South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Op-Ed: The final 10 days, with party turbulence ahead

Op-Ed: The final 10 days, with party turbulence ahead

We are now in the most crucial, most important, and most critical phase of the 2016 local government elections. The ANC has come slightly later than usual to the campaigning party while DA members are dead on their feet with exhaustion. But it is now that those elusive swing voters will start to make up their minds. And for some, most intriguingly, they will decide whether to vote at all. Everyone will have their own analysis of what will happen next Wednesday. It is hard to know what the various parties actually think. But, by the actions and comments of some people, it is becoming clearer to determine what they believe is going on. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Probably the most prominent polls that are currently being published are those run by Ipsos and eNCA. They have been running a tracking poll, updated once a week. No one has the money to do this in all the municipalities across the country and so, quite rightly, they’ve concentrated on the key big battlegrounds, Joburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay.

Polls like these are always open to criticism and doubt. It’s actually much easier to use a sample to get a national voting figure than it is in a municipality, and the bigger the sample, the easier it is to predict how that entire community will vote.

That said, the DA is slightly ahead in all three metros, in the latest poll published on Thursday. What is startling is not that the DA is ahead – indeed, there is a long history of polling showing the DA peaking shortly before the elections, and the ANC doing better than predicted. No: it’s the difference between the parties, the gaps between them that are important. In Tshwane, where the ANC has a long list of problems, this poll shows the DA on 40%. That’s short of a majority, but the real figure is that the ANC is only on 23%. Even allowing for problems with the polling (and there are bound to be a few, there always are), and a possible huge swing for the ANC, it seems very difficult it will sway such massive numbers of undecided voters that it would help push it up above the DA in the remaining ten days of campaigning.

In Joburg, the administration is better run, Parks Tau is a relatively uncontroversial, honest and competent candidate, and so the difference is much smaller. But still, people who work for the ANC in Gauteng and in Joburg appear to be concerned. Not all of them display this, of course, but there is certainly something that is worrying them.

It is because of this, perhaps, that President Jacob Zuma, for the first time, forced the ANC’s campaign to take on a racial tone last week. Speaking in Tembisa on Wednesday, he said this:

Where does a black man get the nerve to team up with oppressors of his people, even to an extent where he decides to lead them? When you see the DA, just know that they are our oppressors.”

There is much to be made in this statement. First, before we even look at the racial aspect there is the fact that Zuma is actually talking about the DA at all. In the past, the ANC would simply ignore the opposition; it could afford to. Then, from around 2009 or so, people in the alliance but not the ANC, your Buti Manamelas, your Cosatu leaders etc, would mention it in passing at an ANC event. Then, the ANC itself started to mention the DA by name, until now, the climax of this process, Zuma himself is targeting the party, deliberately and strategically.

This tells us several things. The first is that the ANC clearly perceives the DA as more of a threat than it was in the past. Objective observers could probably agree that the ANC is correct to do so. But the behaviour of the ANC in this tells us something even more interesting. It appears that Luthuli House has spent more time attacking the DA than it has the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). On the numbers that is correct – the DA is bigger. But it is still interesting, because it suggests that while Malema has hogged the headlines, particularly during events in Parliament, the ANC still perceives its main threat as coming from the DA. The DA returns the favour – while there is the occasional SMS about how a vote going to a small party is wasted, it generally spends more time on the ANC than anyone else.

Now, the racial commentary by Zuma suggests something else. It suggests that the ANC is unable, and he is unable, to campaign on his party’s track record, when confronted with the DA’s record. Instead of pointing to examples of how the ANC is better, the language often appears to be couched in phrases like “only the ANC can run South Africa”, “only the ANC can lead the people”, or, of course, the proclamation that the ANC is somehow different because it is ordained by God. There is a political conversation here about identity, it’s about “the people” or “the country” but not about service delivery. If there is a comment about service delivery, it’s about how the ANC has provided services since 1994, but not in the context of the DA as a competitor.

