By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Change or we will punish you
Local elections this week (3 August), apart from being a test of President Jacob Zuma’s and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s popularity, could also be a turning point in South African politics. Polls suggest the Democratic Alliance (DA) – the official opposition party – may win key municipalities: Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay. In any case, there are indications the ANC may need to find coalition partners in some, as it may not be able to secure enough votes to remain in charge. In other instances, it is the DA that would need the support of other parties. Even so, DA’s likely triumph would be a victory for liberalism: the ANC would not need to shift all too much to the left. DA gains would be a positive on other fronts. It would be the clearest warning yet to the ANC from the electorate: clean up your act. Furthermore, it would signal a welcome departure – albeit likely still meek – from racial politics.
Even as Mr Zuma is decried by the comfortable bourgeoisie in cities, he remains a popular politician among the common folk. So, elitist and middle-class city dwellers may harp on all the wrongs committed by Mr Zuma, his victories – he survived an impeachment vote and got off many corruption scandals quite leniently – pyrrhic though they might be, are a source of inspiration for black South Africans with similarly poor backgrounds: mostly older, little educated (if at all), live in the hinterlands, and are extremely loyal to the ANC. Still, even these staunch supporters know the ANC is failing them: services are poor, jobs are scarce, and opportunities are sparse.
But would Mr Zuma be bothered? If it is the vantage Mr Zuma that we have come to know, he will probably just shrug it off. In any case, the ANC would likely still win the general election in 2019, albeit probably not as popularly hitherto. Because even as the DA likely makes gains in the cities, it is doubtful it would be able to make similar progress in villages and homesteads far and wide – it can’t easily shake off the perception that it is a ‘white’ party. For now.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the ultra-leftist offshoot of the ANC, is better placed to win the support of rural dwellers. But it is inexperienced: only has seats in parliament. Council seats it is able to secure in these local elections, its first, would provide it the opportunity to demonstrate it can deliver where the ANC has failed: improve service delivery, create jobs, and provide more housing.
Nonetheless, the ANC has the higher ground. And its support is the most wide-ranging, and would likely remain so for a while. Thus, a potential rebuke of the ANC at the polls this week, would not be so much a rebuff of the ANC, as it would be a cry for change. A call for a reformed ANC.
Time for ANC reformers to assert themselves
Reformist elements within the ANC need to assert themselves much more forcefully, not just in the back-rooms. First, get Mr Zuma out. Second, insist that Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president and Mr Zuma’s likely successor, take a deputy from the younger cadres. Third, reassess the utility of the tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). That with COSATU especially: unless organized labour gives way on the minimum wage – which is relatively high – and supports policies that engender labour-intensive industries, unemployment will continue to rise; the rate of which is about 27 percent currently. A 2014 paper by the renowned African political economy scholar, Robert Rotberg, partly blaims COSATU’s ‘labour aristocracy approach,’ for ‘the failure to create myriad jobs.’ ANC’s acquiescence with COSATU’s stance, even as the labour market dysfunction is writ large, is defeatist and has to change. Only visionary leadership, of that ilk by the old man now gone, would be able to bring this about.
Youth and vigour perhaps?
The demographics of registered voters suggest there is a gap that a coalition of opposition parties (or a new centrist party drawing its membership from reformist elements in the ANC, DA, and others) could fill. About a quarter of registered voters are aged between 18 and 29: so-called post-apartheid ‘born-frees,’ oldest of whom are now 22 years old, fall under this group. Together with those aged 30-39, this cohort is about half of the voters’ roll. They do not share the loyalty of older South Africans to the ANC. They simply want jobs. The EFF has been quick to target them. Quite surprisingly, it has not enjoyed the type of wide appeal amongst them that you would intuitively expect, judging from its showing in polls thus far. And even as DA optics are ‘youthful,’ the perception that it remains a ‘white party’ is one that still resonates with the cohort. So, the ANC would probably be able to retain its numbers among their ranks, albeit increasingly less so. That is, those who still choose to participate in the political process. For there are many quite disillusioned. And signs of unrest are emerging: apart from sometimes violent protests against unpopular party choices, there have been at least a dozen politically-motivated killings of ANC members this year, mostly relatively young cadres. Some erstwhile ANC members – not necessarily young – are choosing to contest these local elections as independent candidates. Another group of rebels formed its own political party, the ‘Forum for Service Delivery’ in Rustenburg (a platinum mining city in the North West province), just so it could contest. To keep the youth (and indeed other cadres) in the fold, a reformed ANC may need to purge its upper echelons of older (and veteran) members. Better still, it should make candidates’ selection more democratic. Otherwise, it could have more rebellions on its hands.
Also published in my Business Day Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://businessdayonline.com/what-should-a-chastened-anc-do/