South Africa

South Africa

Election 2014: The ANC/DA’s high-stakes pendulum

There was no official start to election season, but campaigning is already in full swing. In a few weeks, there will be advertisements, billboards, posters, pamphlets and spam messages in your inboxes, all attempting to penetrate your conscience and influence your perception. There will, of course, be a lot of bluster from political leaders, doing their best to discredit other parties and making the case as to why you should vote for them. There will be plenty of election promises about what they will be doing for you – most of which falls through the cracks after the election. But what do the two major parties, the ANC and the DA, need to achieve? And why? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

If politicians had to write election wish lists, what would they say? Of course they all want people to vote for them and not to be humiliated with negligible numbers buying what they were selling.

There is a range of new and existing small political parties hoping to win a significant number of votes to guarantee them seats in Parliament. When the votes start rolling in, there will, of course, be interest in how parties such as Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters and Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang fare, and whether the Congress of the People and Inkatha Freedom Party will be able to hold on to their positions as the third and fourth biggest parties in Parliament.

But the focus of attention on the big boards at the Independent Electoral Commission’s headquarters will be on the tallies next to the African National Congress (ANC) and Democratic Alliance (DA). The ANC and DA are likely to remain at the top of the political food chain but the number of votes they get will determine how South Africa is governed for the next five years.

President Jacob Zuma revealed recently that he wants a two-thirds majority – apparently to change some unspecified legislation. This was the president being ambitious and possibly teasing his detractors, as the ANC leadership is quite aware that the 2014 elections will be the party’s biggest challenge since acquiring power.

The ANC is currently holding forums across the country to draw from its constituency what should be in its election manifesto. The ANC’s narrative in this election is that South Africa is a vastly different place from what it was 20 years ago. It wants the electorate to gauge the party’s performance since it took power in 1994, rather than just the past term under the Zuma presidency.

The Zuma administration is a pretty hard sell on its own, even though the ANC is asking for a second term for the president. The administration has been plagued by a number of scandals, such as the exorbitant expenditure on renovations at the president’s private home at Nkandla, the Guptagate saga, the death of soldiers in the Central African Republic, the non-delivery of textbooks to schools in Limpopo and its biggest shame, the Marikana massacre.

Add to this is the poor performance of the economy, the inability of government to bring down unemployment figures, service delivery failures which have led to violent protests and policy uncertainty, and it is all an inflammable cocktail that will constantly be thrown in its face. What makes things worse is that the ANC did little to fire-fight these problems while they were in progress, and either downplayed the crises or left it to government to deal with. The obvious problem now is that it cannot very well claim all the successes of government and wish away the series of disasters.

So the plan is to measure performance from 1994 to 2014 – how South Africa has changed in this time and how equal rights and a democratic government has serviced areas and people previously disregarded by the Apartheid state.

This is, of course, a two-sided coin.

The past 20 years have seen dramatic changes across the country with the construction of housing developments, schools, roads, clinics and industrial areas, as well as the delivery of water, electricity and sanitation in areas deprived of these services during Apartheid. On the other hand, the shortage of jobs, poverty, HIV and Aids, crime, delivery backlogs and poor functioning municipalities have had devastating consequences in communities.

The infestation of corruption, particularly involving the ANC’s elected representatives, has also led to extremely negative perceptions of the party. The party has also been plagued by infighting and factionalism, which have caused splintering at all levels.

But the ANC believes that traditional loyalties and its delivery track record will outweigh negative perceptions, and that even those who strayed away and have been critical will find difficulty vesting their vote with another party. It is why the party is still pitching to acquire a national percentage in the mid 60s (it won 65.9% in 2009), and believes the Democratic Alliance (DA) is being rather ambitious by aiming to take control of the Gauteng province.