Many people may well believe the use of race here by Zuma suggests both he and the party are actually very worried. Certainly, if you had to look at the facts of the matter, it may have made sense to use race in direct terms 20 years ago rather than now. The disparities between black and white were bigger then than they are now (although you could also argue that then people thought things would actually change, and the fact that they have not lies behind this comment). And if Zuma, and the ANC, didn’t use the race card then in the way they are using it now, then they should answer why is it so? Those polling numbers would probably give us the first concrete answer.

Then there is the DA’s response to this turn of events. On Friday, they held a press conference involving three of its members. They were chosen not for their own personalities as much as for their surnames: Ghaleb Cachalia, Madoda Mbeki and Lindela Tshwete. The point of the press conference, as the DA put it, was to “condemn in no uncertain terms Jacob Zuma’s dangerous racial campaigning this week”.

The response of the DA suggests that this is something they feel they may be vulnerable to, that they absolutely need to counter the ANC on race. But it also points to something else. The ANC in Gauteng has not spoken much about race, if it all, in this election. That could be because they believe it would not work, that black urban voters in Gauteng could feel that it is patronising. As the political analyst Ralph Mathegka put it so strongly this week, “since when did political leaders start telling a black person how to be a black person”. It’s a strong argument that could be tough to respond to. The DA may also feel that there are actually votes here, if they can make that “patronising” argument, then there are people who could actually be won over on this issue.

Either way, the strategies employed around race by both parties are highly revealing.

Meanwhile the Gauteng ANC also did something on Saturday that other parts of the ANC have not done. They managed to convince Mavuso Msimang, a strong critic of Zuma, Professor Firoz Cachalia, a former Gauteng MEC who was forced out partly perhaps because of his probity, and Tokyo Sexwale to join them in campaigning. These are people known to have not taken money for themselves, and to have been highly critical of the Zuma-led ANC. The fact that they were asked suggests the Gauteng ANC realises it needs to give voters in the province a reason to vote, despite the unfortunate visage on some of their election posters. In a way, this could be seen as a move critical of Zuma.

The fact that the three agreed to do it is even more interesting. Would they have campaigned for the ANC in North West, one wonders, or even in KwaZulu-Natal? And there will also be speculation that perhaps the three are doing it because someone has whispered in their ear that something will change in the ANC after the polls. Already there have been suggestions that the conflict between Zuma and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has only gone into hibernation because of these elections, and that it could re-emerge into the open literally on 4 August. But that speculation should probably be dampened down slightly. Msimang, for his part, makes his position clear – he is still a critic of Zuma, but “some battles are easier to win on the inside, rather than on the outside”.

Then there is the continued speculation around whether Thabo Mbeki himself will campaign. So far, it seems his only contribution has been to confirm, through a spokesman, that he is still a fully paid-up member of the party. This speculation is bad for the ANC either way. If he’s going to campaign, he must campaign now; to allow this speculation to continue suggests any campaigning he could do would be half-hearted, and because he has to. And then there is the fact that Mbeki is not known for his connection with grassroots voters and what would happen on the campaign trail itself. Should just one grandmother mention that her grandchild died because of AIDS, the entire campaign stop would be liable to explode.

But, the fact that he’s been asked, that Joburg Mayor Parks Tau went to see him last week, also suggests that it is the person who voted for the ANC during the Mbeki era, and no longer does, who is the most crucial for the ANC. And that it’s crucial for the party to get that person out on voting day.

We are now at the end of the seventh month of 2016. It feels like this is the election year that simply would not end. The actions of both parties, the polls that we have in the open and the general climate suggest this year still has a long way to go. That 4 August will be the start of a whole new period of coalition negotiations. And possibly the start, messy as it will undoubtedly be, of a whole new era in our politics. DM

Photo: DA’s Mmusi Maimane, ANC’s Jacob Zuma. (Greg Nicolson)


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