Had the local government elections happened in April instead of August, the ANC would have been fighting fires over the Constitutional Court judgement on Nkandla and the backlash over allegations of “state capture” by the Gupta family. The ANC has successfully closed down the discourse on both these issues and in the last few weeks launched a “hearts and minds” campaign to appeal to the sentimentality of their traditional voters. Although the party is still expected to dip in support compared to previous elections, it might not take the hammering initially expected. And for those who think the election results will hurt President Jacob Zuma, think again. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Let’s face it: the ANC has never been tested on its actual performance in any elections so far. The ANC’s mass constituency does not mine through data of jobs and service delivery to make decisions about where to put their crosses on the ballot paper. They vote on the basis of the ANC they know – its history, its brand and generational loyalty. The biggest challenge for opposition parties is to break that trend.
On Thursday last week, the South African Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago announced that the growth rate was forecast at 0% – revised downward from 0.6% previously. This will have dire consequences for the country’s developmental plans and ability to create jobs.
Did this make any impact on the local government elections campaign?
Should it have?
Yes. It is testament to the bad management of the economy and risky political conditions.
Did the ANC bother to respond to the worrying news?
Of course not.
The ANC’s election machinery does not factor such issues into its campaign. Strategically so. Engaging on such a matter would create a conversation around the economic climate. This would then reintroduce the subject of President Jacob Zuma’s irresponsible decision to fire former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and the damage this did to the economy and perceptions about the stability of the country. And once the president becomes the focus, the subject of Nkandla looms large as well as his relationship with the dodgy Gupta family.
In the wake of the Constitutional Court judgment that found that president had violated the Constitution, a number of ANC veterans, prominent South Africans, religious bodies and civil society organisations, as well as some ANC structures, voiced their concerns about Zuma’s leadership. The ANC initially gave an ear to these concerns but bought time to deal with the matter. Once the initial anger died down, the ANC issued an instruction that its structures should no longer discuss it. Then the ANC national executive committee (NEC) decided that Zuma’s “apology” should be accepted and the matter was closed.
It was an ingenious strategy to ensure that Nkandla is not issue in the local government elections.
Similarly, the outcry over the Gupta family’s improper involvement in state affairs led to an investigation by the ANC into “state capture”. That too was shut down by the NEC and the allegations left hanging. It no longer features in the political discourse and is not an election issue.
The ANC was disorientated by the outbreak of violence in Tshwane but managed to contain the matter publicly, even though it continues to fight fires within its structures. In KwaZulu-Natal, although factional battles continue to rage and political assassinations have marred the campaign, the ANC is not engaging on these matters. The party has made a concerted effort to keep its election messaging on track, even fobbing off the SABC controversy.
In the past few weeks, the ANC has changed the narrative in the country. Led by Zuma, the ANC has turned its guns on opposition parties, mocking the Democratic Alliance (DA), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Congress of the People (Cope). At a campaign event at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Zuma opened up the front against the opposition parties.
“You can be as angry as anything, you can be as loud as anything. The reality is that the people of this country know the African National Congress. It fought and liberated them,” Zuma said. He accused the DA and EFF of being empty vessels making the biggest noise. The president has kept up the attack as he campaigned in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape last week, demonising the DA on the basis of race.
“Do not be deceived. I want to make this clear because we have a short memory. They are the spawn of the National Party,” Zuma said at a rally in Nelson Mandela Bay. “They have the same hatred. They don’t believe black people can lead.”
“When a snake, a poisonous one, gives birth, it gives birth to another snake. How can you vote for people who don’t know you and who you don’t know?” Zuma was quoted by News24.
Through the race baiting and crude attacks, Zuma is shifting attention away from nuts and bolts issues. It ensures that fears about the return of white domination becomes top of mind in communities rather than poor performance of elected officials and service delivery failures.
Meanwhile the ANC elections team rolled out the South African celeb set to help position the party as trendy and stylish. ANC branded fashion items are in circulation, and the dab has become a new dance craze.
And now the ANC has pulled out its biggest weapon in the “hearts and minds” campaign – its veterans. Former president Kgalema Motlanthe, struggle stalwarts Ahmed Kathrada and Mavuso Msimang, and former minister Tokyo Sexwale joined the campaign trail in Gauteng. Kathrada and Msimang had previously spoken out strongly against Zuma’s leadership, going as far as telling him to step down after the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla. The fact that they are now campaigning for the ANC affirms the brand as being resilient despite the damage, and plays into the subliminal messaging that the party will self correct once Zuma is gone.
The last trump card is former president Thabo Mbeki. The ANC is trying by all means to draw him into the campaign, even though he did not participate in the 2009, 2011 and 2014 election campaigns. A photo-op with Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau and even an autographed copy of the latest book on Mbeki were being punted as endorsements of the ANC’s Joburg mayoral candidate.
A claim by a relative of Mbeki’s, who joined the DA, that the family no longer supported the ANC forced a statement from the former president’s office confirming that he was still a member “in good standing”. But there is yet to be an endorsement of the ANC under its current leadership.
Has the ANC done enough to regain lost ground? No.
Clearly there has been significant damage the image and reputation of the party, and factional battles continue to eat its core. But it knows who to target now and how to do so.
A wild card in this election is the large number of undecided voters, particularly those who were traditional ANC supporters. Many of these people are disenchanted with the party but are unsure about which opposition party to support.
This final push by the ANC is designed to appeal to sentimentality of the base constituency – a reminder of the glory of the ANC of old and its ability to reinvent itself under trying conditions. Fanning the racial flames is intended to stop people voting for the DA as the “safe” option while the EFF is being cast as angry outsiders who will cause anarchy.
Younger voters, who might previously been taken in by the EFF’s socialist, Chavista-like allure and turned off by the bumbling ANC Youth League, are being wooed back to join the stylish trendsetters in the ANC.
There is a belief in some quarters that the ANC will deal with its errant president after the elections. This is not going to happen. The planting of that information was part of the strategy to buy time to quell anger over his leadership. The issues for which the president would have been taken to task, Nkandla and the Guptas, have been closed by the ANC NEC. Nobody can reverse that decision now.
If the ANC performs poorly in the elections, Zuma will be cushioned from the blame. His issues were not part of the election discourse and therefore his supporters will make sure that the blame is laid elsewhere.
As far as the ANC is concerned, they are on the comeback. As all parties put pedal to the metal in the final phase of their campaigns, the ANC will go all out to bring its voters home. They know that secretly, many disheartened and angry people do want the ANC to return to its former glory. All they have to do now is convince as many people as possible that this is possible. By the time these people realise that “home” is actually a castle in the sky, it will be too late. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma was set to give the closing address at the ANC’s Mangaung conference Friday before the power went out. Mangaung, Free State, South Africa, 20 December 2012. (Photo Greg Nicolson/NewsFire)
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí