South Africa

South Africa

Election 2014: South Africa’s first big issue poll

Election 2014: South Africa’s first big issue poll

It is difficult to believe that over an average weekend in November, over 2.5 million South Africans participated in a single activity without much fuss. South Africa’s electoral system is now grown up and remains amongst the most credible on the continent. The success of the two-day voter registration weekend shows that there is significant public interest in next year’s elections and predictions that South Africa’s fifth democratic elections will be the most highly contested so far are on point. This could also be the first election about real issues instead of just race and party loyalty. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Exactly a year ago this week, eight opposition parties led by the Democratic Alliance (DA) tabled a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma in the National Assembly. Among the reasons the parties gave for wanting to vote Zuma out of office were the Marikana massacre; the Nkandla scandal; government’s failure to deliver textbooks to school children in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape; the downgrading of South Africa’s credit rating by two major rating agencies; a “mounting disrespect” for the country’s Constitution and judiciary; the growing number of unemployed; and, a “rising tide” of corruption in the public service.

The motion of no confidence had no chance of succeeding if put to a vote but was timed ahead of the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung. Opposition parties wanted to tap into factional battles in the ruling party in the hope that some ANC MPs would side with them in a vote against the president. They also hoped that by highlighting the failings of the Zuma administration, they could influence sentiment against the president in the ANC, which would prevent his re-election for a second term as the party president.

The ploy failed miserably. Zuma was re-elected with an overwhelming majority and the motion got bogged down in parliamentary scheduling and an ensuing legal battle.

Despite this being a political manoeuvre, albeit a trifling one, to have a sitting president ousted, there was not much public alarm or interest in the affair. The issues the opposition parties were basing the motion of no confidence on are generally the issues that made people angry and unhappy last year. But despite their best efforts to drum up public emotion to turn sentiment against Zuma, the episode came and went, and life in South Africa went on as usual.

A year later, South Africa’s voting population is paying attention to democratic processes which they know has a real bearing on the future of the country.

Despite concerns about voter apathy and people disengaging due to despondency over government delivery backlogs and corruption, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) announced on Tuesday that over 2.5 million people visited registration stations across the country over the weekend. Of these, 1.088,015 million (43.3%) were new voters registering for the first time. The other 1.4 million people visited the stations to either confirm or change their registration.

All these people took the initiative to participate in the electoral system even before election season has begun in full swing. The voters’ roll now stands at over 25.6 million registered people, representing 77% of eligible voters.

Although over 80% of all new registrations were young people, the IEC is still concerned about the low percentage of 18-19 year olds who are registered – only 22.6%. This means that new generation voters born after 1994 are yet to get excited about the prospect of voting for the first time.

South Africa’s elections have up to now been very much about race and party loyalty. Voting patterns up to now have not been defined on issues and South Africa might still have a long way to go before parties are elected and held to account based on their election promises.

The 1994 and 1999 elections were during the honeymoon period of South Africa’s democratic transition and most voters were romantic about the ANC. The 2004 election however was quite a different scenario. The government under former President Thabo Mbeki had a bad run with negative perceptions over the handling of the Aids crisis, crime and Zimbabwe. There were also serious tensions between state agencies and camp warfare within the ANC was taking root. Cosatu and the SACP were shunned by the ANC leadership at the time.

Yet all of these did not affect the ANC negatively at the polls. The warring factions in the party and the alliance closed ranks and went all out on the campaign trail. The ANC’s support base also rallied. As a result, the ANC registered its highest poll at 69.69%, exceeding a two-thirds majority.

In 2009, the dynamics changed dramatically again. Mbeki was ousted, the Congress of the People (Cope) split from the ANC and Jacob Zuma rose to the top. The introduction of Cope on the political scene, which ran on an anti-Zuma ticket, also caused the party faithful in the ANC to close ranks and flex muscle. Although the ANC gained over 770,000 more votes than it did in 2004, its percentage of the total poll dropped to 65.9%.

The DA began to define itself outside its traditional base of white liberals and was therefore able to rise from 12.3% in 2004 to 16.6% in 2009. The 2009 election had very little to do with real issues and the campaigns were mainly about defending the ANC and for the DA and Cope, stopping Zuma.

While there is unlikely to be a sea change in voting patterns in 2014, it is bound to be more about issues than in the past. Violent service delivery protests and labour strikes have ramped up the pressure on the ANC government.

These might not be new phenomena and might not translate into a negative vote for the ANC. However, there is now a political organisation campaigning on the discontent with the ANC and reeling in those angry and disappointed with the government. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) also has alternate and radical policy proposals which they are projecting as the path to the promised land for the poor, the unemployed and the disenchanted. There has never been a political party which has been able to campaign effectively in this constituency, armed with populist rhetoric and big personalities with a point to prove.

The EFF ticket might be bolstered directly or indirectly by convulsions within Cosatu, particularly with its biggest union Numsa, representing metalworkers, holding a special congress to decide whether to continue supporting the ANC. Numsa and EFF have common perspectives on issues such as nationalisation, land redistribution and the economy, so if the metalworkers decide to stop supporting the ANC, Julius Malema’s party might be the next stop.

The DA is campaigning on a big anti-corruption ticket after a series of scandals in government over wasting of taxpayers’ money, patronage and abuse of power. However there is no telling yet whether issues such as the upgrade of the president’s private home at Nkandla or the Guptas landing their jet at Waterkloof Air Force base will have a mass effect on voting patterns.

While sections of the middle class and the commentariat might be consumed with such issues, it is not clear whether these scandals will cause mass deviations in voter behaviour. If ANC voters did not turn away from their party when their communities were ravaged by Aids, it is doubtful whether they will trade their loyalties over issues which are far removed from their own lives.

The DA is also vesting heavily on the issue of e-tolls in Gauteng. There is plenty of unhappiness over electronic tolling of the province’s freeways, but whether people will vote for the DA because of this is uncertain. As it is, behind the election bluster, the DA cannot stop the system even if it gains control of the province – it can only prevent more roads being tolled.

The issue that can catch fire, though, is that of policing. The South African Police Service has been drowning in controversy over the past few years. Their conduct at Marikana, in the killing of taxi driver Mido Macia and incidents of harassment, rape and robbing of civilians has led to people resenting and fearing the police. The scandals involving the police leadership, including the marauding crime intelligence division and ineptitude of National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, has covered the SAPS in shame.

Crime and policing have a direct effect on people’s lives. It may not be just yet but can become a major election issue. The problem is that there is no proper discourse on what is wrong with the police on how to fix it. No political party seems to have clear thinking on what to do to clean up the police service and put in place proper leadership.

Job creation is a perennial election issue and the ANC will have tough time convincing the country that it will finally be able to get the economy to do produce the jobs it has been promising since 1994. It will be the ANC’s area of vulnerability in this election. But other than pushing the youth employment incentive scheme, which has now been passed into law, the DA has no big job creation ideas to capture people’s imagination on the campaign trail. This is why the EFF’s rhetoric on economic freedom could have resonance, particularly among the youth and the unemployed.

The ANC’s campaign rests on the National Development Plan (NDP). In order to sell it, its leaders will need to understand and own it. Right now, the NDP is spoken of in general terms and treated as a big wish list for the future. That will have to change on the campaign trail into real deliverables if the ANC is to convince its traditional constituency to remain in the fold and give hope to new young voters looking for opportunities for the future.

Of course the ANC will continue to trade on its 102-year history and traditional loyalties. But a large proportion of youth voters with no memory of the ANC’s glory days means the ANC will have to come up with new ideas this time around to maintain an electoral majority over 60%.

With more than 25 million people eligible to vote and more competition on the political spectrum, Election 2014 promises to be a hard-fought poll. Political parties will have to work hard for every vote and be able to debate the big issues.

After 20 years, that will be the best affirmation of democracy. DM

Photo: Reuters


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