South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Op-Ed: When the bubble burst

Op-Ed: When the bubble burst

On Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning the ANC spin machine was forced to go into over-drive to explain the huge swathes of empty seats at the party’s election manifesto launch in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro. It followed a difficult week, in which the Gauteng ANC had spoken out against President Jacob Zuma, and ANC Women’s League leader Bathabile Dlamini was reduced to tears on the streets of Port Elizabeth. It is becoming increasingly clear that while the ANC around Zuma has remained the same, the country and its people have changed. And it might not have much time left to recognise this fact and alter its course. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Perhaps the political video of the year so far is the sight of Bathabile Dlamini crying after being insulted by residents of Port Elizabeth on Friday. It’s such a surprising thing to happen. After all, our politicians are made of pretty stern stuff. Many were forged during the apartheid years, others from the union movement. And so it came as a powerful surprise that someone with as much public experience for Minister Dlamini to be hurt because of a group of angry and vociferous people around her.

There will be plenty of explanations for this specific incident. One view could be that indeed the crowd was right to say that she was inebriated on “expensive whisky”; it would certainly explain the over-reaction. But a more interesting possibility is that it was just so unthinkable for her that she was just unprepared for it to happen; that it was just something so outside her political experience in the ANC that she could not control herself.

It appears that so many people in the party, including herself, may have been kept inside a protective bubble for too long. Now that the bubble is bursting in small increments on a daily basis, it is becoming nigh impossible to keep one’s eyes closed to a mountain of problems that South Africa is facing today, as well to the fact that the ANC government is seen by a large chunk of the population as being a big part of the problem.

One of the issues that come with being in power for more than two decades is that it gets harder and harder for the leaders at the top to have much contact with “the masses”, the people whose lives they are supposed to help improve and who actually vote for them. History is replete with examples of revolutionaries losing touch, after being surrounded by luxury and obedience for so long. Often we look only at the national leaders, the presidents, prime ministers and dictators. But someone like Dlamini has been an MP since 1994. That’s 22 years. No matter what her past in the United Democratic Front or student politics, it’s going to be hard to actually know what is happening on the ground after that length of time spent in political institutions that appear insulated from the realities of daily survival that is the average South African’s life today.

This is a woman who claimed that it would be dangerous to take action against Zuma over Nkandla, because everyone on the ANC’S National Executive Committee have “skeletons” that could tumble out of the closet. This is also the woman who leads the organisation that claims FNB acted in a “treasonous” manner by creating a video campaign about crime. The ANC Women’s League is also defending the Guptas and attacking the banks, claiming they are – what else – imperialist forces. In other words, this is a politician who thinks that defending the Gupta family in public right now makes sound strategic sense. It would probably be difficult to find a better example of the tone deafness that has ailed our leadership for many years now.

It is certainly not just Dlamini who doesn’t get it, who doesn’t understand how drastically the country has changed. President Jacob Zuma’s speech on Saturday did not appear to contain much new material, and certainly there does not appear to have been any effort spent on making the speech attractive to watch on TV. The ANC may claim that this does not matter, but it does. More and more people are consuming their politics through the media; the country’s leadership should have been aware of it and reacted accordingly.

And it certainly cannot be claimed that the ANC has not been warned about this problem in the past. Two days before the 2011 local government elections Gwede Mantashe did something that was both weird and brilliant. He invited journalists to a workshop where he and the ANC would listen to their impressions about the campaign. In a way, it was an invitation to criticise the party’s handling of the media.

One point that was made by this reporter was that when Zuma speaks at rallies like this, he doesn’t say anything worth reporting, there was nothing newsworthy in his speeches, and it was a constant battle to actually include anything he said in the reportage of the event. That meant he was being ignored in favour of other stories, or other angles (in those days it meant Julius Malema simply stole the ANC show at these rallies, before he left to literally create his own pastures).

This time around, Zuma gave another big speech on Saturday, and the two political stories on the front page of the Sunday Times were “Operation Exit Zuma” and “Cheerleaders only at manifesto bash”. The other papers were no different. This is entirely the fault of Zuma and the people around him; they have a golden chance to occupy all the media there is, but it is squandered, simply because they won’t actually say much in a speech that is supposed to bring new energy and kick the rank and file out of slumber and into the election frenzy.

And this is all but one example of how Zuma’s ANC has stayed in the same place, the same self-serving bubble, while the country is inexorably moving on.

The ANC has a long track record of going into places like PE, and campaigning on the ground for a full week before a big rally. It’s usually a well-oiled machine, organisers get crowds pumped up and you wouldn’t see pictures of a Zuma or a Mantashe speaking to an empty hall. But this makes it even harder for a leader to know what is really happening. If every time you stand up to speak people ululate, it’s impossible for you to know that that is not the reflection of reality but a well put-together showbiz buzz. The reaction to Dlamini, and the probable public backlash against Zuma, are a consequence of using what some would call “rent-a-crowd” all the time.

It may also be that people like Zuma and others have stayed away from the big urban centres on the campaign trail. In 2014 Zuma spent most of his time in KwaZulu-Natal, and he’s been to Mpumalanga a lot. He’s tended to avoid big public events in Gauteng because the risk of being booed was simply too great. That may make good short-term political sense, but the longer-term risk is that you find yourself more out of touch with those areas than they would have been.

There are of course going to be people in the ANC who will say that these are isolated incidents, that it’s only Gauteng, Cape Town, PE, where this has happened. True, it is no accident that these are all urban centres, of course people in these areas have more information, are better off, and are generally more informed. There is a reason the Gauteng ANC is taking the huge risk of defying Luthuli House over Zuma at the moment. They know that if they don’t, they are going to be out of power soon, because their constituencies are furious with the national party. And more and more, it’s the urban areas that are going to decide who wins elections. It’s been said before, but we are an urban country, not a rural one, and that is one of the massive differences between us and Zimbabwe.

This is not something the rural elites in the ANC appear to understand. And it is not easy: people like North West ANC leader Supra Mahumapelo and Mpumalanga’s David Mabuza are feted wherever they go, because the party organisation ensures it.

This gigantic reality check is happening at a very bad time for the ANC. It’s not just that some of the people in charge are out of touch. It also has to contend with a slowing economy after a massive drought. Food prices are now hitting people hard, they are definitely feeling poorer and unhappy. It’s hard to know what the political consequence of that can be, but most historical examples would point to it being bad for the party in power and good for the opposition. And that when people feel poorer, they feel angrier, which is good news for those who speak radical. Yes, you know who I mean. And at the same time, the sense of scandal simply won’t leave the ANC, while the liberation dividend is beginning to slowly run out.

For an organsation containing the experience and political brains on the scale of the ANC, none of these problems are necessarily insurmountable. But they will require a change of approach. And if there is no change – in campaigning style, in policy, and yes, in leadership – these local government elections could actually be more significant than most of us have been expecting. DM

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters of his ruling African National Congress (ANC), at a rally to launch the ANC’s local government election manifesto in Port Elizabeth, April 16, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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