Next year, at least 23-million eligible voters in South Africa will have the dilemma of deciding whom to entrust with their vote. It will not be an easy decision, given how public trust in political leaders and government has been eroded, particularly over the past decade. Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele set out to earn some brownie points when she decided to air her financial interests, but it did not go down as well as she hoped. It is the ANC’s election campaign however that will be most interesting. Other than trumpeting the positive delivery stats, how will the ANC go out on the stump and convince people to invest their trust in them again? To paraphrase former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, they will keep promising to build bridges even where there is no river. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
According to the transcript of an interview with former president Thabo Mbeki in March this year, the Sunday Times asked him what he thought the qualities were of a good leader and good leadership. Considering this was an off the cuff response, it would appear that Mbeki must have given this issue some serious thought since leaving office.
His reply to the question was: “I think that to provide proper leadership, certainly as this relates to government, one has to have a very good understanding of one’s country and its challenges, including the global setting; work on the basis of a clear programme to address these challenges; always act on a principled basis; listen constantly to, and respect the views of the people; and conduct ones’ self within the context of a value system at whose centre must be the obligation always and only to serve the people.”
Perhaps it is hindsight that gave Mbeki this perspective as his administration was not always defined by what he himself describes as good leadership criteria. The “listen constantly to, and respect the views of the people” part certainly tripped him up. Although Mbeki’s term as president was tarnished by his Aids denialism, his “quiet diplomacy” policy on Zimbabwe and his alleged interference with the security agencies, the ANC under his leadership garnered the highest percentage of votes in all the elections: 69.7% in 2004.
The 2004 election was, however, after the government’s Aids turnaround, when it began distributing life-saving antiretroviral treatment and before Mbeki fired his then deputy Jacob Zuma, which made him unpopular in the party. The 2004 election was the first time South Africans were voting for a second term president, and even though only 56% of eligible voters took part in the election, the results were an overwhelming vote of confidence in the ANC leadership.
When Zuma became president in 2009, it was through 65.9% in the national ballot – 11,650,748 votes out of the 17,680,729 votes cast. The number of seats occupied by the ANC in the National Assembly dropped by 33, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) increasing its tally by 20 and the then new party, the Congress of the People (Cope) securing 30 seats. Cope did remarkably well for a new party formed as a breakaway from the ANC just a few months before the election. It secured 7.66% of the vote.
In 2014, Zuma will top the ANC ticket for a second term of presidency under very different circumstances. The electorate is able to gauge the ANC’s election promises against five years of Zuma administration. The post-Mangaung ANC is also quite different from the post-Polokwane ANC, with factional divides causing the sidelining of disaffected groups, such as in the former ANC Youth League, Limpopo, North West and Free State structures.
There is also former Youth League leader Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters to contend with, which is targeting the poor, youth and disgruntled communities. Depending on what happens in Cosatu, with its suspended general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, the ANC might not be able to count on the unequivocal support of the entire federation as it did in previous elections.
But the biggest challenge for the ANC in its election campaign will be how it navigates the crises that have plagued the Zuma administration, causing disillusionment and the breakdown of trust in his leadership. Zuma has faced attempts by the DA and seven other opposition parties to table a motion of no confidence in his leadership, but the ANC’s majority in Parliament blocked the matter from proceeding. However, on the election stump, every political party challenging the ANC will be making the very same arguments they intended to make in Parliament about why Zuma could no longer be trusted to lead.
These include the Marikana killings, the R206-million upgrade to Zuma’s Nkandla home at taxpayer’s expense, the non-delivery of textbooks to schools in Limpopo, the successive downgrades in South Africa’s credit rating, rising unemployment, corruption and what was termed by the opposition as “mounting disrespect for our Constitution and judiciary”. A year after the Marikana massacre, there are no answers as to why police fired live ammunition as the mineworkers. There has also been a grand cover-up of the Nkandla renovations, with the minister of public works arbitrarily declaring the government investigation report top secret. And no action was taken against whoever was responsible for textbooks not being delivered to Limpopo schools in 2012.
Since the opposition parties attempted to table the motion of no confidence in November 2012, there have been other issues that have eroded trust in the Zuma presidency further.
Fifteen South African soldiers were killed after they were caught in combat in the Central African Republic (CAR) as a result of a questionable deployment of troops to that country. After the soldiers’ deaths, government battled to explain the circumstances in which they were killed and why they were there in the first place. The Sunday Times has now revealed that there were secret talks between Zuma and the ousted CAR president Francois Bozize around the troop deployment. However, the truth about what exactly happened might never be revealed publicly.
In May, the president and his government was drawn into a new controversy after a plane from India carrying guests of the Gupta family landed at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria. In the days that followed it emerged that the landing was illegal and that others state facilities and personnel were abused to allow special privileges for Guptas and guests attending an extravagant wedding at Sun City. A government investigation also revealed that Zuma’s name, under the alias “Number One”, was used to circumvent normal procedures and allow the plane to land at airbase. This was due to his special relationship (the nature of which is undisclosed) with the Gupta family.
Among the other controversies plaguing Zuma’s presidency is the issue of the “spy tapes”. They were accepted as evidence by the National Prosecuting Authority that the corruption case against him had been compromised by a political agenda. As a result of transcripts of some of the recorded conversations alleged to be on the tapes, the then national director of public prosecutions Mokotedi Mpshe decided to squash the Zuma prosecution, just a few weeks before the 2009 election. While few people questioned the decision at the time, the refusal by the NPA and Zuma’s legal team to hand over the evidence to the DA has resulted in growing public doubt in the existence of the tapes.
During all these scandals, Zuma has done little to build trust in his presidency and reassure the public that he is in firm control of the country. His leadership style is to deflect responsibility to others and to dodge answering sticky questions. The opposition is by now well aware of Zuma’s weaknesses and the DA in particular know how to press his buttons by continuously asking questions that he refuses to answer. And every time Zuma ducks an issue, it further erodes public trust.
The decision by Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele to disclose her financial interests publicly was aimed at showing up Zuma further. In her media briefing to disclose her net worth of R55-million, Ramphele called on Zuma to do the same in the interests of transparency. Zuma ignored the call, while the ANC stepped in to pummel Ramphele, accusing her of flaunting her personal wealth. The move might have also backfired for Ramphele. Instead of building public trust, it exposed the hypocrisy of her party now opposing black economic empowerment, after she reaped benefits from it. The Sunday Independent also revealed this week that Ramphele’s wealth was estimated by Forbes magazine to be about 10 times what she claimed it to be.
There is no party that will contest the 2014 election without having to confront the factor of diminished public trust in politics. Each party has its own baggage and this might define how they structure their election campaigns. The DA, for example, embarked on the “Know your DA” campaign a few months ago to deal with perceptions that it is a party that still protects white privilege and either collaborated or did not do much to fight Apartheid.
The greatest challenge for parties will be to get voters to the polls. The disillusionment with politics, corruption scandals and the performance of public representatives could lead to a larger stay away from the polls or negative voting. While race and old loyalties might still define voting patterns, protest action and the level of disenchantment across races and classes in society might change the odds in the 2014 election.
The year 2014 could be the first elections where it is no longer whom people trust the most, but whom they distrust the least. And there could lie a massive threat to Zuma and the ANC: the election that would measure the remaining pool of goodwill against the rising level of annoyance with the liberation movement is a scenario that could fast start eroding previously unquestioned inevitability of the ANC’s win and their continuous rule until the second coming of Jesus.
But even that might not be so easy to decipher. Hopefully, in eight months, it will be. DM
Photos by Reuters.
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