South Africa, Politics

Op-Ed: Municipal Elections coming soon – can you hear the thunder?

By Stephen Grootes 6 July 2016

There is now plenty of evidence before us to support the claim that this year’s local government elections are going to be the most contested polls in this country since 1994. Already we’ve had the traditional fight about the SABC, the claims that the opposition is trying to steal the ANC’s heritage, and the violent protests/fights around candidate selection. All of these have been far more intense than in the past. That is both an indication of the level of contestation and of what is at stake. That said, it is probably possible to make a few, broad predictions about what will happen in the next few weeks. Some of it won’t be pretty, some of it could be downright scary, but in the end peace should, finally, prevail. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In the run-up to previous polls certain patterns have become evident. Almost always, there is a huge fight about the SABC and the role that it plays. As the nation’s biggest, if not necessary favourite, broadcaster, it alone has the huge reach needed to get to millions of voters, particularly in rural areas. Almost always the DA complains that the SABC is biased against it. Inevitably, there is a fight about a DA advert. This time around, the DA has managed to win the fight, partly because it started the process of trying to flight them on the SABC so far in advance.

But the fight around the SABC has intensified, mainly because of the Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s missteps. One of the key points of trying to censor the news is not to let anyone know that you are censoring it. SABC Chief Operating Officer might as well be named E. Go. As a consequence, everyone knows that he is responsible, with the result that even the ANC is now unhappy. Probably because they realise he could be electoral poison in the crucial Gauteng constituencies.

Also, this time around, the level of violence around choosing candidates has been higher than usual. This is a combination of factors – a slowing economy, the increasing factionalisation of ANC branches, regions and provinces, and a general rise in pressure all play their part.

This could suggest then that previous trends shown to occur during elections could also be more intense.

First among them is the concern around party-on-party violence. The introduction of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the fact they have already claimed the police are allowing them to be victims of violence is more than enough cause for concern. This issue is likely to get worse. The EFF tends to campaign in areas far away from media centres, which removes the protection independent TV cameras can offer. The role of the police here is crucial. In some cases they appear to have tried to do anything they can to maintain peace, in other cases, they’ve stood back and allowed ANC supporters to intimidate EFF members. If this dynamic is not checked, Julius Malema might have no option but to urge his followers to retaliate.

The upshot of this is that violence is actually more likely before these elections than at any other time since the demise of the IFP as significant player in national politics. That said, leadership could play a crucial role. While Malema has a duty to maintain peace, that duty could fall more heavily on the ANC. It is their members who have already intimidated the EFF and the DA. And the condemnation from paramount figures like Jacob Zuma and Gwede Mantashe has been less than resounding.

Something that is bound to happen in the next two weeks is that the campaign machine of the ANC will get into full swing. Don’t be fooled by those – including this writer on this website – who make predictions now. The ANC campaign tends to peak on the last weekend before the election. While the half-empty stadiums in the early phases of the campaign have been unprecedented, it is only after that last weekend that we can start to really judge how the party has done. Dribs and drabs from tracking polls during previous elections that have wormed their way into the public domain strongly suggest that support will drain away from the DA over that final weekend, and towards the ANC. This is also the time of the ANC’s big rally, usually held at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. It is planned on that date for a reason, and it’s hugely effective. That said, it’s hard to know if support will also drain away from the EFF this time around.

The sound bite of the 2011 local poll was a comment, at that stadium, by Malema, then still in green, gold and black, rather than red. “The DA is for white people,” he declared with Malema-like certainty, “the ANC is for you”.

It wasn’t complicated, but it was effective.

The ANC has been relatively quiet on issues of race recently. While it’s often claimed that race issues rise to the fore during elections only because the ANC “uses the race card”, that misses the structural point that in this country politics is often about identity, which makes it about race. That doesn’t absolve the ANC necessarily, but it would be tough to blame it entirely for playing “the race card” during elections. That said, the party could be running out of arguments based on service delivery to convince voters to keep making their mark next to its logo. And the fact that Malema’s comment went un-condemned by the party in 2011 means it is possible that someone at Luthuli House will be tempted to use this tactic again.

However, for this tactic to work, it has to be used at the last minute, when there is no chance for the DA or anyone else to respond, or for cooler heads to prevail. It also may not be just the DA that is targeted. It is possible that other critics of the party, whether they be in the media or elsewhere, are accused of racism as well, to delegitimise that criticism. This may also not come explicitly from Luthuli House, but through surrogates. Think of those who have large followings on Twitter, or in safe column tenures at The New Age.

All of that said, the fact that politics is, slowly, becoming more about class and the urban/rural divide than about race may mean the ANC doesn’t consider race at all during this campaign.

After the noise and fury of the election campaign, the focus is likely to move on to the Electoral Commission’s national results centre in Tshwane. In the past, this has been three days of relative peace and quiet. Political leaders, who have spent the last three weeks insulting each other, stop and shake hands and say hello, while journalists scratch their heads as they remember how much of a problem high school maths was.

There is a small chance that this relative peace will be disrupted by claims that the IEC itself is not trustworthy. Up until now no party has ever disputed the result of an election on a large scale. Now, the situation around Tlokwe, the perception, fair or otherwise, that its chair Glenton Mashinini is close to Zuma, and the fact that Malema is keen to disrupt all of the establishment, could mean that this time is different. But, it is a risky move. Malema could find himself on the wrong side of the argument if he, and he alone, disputes the outcome, while the other losing parties do not (one would not seriously expect the ANC to have a problem, they will win most of the municipalities).

Generally speaking, everyone catches up on some sleep at this point. And then the various parties get their act together to start polishing mayoral medals. This time around, there could well be coalition horse-trading. The making of coalitions, like the manufacture of sausages, Otto von Bismarck never said, is not something that should be viewed.

This would normally be a relatively stress-free time. However, we need to keep a very close eye on the other dominant political dynamic of this year so far. The claims and counterclaims around Zuma, SARS, and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan have all gone quiet. Considering the volume with which this battle was fought earlier, this is surprising. It’s possible, just possible, that both sides are waiting until after the elections before making a move. Be prepared.

In many ways, 2016 is a landmark year. The temperature of our politics is ratcheting up, it is more intense than ever before. That intensity could be a sign that things are about to change. The question is, in which direction? DM

Photo: Some of 70,000 supporters cheer as they gather during the final African National Congress (ANC) election rally in Soweto, South Africa, 15 May 2011. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK


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