ANC’s puzzling winning streak
Apart from death and taxes – and the Western Cape – there are few things in life as certain as the outcome of an election with the ANC on the ballot paper. Last week’s local government elections again upended most of the contrary speculation that had preceded it.
The ANC’s 63.5 percent of votes was close to the 66 percent it netted in the 2006 local government election and in the 2009 national and provincial polls.
In the spotlight again is the question: how does a political party that presides over one of the most unequal societies in the world, where one third of workers are jobless and close to half the citizens live in poverty, triumph so emphatically in election after election?
It’s at local government level that citizens’ woes and discontent seem most easily translatable into protest votes aimed, at a minimum, to “send a message”.
Dozens of community protests every month attest to widespread disgruntlement at the performance of the state, and at the indifferent conduct of many local politicians and officials. When polled late last year, only 38 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their local government – down from 55 percent six years earlier.
Slightly more than a quarter of those polled in a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council for the Independent Electoral Commission and released in March said they trusted politicians.
Yet, consider Mpumalanga, a province periodically convulsed with community protests.
On Wednesday, 78 percent of voters picked ANC candidates and more than 500 000 more voters turned out for the party than in 2006. (This year the ANC got 2.218 million votes, up from 1.687 million in 2006)
Part of the answer is that things have changed since 1994 – but not in ways that are seen to be quick, fair or democratic enough.
This peeves and angers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean rejection.
Access to schooling and health care, and provision of water, sanitation and electricity have broadened, for example, even though many households struggle (and fail) to afford those services. A smaller proportion of South Africans now goes hungry compared with 15 years ago.
South Africa’s social protection system now benefits some 14 million people; a large proportion of low-income households would probably be unviable without these grants and pensions.
The decreasing number of voters turning up at the polls used to provide another part of an answer.
After 1994, the percentage of voting-age persons who cast votes in national elections fell steeply. The percentage of eligible voters who voted for the ANC shrank from 54 percent in 1994 to 39 percent in 2004, after which the decline in voter turnout reversed slightly.
And last week, it did so again. Voter turnout rose from 48.4 percent in 2006 to 57.5 percent, and a million of them were voters who had not been registered in 2006. So apathy doesn’t settle the question.
The typical explanation is that voters lack a credible alternative – which merely underscores the original question.
In fact, compared with 2006, the ANC actually netted more votes in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape.
The fanfare surrounding the DA’s gains ignores the fact that they occurred mainly in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Elsewhere it made marginal inroads.
The “no alternative” argument neglects the complex bonds that exist between the ANC and its supporters. Those relationships are not binary (on/off, for/against); they are shaded, they shift over time, and they can lead to “contradictory” actions.
In one respect, the ANC’s electoral supremacy is an index of its knack at preserving its stature and appeal, even in inauspicious circumstances. It does this primarily by positioning itself credibly within a narrative of struggle, liberation and deliverance, a narrative that spans generations.
Supporters know the ANC in several incarnations.
One is that of an abstraction, where the ANC represents a repository of ideals, values, and a distillation of a history of struggle.
This is embodied in an organisational entity, and it is entrusted to the custodianship of its leaders and officials. Think of it as the “metaphysical” dimension of the ANC.
The mystical overtones are obvious, with secular structures and activities operating in service of virtually “sacred” ideals.
It is in this sense that the ANC is seen to transcend the individuals that constitute it. A community protest does not automatically imply condemnation of the “metaphysical” entity – the idea of the ANC – or even of its leaders.
Rather, it can be an appeal for intervention to uphold those values and ideals and to call to order individuals and structures that are seen to be desecrating the organisation and its history.
When President Jacob Zuma told supporters in Cape Town in 2008 that the ANC would rule until “Jesus comes back” he was not only hyperbolising; he was tapping into the mystique of an organisation that is invested with millenarian duties.
Often a central demand of protesters is for the president to meet a community and hear its grievances first-hand.
The assumption is that the ANC leadership, once alerted to the facts, will call the transgressors to book and act promptly and fairly. Paradoxically, a protest can also be a backhanded vote of confidence in the organisation – as long as it takes up the grievances, and acts to resolve them.
It is in this respect that the ANC has become increasingly vulnerable. Its capacity to serve the public with consistency and to address the causes of discontent – even its inclination to do so – is taking severe strain. And this is highlighting the increasing dissonance between the “idea” of the ANC and its secular reality.
The election outcome presents the ANC with little more than temporary respite. Disgruntlement and community protests will continue, and the party’s authority will be tested, not least by its own supporters.
These are not teething problems. They are anchored in deeper economic and social crises that date back to the 1970s, and which the ANC government has not yet been able to resolve. It has worked to improve the lives of the black majority, yet close to half the population lives in poverty; jobs are scarce, the country is more unequal than ever, and insecurity is rife.
These realities will keep generating insubordination and eventually will spark instability. With the scope for material change seemingly cramped, other ways of bolstering authority and building consent have to be found.
One tried and trusted way of defusing uproar is to affirm and valorise bonds that can muffle discord, or channel it in diversionary, more manageable directions.
Exclusionary interpretations of belonging, entitlement and rights might soon prove to be politically rewarding – even, or perhaps especially, in a society that was split asunder by apartheid.
There is a real danger of a recourse to rousing affirmations of identity and entitlement, and to populist discourses of authenticity – who is a “real” South African, who is a “real” African, who is black, what is a man, and where women fit into all this.
These manoeuvres might be accompanied by ever more “narrow and exacting” interpretations of culture and tradition. Antipathy toward the “alien luxuries”of liberal constitutionalism might gain support; indeed, heartfelt misgivings about “hollow rights” and a “paper constitution” already circulate.
Left unchallenged, this might well develop into a form of populist nationalism. Some in the ANC seem willing to risk such an experiment, in which social conservatism can be combined with licence for acquisitiveness and immoderation, with targeted largesse serving as a lubricant. Some recognise in the Julius Malema spectacle the prototype of such a “project”.
The outcomes are difficult to predict. No doubt such moves will be hotly contested, from both inside and outside the ANC. But it would be foolish to assume a progressive outcome.
Too many coarse tendencies and brazen interests now rub shoulders with power.
n Writer and political analyst Hein Marais is the author of the new book South Africa Pushed To the Limit: The Political Economy of Change (UCT Press and Zed Books).