ANC is becoming beatable
Viewed overall, last week’s by-elections and a report by financial services group Namusa show that the ANC is losing public support at a significant rate, says Allister Sparks.
Durban - It is a trite warning that one shouldn’t put too much store on by-election results and opinion poll findings, but fallible though they may be, they are the only indicators one has to judge political trends and determine strategies in the five years between national elections. Which makes the past week particularly valuable, with 19 municipal by-elections across the country and publication of an emerging markets report on South Africa by financial services group Namusa.
Viewed overall, these indicators show what I imagine all analysts in the country have already deduced from their own observations – that the ANC is losing public support at a significant rate, that the opposition DA is gaining at a more modest rate and that new players such as Agang and Julius Malema’s EFF introduce an element of uncertainty to the picture.
The Namusa survey predicts that the ANC’s share of the vote will drop from 65.9 percent in 2009 to 56.2 percent at next year’s general election, with the DA increasing its share to 27 percent. Analysts expect Agang to get 6 percent and the EFF 4 percent, together taking at least 10 percent from the ANC, which is what the analysts believe will pull it into marginal territory. If that outlook is even partially correct, it means the name of the game is changing, albeit gradually, from the politics of single-party dominance to the politics of potential transition.
In other words, the ANC is on the way to becoming beatable at the polls. Which, in turn, will change the nature of politics itself. First, it will empower voters because parties – especially the ruling party – will start paying attention to the needs and wishes of the public for the first time instead of taking their support for granted. Second, it will determine how the ANC will react to the prospect of defeat at the polls.
The history of Africa is not encouraging on this second score. In country after country the party of liberation has shown itself to be imbued with a sense of a divine right to rule: a belief that because it fought for the freedom of its people, it has the right to rule indefinitely over them for their own good. All challengers are portrayed as counter-revolutionary usurpers intent on returning the people to the bondage of the past. That has been the pretext for rigging or overturning the results of elections, a painfully recurring feature of independent Africa, the latest and most grotesque example being Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Until recently, I imagined the ANC would be above such skulduggery, that it was too old and venerable, too steeped in the traditions of Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela even to think of such despotism. But now I’m not so sure. The ANC’s tolerance of such behaviour, even President Jacob Zuma’s apparent admiration of it, as expressed in his message of “profound congratulation” to Mugabe for his achievement, plus Zuma’s own memorable assertion that the ANC would rule until the second coming of Jesus Christ, tend to sow the seeds of doubt.
Be all that as it may, the ANC is clearly on the decline, as even the soon-to-be departing Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe sagely noted the other day in an interview with the Financial Times. The ANC has, he suggested, lost touch with its people. The by-election results and the Namusa survey bear this out. The ruling party held its own, even gained a little, in the KwaZulu-Natal and some Eastern Cape municipal elections, but shed support to the DA in North West and Mpumalanga.
The DA, in turn, consolidated its strength in the Western Cape, capturing control of the hotly-contested Oudtshoorn municipality in the Little Karoo while strengthening its majority in the neighbouring town of George. The DA now controls 28 municipal councils out of a total of 238. But it was the outcome of the first of a string of by-elections in the North West municipality of Tlokwe (Potchefstroom) that I found the most interesting.
The Tlokwe saga, or what could be called the Putsch of Potch, goes back eight months to an initial rebellion by ANC councillors against their mayor, Maphetle Maphetle, whom they accused of aiding and abetting rampant corruption. The councillors walked out of the chamber to register their displeasure, whereupon the opposition DA seized the opportunity to pass a vote of no confidence in Maphetle and replace him with their own Annette Combrink.
The ANC leadership managed to patch up the quarrel, enabling Maphetle to regain his mayoral seat, only for the dissent to flare up again on July 3. This time, the rebels did not walk out but stayed to vote with the DA to oust Maphetle again and reinstate Combrink as mayor. Not surprisingly the ANC expelled the 14 rebels, six of whom it was able to replace from its party list because they were proportional representation councillors. The remainder were elected on a ward basis in the mixed system that applies to our local government elections, so their seats have to be filled at by-elections due on September 18.
Last Wednesday’s by-election was a forerunner to this big forthcoming test of the state of the ANC in the region. It was caused by the resignation of one of the ANC dissidents who quit of his own accord after the walkout last December. A fellow member of what is now a clearly definable group of dissidents, Khotsu Ratikoane, ran as an independent against the official ANC candidate – and gave him a tight race, polling 504 votes to the ANC’s 738. The DA also fielded a candidate, who polled 196 votes, which was a 13 percent increase on the party’s 2009 vote but, I suggest, well below expectations in the circumstances.
What does this tell us? First, that there is serious dissent in the ANC in North West province, as indeed there is nationwide. Second, that the DA is not capitalising on this dissent to the degree it should. Put bluntly, ANC negatives are not matched by DA positives. The leading opposition party needs to improve its appeal to black people who are fed up with the ANC. The persistent ANC campaign of portraying the DA as a predominantly white party intent on preserving white privileges is still having an effect.
In her six years as party leader Helen Zille has done much to offset this image, but it still lingers. Black voters may be increasingly fed up with the ANC, but for many the thought of voting for the DA still smacks of ethnic disloyalty.
What is needed to break down this artificial barrier to free democratic politics based on issues rather than race and colour is greater unity of the opposition forces. Had the DA and Khotsu Ratikoane combined their forces along with two other minor opposition parties that contested the by-election, they would have come within 11 votes of winning that Tlokwe seat last Wednesday.
The smart thing for the DA to do come September 18 is to stand back and let those seven independents challenge the ANC on their own, for they are all surely potential future coalition partners in the coming transition to full democratic politics.
* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.