Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Tradional Affairs Andries Nel, ANC national treasurer Zweli Mkhize and EFF Gauteng premier candidate Dali Mpofu share a light moment on the floor of the IEC results operations centre. Picture: Masi Losi

The people have chosen and they may have left the ANC and the DA disillusioned, sending them back to their drawing boards, writes Susan Booysen.

Johannesburg - For a few days this week politics as usual came to a standstill. It was the time of election 2014. The humbling or anointment of political parties and their leaders was under way. The verdict came.

Election 2014 told the story of a flawed and fluctuating, yet vibrant, 20-year-old multiparty democracy.

It is the tale of an unequal contest between political parties. The ANC’s incumbency and abundant resources would be practically inconquerable to opposition parties. Voters gave the ANC a categorical mandate to continue, yet revealed mutable attitudes and shrunken space for ANC contempt of citizens.

Voters affirmed the Economic Freedom Fighters’ landing in the minefield of party politics. They saw a party that might rise above the constraining conventions and numbing procedures of formal politics. They commanded the modestly growing DA back to the drawing board to redesign its strategised breakthrough into ANC territory. They cut a bunch of aspiring and failing micro parties to size.

The main plot of Election 2014 was the second successive dip in the ANC’s support, a dent that helped launch the EFF. It combined with the four percentage point lower turnout rate to signal that many voters believe the vote fails to make a difference, or that no party deserves it; these are profound democratic choices in their own right.

The trends highlight South Africa’s brand of multipartyism, hosting a three-in-one race.

First, the continuously dominant ANC – by a margin of roughly 40 percentage points over its closest rival – was in a race against itself, fending off its own demons.

Second, multipartyism RSA presents the handicap sprint to the crown of “predominant opposition party”. The DA over time has contended against the likes of the now spectacularly imploding Cope and the United Democratic Movement (UDM). The UDM is hanging in there. On Wednesday the EFF landed on this platform.

Third, there is the congested tier of minor political parties – 29 were on the national ballot, close to two-thirds failed to win a seat, losing both egos and hefty deposits. The fact that only the ANC leg of the former broad liberation movement of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Azanian People’s Organisation remains in Parliament is historically significant. The PAC and APC did manage to sneak into Parliament – both below the subminimum of 0.25 percent of the national vote, and on the basis of the allocations that are done on the residual vote.

The altered face of party politics also revealed itself in the exit, at this third tier, of the remnants of pre-1994 party politics of the ill-fated Bantustans and “Tricameral” politics. Amichand Rajbansi’s Minority Front failed, as did Lucas Mangope’s United Christian Democratic Party. The IFP, historically straddling the apartheid puppet-liberation movement divide, remains in. It now shares the former IFP vote with the second first-time parliamentary entrant, the IFP split-off National Freedom Party. Voters slighted AgangSA’s promise to rescue South Africa from itself.

Party politics is a cruel game.

Slipping percentages brought the evidence of change at the first tier of party politics, where the ANC sailed through after a massive campaign to curtail damage. Election 2014 showed how the ANC slipped from 70 (2004) to 66 (2009) to 63 percent (2014). It is a relentless decline, yet does not signal collapse.

It was a tough campaign for the ANC, conceded among others by the ANC’s Nomvula Mokhonyane this week. The ANC veered from its 100-year celebration in Mangaung into campaigning, starting in January last year. It had that “good story”… but discovered that voters (across classes, and not just the middle classes, as the ANC prefers to argue) wanted to talk Nkandla.

People are living the high levels of transformation and delivery. The ANC result was in large measure a reward for this. But its leading candidate, the face of the party, had to be protected, not promoted.

The fact that the ANC’s slippage was confined to three percentage points was a miracle of sorts. Misgivings about the fusion of state and party ruled. The state’s celebration of 20 years of democracy matched the “good story” perfectly. The ingredients of this union have been well-mixed. They are inseparable from the ANC’s victory, both in legal and questionable dimensions.

The lesson the ANC says it has learnt from election 2014, as shared with me this week, is that it needs to remain connected with its people. Leading ANC lights say they discovered this lesson in the course of campaigning, one of those rare occasions when ANC big-shot politicians step out of their elite enclosures to engage with its people.

Better late than never for the party whose president came into power in 2007 in Polokwane and via Election 2009 on the wings of the promise of reconnection with the people, after, as it argued, the alienating period of the aloof Mbeki presidency. The ANC’s 2014 achievement came despite its followers’ worries about the party-movement’s leadership ethics.

The ANC’s three percentage point dip is more than sufficient reason to send the ANC into rethink mode, but it remains debatable how seriously ANC leadership will interpret its 2014 decline. Continued subterfuge on Nkandla, as a demonstration of tolerance of elite avoidance of responsibility, will indicate that no volte-face is pending. Top ANC incumbents seem to believe that they received a mandate to manage the party, as in the past years, in the leaders’ own best interests.

In this spirit of being “internally democratic and consultative”, the slates for replacement of Jacob Zuma (and Cyril Ramaphosa) come the ANC’s 2017 national elective conference run thick and fast: the power brokers within are having none of those (over-rated, their actions proclaim) newly discovered wisdoms of being connected to and consulting its people. This slate, confirming a predestined line of succession, is ready for its coat of varnish.

The ANC’s inner circles will decide the who and what of the next generation of leaders. In this context democracy means “close your eyes and trust your leaders”.

The DA faces comparable questions. How much could their supporters trust a pack of leaders that had proclaimed that both Gauteng and the Northern Cape were within the party’s reach? The ANC is more fragile in Gauteng, but the DA (despite growth) fell spectacularly short of being in a position to lead a majority coalition of opposition parties into provincial takeover.

The DA similarly lost sight of political realities in the Northern Cape. The ANC came close to a two-thirds majority. The voters endorsed an ANC leadership that is set to escape, à la Zuma April 2009, a thick dossier of corruption and maladministration charges.

Is this evidence of an ANC on the verge of rethinking its mandate? The electorate better trust the DA as a public voice between elections, rather than with government power.

Could the EFF newcomer, contradictorily as it may seem, redeem multiparty democracy? More than a million national-level voters entrusted the EFF with their vote. Many of them are voters who would otherwise have gone to the ANC, had they been willing to vote. The DA had hoped that the discontented would find their home in the DA.

The EFF’s mandate has several trigger points. The EFF is a proven voice against the dark side of the use of power in the dominant party.

The EFF is unlikely to be subdued by the protocols and procedures that commonly dull parliamentary contest. EFFers won’t hesitate to supplement Parliament with authentic protest. The party will speak the truth to power. Its policies magnify government failures. It guarantees citizens a rebellion against the ANC government’s arrogance in power, such as embodied in the unapologised-for Marikana carnage.

The EFF may have done multipartyism a favour by bringing discontented voices into the system of Parliament and provincial legislatures. It will nevertheless need all of its might to resist being sucked into stultifying procedures and killer committees. It will need to demonstrate the internal discipline not go down the Cope drain. It knows the vindictive side of the ANC well, but will it be able to counter infiltration and organisational sabotage?

This brief recount of election 2014 trends shows the outlines of a potentially reconfigured party political landscape. The voters have spoken, within the confines of endorsing a continuously dominant ANC. The pressure is on the ANC. It is pushed to reinvent itself.

Yet, the signals are that the ANC will reinvent, at best, on its terms, not on new terms that the electorate issued through its support for new parties. This is exactly the soil in which new opposition parties can grow, provided the ANC does not use its power and skill to manoeuvre opposition parties into oblivion.

* Susan Booysen is professor at the Wits School of Governance and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power

** The views expressed here not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent