South Africa

Election 2014: Knockouts, marching orders and some hard lessons

By Ranjeni Munusamy 9 May 2014

The good thing about the Independent Electoral Commission’s election headquarters is that the politicians thronging there cannot ignore the numbers on the giant screens. Those numbers tell the story of South Africa, and for some parties like Agang, the Congress of the People and the Inkatha Freedom Party, the story is brutal and devastating. Even the flashy convict – turned sushi king – turned politician Kenny Kunene looked a bit nauseated every time he looked up to see his party stuck below 13,000 votes. Politicians build up legends in their heads of what they and their parties are. This week, South Africans gave them a reality check. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

One of the big stories of Elections 2014 will be the decimation of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which by late Thursday night looked to be losing its place as the official opposition in its former KwaZulu-Natal stronghold. This will be devastating to the IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who, despite watching his party haemorrhage over the past ten years since they lost power to the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, still believed he needed to hang onto the top job.

The politics of KwaZulu-Natal is complex and it is astonishing how it evolved over the past 20 years. At the first election in 1994, KwaZulu-Natal was still ravaged by political violence and the IFP almost boycotted the poll. It participated at the eleventh hour and received over 10% of the national poll – over two million votes. This gave the IFP 43 seats in the National Assembly. They also won the majority of votes in KwaZulu-Natal and entered into a coalition government with the ANC as the minority partner.

The IFP lost support in every election since then, and lost control of KwaZulu-Natal in 2004. At around 10:30pm on Thursday night, it became evident that the once powerful force in South African politics would now be receding into history as a has-been party when The Democratic Alliance (DA) overtook the IFP as the second biggest party in KwaZulu-Natal. This comes as a result of the breakaway National Freedom Party (NFP) eating into the IFP’s constituency and the DA drawing more Indian voters from the deceased Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi’s party.

Buthelezi failed to read the signs that his formula of Zulu nationalism and old-style homeland politics was outdated in South Africa, and that, if there was any chance of rescuing the party, he needed to hand over to a younger leader with fresh ideas. It will be a decision he will live to regret.

Similarly, Congress of the People (Cope) leader Mosiuoa Lekota did not read the signs that his party was self-destructing and that many people who voted for the party in 2009 have got over their anger at the recall of Thabo Mbeki and moved on. Cope’s internal battles turned the party into a farce, and the deluge of leaders to other parties, including a massive surge back to the ANC, showed the complete loss of confidence in the party’s raison d’etre.

Cope has been severely punished in the 2014 poll. In 2009 it received over 1.3 million votes, and was the third largest party in the National Assembly with 30 seats. By midnight on Thursday, Cope had just over 100,000 votes, translating into two seats in Parliament. Lekota’s cocksure attitude was evident in his undertaking to “eat his hat” should his party lose support compared to 2009.

It will not be easy to swallow.

Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele genuinely believed her own spin. She thought South Africa was desperate for her to rescue it, that the country was ready for a non-politician to emerge out of nowhere with no constituency to break the ANC’s dominance.

She was hopelessly wrong.

Ramphele could possibly have had some traction as a black woman intellectual political leader if she were super-imposed on an existing party. Her adherence to the belief that she was not a “joiner” led to her blowing her chance to evolve into the leader of the DA. Agang never stood a chance to achieve the heady ambitions she set for it. It was all about her own personality as a highbrow businesswoman with experience as an international civil servant that created the false impression that she was a towering figure in South African society. At the end, few people bought into the hype, despite the massive budget thrown into Agang’s election campaign.

By midnight on Thursday, Agang was struggling to get a single seat in the National Assembly.

The other new kid on the block, Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), made quite an impact in less than a year of existence. With 91% of results in by the early hours of Friday morning, the EFF was secure as the third largest party with 5.7% of the vote. Malema tapped into a niche constituency of disgruntled ANC voters, young people struggling to get jobs and workers battling to make ends meet.

The EFF leadership has no experience in parliamentary politics and no chance of achieving their lofty promises from the backbenches of Parliament. However, they spoke the language thousands of frustrated and disappointed people wanted to hear and also presented themselves as the only party that could rattle the ANC and President Jacob Zuma’s cage.

Clearly thousands of people want this. Although the ANC was always coasting towards a big win, there is no escaping the fact that a group of noisy youngsters from within its ranks gave them a hard time on the campaign trail and look set to shake up parliamentary politics.

Of all the parties, the relationship between the ANC and the EFF is most hostile. This was evident at the IEC results centre on Thursday night when President Zuma snubbed the EFF contingent but went around greeting most other parties on the floor, including some he had never heard of before. ANC spokesman Keith Khoza told Daily Maverick that the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu had said they did not want to meet Zuma and therefore the president did not go to their table. Shivambu confirmed that they were not prepared to “greet a criminal”.

The incident left a bad taste behind after a relatively peaceful election with no major incidents marring the outcome. In 2009, despite the bad blood between the ANC and Cope, Zuma visited the Cope station when he toured the IEC results centre. Even if there are signs of belligerence from the EFF, it would have been a sign of a strong and embracing leadership had Zuma stopped to acknowledge them. The fact that he did not signals the start of new antagonism in parliamentary politics.

While the country might be ready for stronger voices in the opposition benches, this does not mean there should be aggression and hostility.

After 20 years of democracy, South Africa needs smart and mature politics to advance the national interest and tackle the multiple crises in society. The large turnout of voters in this election shows that this is a politically engaged society that is paying attention to national issues. The electorate relegated some political parties and their leaders to the dustbin of history, gave the ANC a renewed mandate, boosted the voice of the official opposition, the DA, and introduced two new players into the national mix, the EFF and the NFP.

Continuity and change. Something old, something new. More delivery, less abuse.

But the biggest message from the electorate is: stop treating us like idiots. The new political set will be well advised to listen up. DM

Photo: IEC results operation centre. (Greg Nicolson)

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