Rand Daily Mail

‘It is sad but not entirely surprising for a party such as the ANC to lose its moral compass. What is puzzling is how the ANC is failing to act in its own self-interest’

13 April 2017 – 12:00 PM
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

  President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

And so the great interregnum drags on. The marchers have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers for post-democratic South Africa. Political parties as diverse as the DA and the EFF have set aside their differences to unite in their demand that President Jacob Zuma resign.

The ANC’s national working committee has met and, met lang tande, stood by Zuma. There is the possibility that this is not the end of the matter within the ANC. It’s more powerful national executive committee is still to meet.

But the signs are not good. The top leaders have reneged on their criticism of Zuma and it is hard to see how another ANC structure will find its voice.

All that remains is the parliamentary vote of no-confidence which may or may not – depending on how the Constitutional Court decides the matter – take place by secret ballot.

It is sad but not entirely surprising for a party such as the ANC to lose its moral compass. The flow of power and money will smooth the roughest rock.

What is puzzling is how the ANC is failing to act in its own self-interest.

It has been clear for some time that its electoral fortunes are being severely damaged by Zuma. The local government elections cost the ANC a large slice of its urban support, several metros and, perhaps most significantly, its momentum.

A shark, they say, must swim forward to breathe.

It goes without saying that such losses of power cost vast swathes of ANC loyalists their incomes, whether these be earned through a government salary or through what may be accumulated as a result of an office and nameplate.

In a modern democratic political system, naked self-interest dictates that such mistakes must be rapidly corrected. MPs who face losing their seats and bureaucrats who face losing their jobs and influence can be relied on to act ruthlessly against those who threaten their hold on office.

But the ANC is no modern political party. It made a choice in the 1990s to ignore the obvious pressure to modernise in favour of continuing as a ‘liberation movement’.

When you have a healthy two-thirds majority in parliament and run all the major metros – as the ANC did at that point – why change?

After all, being a liberation movement and not a modern political party allows you to place the unelectable in leadership positions and to maintain the unwritten rule that no member may speak out against another.

Freed of internal criticism, this system allows the leadership to devote their energy to entrenching themselves in the party and, in many cases, to get on with the real business of the day – making deals and making money.

But there is now an obvious answer to the question: Why change? It is simply this: Because it will not always be so.

While the ANC meandered on as a liberation movement, its opponents were modernising at a rapid pace. The DA’s transformation from a party of the white elite to one with a majority black membership and, at the very top, black leadership, is one of the most astonishing political reinventions of modern times.

When a modern political party’s interests are threatened, it acts ruthlessly. Even the DA’s former leader, the person who holds its highest government office and the mainspring of this transformation, Helen Zille, is not spared. The DA leadership is acting against her comments on colonialism for one simple reason: She has done the unthinkable and threatened their electability.

The EFF, although claiming the mantel of ‘liberation movement’, is also a dynamic, adaptable, modern organisation. It is able to set aside its vast ideological differences with the DA and join hands in a march against Zuma for two very simple reasons: This increases its electability and it improves the prospects of a post-electoral coalition which may bring it to power in Gauteng and, who knows, perhaps even nationally.

The EFF knows that projecting nonracialism is a winning cornerstone on which to build electoral success. No South African party has successfully built a following based on ethnic nationalism in the post-apartheid era.

One of the largest surprises of the 1994 election was the absolute rejection of the PAC, which earned a handful of seats in parliament. This trend has, if anything, gathered steam. As of the last election, the PAC now has only one MP.

The IFP, the Freedom Front Plus and Azapo, all of which preached ethnic nationalism in one or another form, have all failed dismally at the polls.

It is notable that even when the National Party was a fully fledged white racist oppressor under apartheid, it was the party of nonracialism – the ANC – and not the parties that offered ethnic nationalist alternatives such as the PAC, that won the hearts of most South Africans.

The ANC has always thrived by preaching nonracialism – not because this has won it white, coloured or Indian supporters, but because this is what its base has desired.