Election statistics are obviously dependent on the percentage turnout and profile of voting areas. But the ANC leadership, particularly Zuma and his allies, are determined to prove their detractors wrong by maintaining electoral dominance in excess of 60% of the vote. A poll in the mid 50s will be psychologically troubling as it means large portions of its constituency are turning away from it. The ANC leadership is determined to show that its popularity has not been dented by the Zuma administration’s bad run, and that negative sentiment is being played up by the media and opposition parties.

The DA’s major ambition for 2014 is to win 30% of the national ballot and control of Gauteng. It obviously wants to maintain control of the Western Cape, and it seems as if it will have little trouble doing so as ANC structures have weakened substantially in that province over the last five years.

The DA is currently running two parallel campaigns with separate messaging. Its national campaign is to present itself as a full colour dream team which will be a credible alternative to the ANC government, based on a strong track record of delivery in areas where they govern and uncompromising approach to corruption. The party is, however, having trouble shedding its image as a white party with a few token black leaders, and has therefore tried to trace its struggle credentials through the “Know your DA” campaign.

The DA is throwing resources at combing through township and rural areas across the country to widen its reach beyond the middle class. It is trying to tap into disenchantment with poor service delivery, unemployment and corruption in ANC strongholds by presenting itself as a party with clean hands and fresh ideas. But while the DA’s roadshow appears to be a high-budget campaign drawing large numbers of people, it is difficult to tell whether the support is real and sustainable. People might show interest in their messages now but change their minds later to parties they can more easily identify with.

In Gauteng, the DA’s premier candidate, Mmusi Maimane, is running a high-visibility, American-style campaign to sell himself as the man to run the province. Maimane, who is also the party’s national spokesman, has his own branding and slogan, Believe GP, and is touring Gauteng townships pretty much on his own to build his profile. The go-ahead for e-tolls has fallen into Maimane’s lap as a big campaign issue, as he has pledged to get rid of the user-pay system on Gauteng freeways should he be elected premier.

On the face of it, it looks like Maimane is making headway, building support and becoming a recognisable political personality. Again though, it remains to be seen if the new constituencies he appears to be winning over will in fact vote for the DA when they see Helen Zille and not Maimane’s face on the ballot paper. And if Maimane is building support for himself, it could also result in people splitting their national and provincial votes.

The big problem for the DA in both these campaigns is that there is a danger of alienating its traditional base. The DA is taking for granted that its core supporters will stick with it, even as chasing new voters is the priority. However, white voters and sections of the middle class, which previously voted DA, might switch support to Ramphele, who has pretty much the same ideological positioning and outlook as the DA. Ramphele is untested in Parliament and some people might feel that she deserves a chance to prove herself.

In order for the DA to meet its target to take over government in 2019, it has to win control of at least one other province the Western Cape next year and dramatically shoot up its percentage ballot from the 16.6% it won in 2009. The 30% psychological barrier is a big ask, especially with the proliferation of new parties in the playing field.

The DA will be looking to form coalitions and election pacts with other opposition parties if they want to break the ANC’s dominance in the eight provinces the ruling party now governs. The DA has effectively co-operated with smaller opposition parties in Parliament to fight the ANC on major debates and legislation. It will be able to do that more effectively if they start to look like a viable government-in-waiting five years on.

The possibility of the party of liberation losing power to a former white party still seems highly unlikely, but if President Zuma’s second term in office is anything like his first, the idea might not be as far fetched.

Both the ANC and the DA have a lot riding on this election and a war of perception will be as much at play as the actual voting numbers. Seven months or so before the election, South Africa remains in flux.

The ANC/DA percentage pendulum will in all likelihood swing many more times. With so much upheaval in the country and so many disillusioned and disenchanted people, it is not impossible that more outrageous wastage of taxpayers money and leadership failures could still be uncovered and affect voting patterns; it is almost certain that the new ANC-related scandals will headline media outlets in the run up to the elections. Add a few dark horses to the race (Malema, Ramphele) and it becomes virtually impossible to predict where this pendulum is going to end. But what a swing ride it is going to be! DM

Photo: Jacob Zuma/Helen Zille (Reuters)