“This is Radio Freedom, the voice of the African National Congress and its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe…” The ANC is a long way from the days when a crackly prohibited radio broadcast from exile was the only way the organisation communicated with ordinary people in South Africa, and yet loyalty was unwavering. Now, 22 years into democracy the ANC spent a reported R1 billion on an election campaign that delivered its worst ever electoral performance. The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting is being closely watched to see how the party assesses its performance and responds to the backlash from voters. But the party’s own research rang the alarm bells before the poll and this was disregarded. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The ANC’s four-day NEC meeting involves the very people presiding over the demise of the party undertaking a process to evaluate its performance in the 2016 local government elections. How can the people causing the problems suddenly fix them, you might ask? But then, the goal is not to fix the problems but to deflect responsibility for them and to find a way to draw people back to the party with the least disruption as possible to the way the ANC functions.
The issues causing anger and disgruntlement with the ANC have been well known. Throw a stone in the air anywhere in the country and it would hit a person who can no longer bring themselves to vote for the party. The ANC’s own research warned that there was a danger of a significant loss of support in the metros. Still, it was just not anticipated that the dissatisfaction would reach a stage where the ANC’s access to power and resources would be cut off.
The ANC’s top six leaders, President Jacob Zuma, his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa, national chairperson Baleka Mbete, secretary general Gwede Mantashe, his deputy Jessie Duarte, and treasurer general Zweli Mkhize, and the 80-member NEC seemed upbeat during a media photo opportunity at the start of the four-day meeting on Thursday. The meeting is being billed as a frank assessment of the election results, which will involve breakaway commissions to fully unpack what happened.
The reasons for the ANC’s poor performance, evident in the drastic drop in support nationally to 53.9% and in all provinces except KwaZulu-Natal, are complex and manifold. While an honest assessment is required, it is expected that respective factions will opt for scapegoating and finger pointing about who was responsible for the disastrous results. One thing that the ANC has already ruled out is that Zuma will be the subject of scrutiny. Although he is widely credited for the damage to the ANC’s reputation, the NEC is apparently not prepared to discuss the president’s substantial contribution to voters turning away from the party.
“We want to do a thorough analysis of the elections, but there is no item ‘president’,” Mantashe told reporters. “We will check‚ are we in decline and is it a trend that will continue forever‚ and what should we do to arrest that trend and turn it around.”
With regard to coalition talks and alleged demands by opposition parties that the recall of Zuma be a precondition for co-operation, Mantashe said:
“I will never go to any political party and put a condition to say ‘remove your leader’. If it is done to us, it is an issue we must deal with in the negotiations.”
Mantashe disputed that the ANC was arrogant and thanked those who did not vote for the party, saying they had received their message. What will the ANC do with this message though?
The problem with these 86 NEC members discussing the election results is that it is the same 86 people who decided to accept Zuma’s apology for the Nkandla saga and the same 86 people who decided to close down the investigation into “state capture”, the euphemism for the Guptas’ control of the state.
Many of the people who sit on the NEC are themselves involved in scandals and factional battles, have ardently defended the president’s flouting of accountability or have the propensity to utter nonsense, contributing to the ANC’s decline and reputational damage. These were also the people who decided to close their eyes and ears to the barrage of criticism from veterans, civil society leaders and concerned South Africans about the leadership and direction of the ANC, particularly after the Constitutional Court judgement on Nkandla.
These very same members of the NEC were also responsible for directing the ANC’s big budget elections campaign and deciding on the communications and mobilisation strategy. ANC insiders say the party’s elections research accurately predicted the drop in support and flashed the warning lights that the ANC would lose Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg. ANC officials apparently decided to withhold the research from structures on the ground because they thought it would “demoralise our forces”. Campaigning at grass roots therefore failed to address the issues people were concerned about.
Another senior ANC member said the party’s research had shown that there was serious negativity about the “ANC brand and its leader”. Issues that contributed to the negative perceptions of the ANC, according to the internal research, included Nkandla, e-tolls and the firing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister.
“This led to an unprecedented number of undecided voters – 10% of which were our key voters who had knowledge of apartheid and had consistently voted for the ANC in the past,” said the member who had studied the research.
Despite this, the people who ran the ANC’s election campaign decided that Zuma should remain the figurehead and that his image should be on all the party branding. The ANC’s elections team also decided to plaster Zuma’s images, instead of the mayoral candidates, at the airports and on billboards in the contested metros despite this being a turnoff for voters.
One of the most self-destructive aspects of the campaign was the negative messaging and venomous attacks on opposition leaders Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema.
“They advised the old man to go on the attack, to go into the mud. That was really terrible,” said a provincial leader.
Among other things, Zuma called Maimane a snake and warned voters that they would be cursed with bad luck by the ancestors if they voted for opposition parties. This caused discomfort within the ANC, particularly amongst some of the veterans, and fed negative perceptions about the party in the crucial closing stages of the campaign. However, as it is now customary, nobody called Zuma to order and he was led to believe that he had been the star performer of the campaign.
While the ANC might pussyfoot around issues, its alliance partner, the South African Communist Party (SACP) has been quite forthright about the poor performance at the polls, warning against “blindly supporting an individual”. A statement issued on Thursday after an SACP Politburo meeting said “unless serious soul searching and corrective action is undertaken, the decline will continue and likely accelerate”.
“It is absolutely essential that these corrective actions are themselves undertaken in a sober, unifying and non-sectarian manner. Already there are signs that some in the ANC are bent on doing the exact opposite. Yesterday’s front page head-line story in The New Age, for instance, quotes unnamed ‘ANC sources’ saying that the Gauteng provincial leadership must ‘shoulder the blame’ for the electoral ‘disaster. We are aware that in some quarters there are attempts to advocate disbanding the Gauteng ANC provincial leadership,” the SACP said.
“To what extent have national errors affected local electoral behaviour? Is it true that only a black urban intelligentsia is concerned about Nkandla? In answering these questions, once again we need to avoid sectarian positioning, either blindly supporting an individual, or, alternately imagining that the recall of this or that personality on its own will somehow solve all problems,” the SACP said. “The problems within the ANC in particular are systemic and find expression at all levels, as the horrific local level assassination of ANC and SACP leaders in the run-up to these elections underlines.”
The ANC has long claimed that it is able to self-correct and deal with its internal problems. But with so much damage having been done and the very people responsible for the decline still charged with running the organisation, how much self-correction and renewal is possible?
The ANC needs a massive overhaul in its leadership, its operating style, its culture, its approach to governance and its value system. Mostly, it needs to purge itself of the rot. Whether four days of navel gazing can initiate such an overhaul remains to be seen.
An organisation that was able to cultivate dedication and loyalty from exile is now struggling to keep people’s trust with full control of the state, unlimited resources and access to every corner of the country.
If that alone does not provoke serious soul searching, nothing will. DM
Photo: President Zuma speaks at the Siyanqoba rally before the local government elections, 31 July 2016, Ellis Park stadium, Johannesburg. (Greg Nicolson)
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer