to do with qualifications as parties choose leaders based on experience.
It is also not clear as to whether the discomfort has to do with his Zulu identity, including his polygamous lifestyle, making some of us uncomfortable with his transparent African cultural personality which perhaps to us is better hidden from view as we have embraced Eurocentric ethos in public.
The ANC under Zuma endorsed a business-friendly NDP designed by the architect of Gear, Trevor Manuel, a development that potentially led, among other issues of contention, to the instability in Cosatu.
But the man is still unpopular with the middle-class segment of society, yet another puzzle in the historiography of the past 20 years of democracy. The election of the ANC, though, had nothing to do with individuals as much as the electorate was loyal to the ANC brand, except for the late Rolihlahla Mandela. He was a unique individual whose fortunes were and still are linked to those of the ANC. This offered voters stability and certainty and Zuma happens to be at the helm of the political colossus.
The slow but sure corrosion of popularity does affect even a steady cultural edifice such as the ANC as the loss of 10 percent in Gauteng and 11 percent nationally bellies the performance, if care is taken to efficiently service the constituency. The ANC will have to rigorously pore over statistical trends to assess where the rot may be and devise mechanisms to plug the leak at the base before it becomes a flood that destroys the structure.
Gauteng seems to be the place to begin and might be the main culprit, perhaps the proverbial sieve through which the voter losses are sustained. It was there that Zuma was booed and it is also in this province that the party is debilitated by intense political rivalry between Premier Nomvula Mokonyane and Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile.
If we narrowly focus on the Mokonyane/Mashatile factional rivalry only, we may miss the scientific meaning of assessment as nothing has to be left to chance, such as the effect of the dismissal of the enigmatic Julius Malema from the party as it decimated ANC youth structures throughout the country, leading to disillusionment.
Malema’s 6.5 percent win for the EFF as a first-time entrant in national politics speaks volumes about the need for alternative political space that’s within the traditions of congress that voters like to support when angry with the ANC.
Though Malema’s EFF is securely in Parliament with almost 25 MPs to boot, tension remains as Alexandra township has become the poster child and ground zero of post-election South Africa. The EFF, in partnership with the IFP and the DA, has chosen to torture the residents of this township with violence and intimidation as they protest against perceived voter fraud.
Parties that have contested the election are supposed to be familiar with the processes in situations such as this, instead of holding hostage a community that is rebuilding itself from the apartheid-sponsored violence of the early 1990s.
Malema has shown leadership mettle, though, by calling on his supporters to accept outcomes while the party follows due process until satisfied.
The EFF will confront the reality of politics within the framework of democracy in which players have to follow rules and be governed by the norms of the chamber as extraparliamentary attitudes may not be as effective. This will be a tough challenge for a political structure whose existence is based on the defiance of established methods of engagement.
The parliamentary attire, for example, is set in the rule book and the EFF plans to wear its red overalls and berets in the chamber, a move, though symbolic, which may shift focus on the more serious and substantive issues of governance.
Mandela did dispense with suits at some stage in his position in favour of Asian silky shirts, but there seemed to be no issues in the book, raising a question as to whether it was the popularity of the man and perhaps because his political force of presence was indistinguishable from the constitution.
Whether it’s an overall or a suit that matters, the message should be immutable as with the Gucci labels at times worn in the mass campaigns that shouldn’t define and categorise the messenger.
More critical is the sustainability of the EFF as the defunct Cope, which emerged in the exact conditions as the EFF, but failed to capitalise on the political disaffection. The brand was destroyed over leadership and other tussles.
The DA has enjoyed an impressive though sluggish growth, but the blue T-shirts are visible in almost every environment in the country, that on its own being a psychological breakthrough that cuts across the classes and racial strata of society. Since 1994, the party has enjoyed steady growth in the small percentages accumulating this year into a 6 percent bonus for the party.
The downside to the party’s exponential growth is its racial disaggregation because instead of party members seeing the future equally regardless of race, creed and class, the opposite is true.
The existence of racially based clusters within a party in today’s South Africa are indeed confounding, such as the black caucus within the DA, a development that presupposes that racial preservation of political identities is what defines the party.
In the US, it makes perfect sense, perhaps, to have a minority caucus such as the Congressional Black Caucus, but in South Africa, it becomes an abomination.
It perhaps indicates that as the DA grows, seeds of its own destruction are being planted, so that while the phenomenal boom can be appreciated, the bust that follows has to be expected as the racial tensions of the past could thrive within the party environment. As is always the case, if growth in quantity terms is not followed through by turning it into quality, chaos may be the next stage.
The pains of growth are visible as the resignation by parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko indicates a political tension with party leader Helen Zille, perhaps over strategy and styles of leadership.
Mazibuko had shown some impressive grasp of the political nuances of Parliament and indeed it is a tragedy that she chose to leave the party for personal growth in the academy when that space was getting more interesting with the entry of the EFF.
The lesson of Mazibuko leaving for her studies shouldn’t be lost to us as it indicates that she treated politics not as her life without which she would be destitute, but perhaps as a contribution to society, a trait that creates chaos and ructions in political structures as people tend to see no future sustainability outside of government.
The South African democratic experience is indeed unique and special, it is dynamic and brimming with promise of stability. The next five to 10 years will be more interesting as voters will be spoilt for choice if the trend in our politics continues.