Because it has failed to modernise, the ANC is unable to read this simple political dynamic – one which it invented when it was a party of liberation – and it has begun the retreat into the loser’s corner of ethnic nationalism.

Sneering asides about stress being a ‘white man’s disease’ are costing the ANC votes. Even as Zuma went about reversing the party’s inclusiveness, the EFF’s Julius Malema was standing on Church Square urging his supporters and those of the DA to mingle with one another in a show of unity.

He wasn’t doing this to attract white voters. He was doing it to reach deep into the ANC’s constituency which wants a leadership that is inclusive.

Not only is Zuma driving the party in the direction of ethnic nationalism, but he is also pushing it to the left fringes. Again, this is a direction that has failed to stir up voters in every election since 1994. Just ask Azapo or any of the other plethora of socialist parties that have been rendered obscure by the absence of popular interest.

Ask any pollster the world over and they will tell you that elections are not about firing up your base – though this must be done – but about winning over undecided voters.

In South Africa the swing vote – the registered swing vote – sits in the middle class. The 10 million or so black South Africans who moved into the middle class under Mandela and Mbeki are finding their class position threatened by Zuma.

By choosing to write off the middle-class vote, Zuma is threatening the ANC in all major urban areas. He will cost the party Gauteng and consolidate the opposition’s hold on Cape Town, Joburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.

Add to this the issue of corruption, which the middle class experiences as exclusion from free competition for state business, and a rise in the cost of starting new enterprises, and the ANC may never claw its way back in the urban areas.

Malema is no fan of capitalism, but he knows that South African voters will never buy the wholesale uprooting of the country’s financial infrastructure in sufficient numbers to build a successful political challenge. He speaks out in favour of retaining Pravin Gordhan and against the weakening of the Treasury’s independence – both of which the ANC no longer supports.

The ANC is being rapidly outflanked and its hold on the centre is now seriously threatened by a DA-EFF coalition which projects financial responsibility and racial inclusiveness.

Unable to adapt, the ANC has few weapons left in its armoury. Perhaps it could make up for lost urban votes by mobilising the rural areas around land claims. It will find a ready audience for this not without a little irony – it is because  the ANC has singularly failed to address the land question in its 23 years of rule that this is now an issue at all. But South Africa is no Zimbabwe. In this country, the majority of voters are to be found in the urban areas.

The real danger is that the ANC will continue its retreat into ethnic nationalism allowing its most recidivist leaders to rise to leadership as more reasonable forces despair and leave to form a new party or to join others.

This is already occurring.

This new ANC was on display at Zuma’s birthday party. There was no Cyril Ramaphosa, no Gwede Mantashe, no Zweli Mkhize, no representative of the party’s Gauteng region.

Instead, Zuma was flanked by praise-singing loyalists. The level of political discourse was abysmal. Social Development Minister, Bathabile Dlamini responded to the mass marches against Zuma with the remark that ‘when you beat a dog the owner comes out.’

Bereft of intellectual ballast and surrounded by security goons incapable of faking a half-decent intelligence report, the birthday party was a frightening glimpse of what the ANC might soon be.

How would such a party behave when faced with electoral defeat? Would it suddenly draw a line and say that interference with this one independent institution is not appropriate? Very unlikely.

Election rigging can happen by omission as much as by stuffing ballot boxes.

It is already notable that the IEC has dismally failed to register young, unemployed voters and those living in informal housing, which just happen to be the constituency that Malema is mobilising. It is a notable contradiction that this constituency is very politically active but somehow unable to participate in elections in large numbers.

It is perhaps too late for the ANC to wake up to the political reality that it has allowed itself to enter by default. It is no small irony that the only thing which could force it into modernisation would be the success of the no-confidence vote against it in parliament. If this were to occur, the interregnum would give way to a great disruption.

It would have no choice but to rid itself of unelectable leader and it would have one last opportunity to win back its lost middle ground. Don’t hold your breath.