South Africa

South Africa, Politics

J’Oppose: Welcome to the club – opposition lessons from the ANC Western Cape

With four of the country’s major metros now in DA hands, the ANC in three of these is going to have to learn how to be an effective opposition. There might be a few lessons to be learnt from the Western Cape ANC who, since losing the country’s second largest economic hub to a DA coalition government in 2006, have never been able to claw back support. Faction-ridden and plagued by leadership scandals, the ANC in the Western Cape has, since its crushing 2016 LGE defeat, embarked on serious introspection. The way forward, it says, is to return to the past and the values of the UDF, the anti-apartheid body which celebrates its 33rd anniversary this month. By MARIANNE THAMM.

When results of the election began trickling into IEC centres across the country earlier this month, the ANC leadership in the Western Cape began to understand that it was going to take a serious beating. Support for the party dropped to 25.4% while the DA polled 63.75 (up from 60.92% in 2011). The DA also took 17 of the 24 local councils to the ANC’s zero while the Economic Freedom Fighters gained 2.67%, representing a total of 12 council seats, across the province.

With its provincial chairman Marius Fransman suspended and facing a disciplinary committee hearing with regard to charges of sexual assault, it was left to the region’s Provincial Secretary, Faiez Jacobs, to witness the carnage at the IEC’s regional results centre at Century City. Jacobs faced the media alone, graciously admitting defeat.

At a lengthy Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) post-mortem, members attempted to lance the boil. Many admissions were made including that there is a serious “trust deficit” among voters, that the problems with the party “did not only start now”, that branches had been decimated and that the ANC locally was “not open and warm”. The PEC also discussed how “scandal affecting our chairperson and him taking the ANC to court on the eve of election also impacted negatively on the ANC image” and that “we are seen as greedy and corrupt”.

There was, of course, little reference to President Zuma and the wrecking ball his incumbency has been to the massive global brand equity the ANC once possessed. But that is a national blind spot (well, at least in public).

A week later a concept paper, “Repositioning the ANC in the Western Cape by Revisiting the United Democratic Front”, was issued with a request that it be circulated among ANC members, “activists, friends, UDF activists or ANC supporters”. The challenge for the ANC, read the paper, “is not to romanticise the UDF, but to revisit its practice and approach to ensure that the Western Cape is not lost fundamentally”.

Providing background to those who might be too young, no doubt, the document recalled how on 2o August 1983 at the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town, the United Democratic Front was launched. This was done in response to the “Koornhof Bills” and the Tricameral Parliament – apartheid state tinkering to provide sham representation for “coloured” and “Indian” South Africans.

More than the issues it was to tackle, the UDF created the basis for co-ordinated mass action across the fault lines of colour, race, class, religion and ideology that had been the hallmark of apartheid. Under the banner ‘UDF Unites! Apartheid Divides!’, the UDF was able to create an organisational form – a front – that allowed for multiple identities and ideologies to co-exist for a common purpose, was able to create a single political focus that eclipsed the many debates that could divide a liberation movement, and was able to reach out to diverse communities – African, coloured, Indian and even white – experiencing various forms and degrees of oppression and bring them together against a common enemy. The UDF was able to eke a political existence and programme out of a precarious and ever-narrowing space for political activity by navigating the lines of legality, engaging in imaginative campaigns and communicating prolifically with communities.

However, that was then.

This is now.

Which those who penned the document clearly understand.

The local government election result, reads the document, registered “the lowest ever returns for the ANC: under 30% in the Western Cape and under 60% nationally. Cape Town and the Western Cape had previously been lost, but now other metros and municipalities were being lost. In the Western Cape, the result was in contrast to previous results (46% in 2004, 53% with a coalition) that showed that the ANC had the capability of winning the province. It appears that the trust since then had been eroded at the hand of provincial dynamics – disunity and factionalism, declining membership and activism, local intrigues and scandals, and a resurgent DA and visible EFF – as well as national weaknesses such as debates around the president that have forced the ANC to defend on character rather than advance on delivery.”

Between 1986 and 1990 Jacobs was a student activist and leader in the Western Cape. In 1989 he was the General Secretary of the Western Cape Students’ Congress and led the defiance campaign of high schools across the Cape. He also represented the Western Cape Student Congress at the Conference for a Democratic Future (CDF), UDF and Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) forums. He is an intuitive politician, an “inzile” shaped by the currents and experiences of the 1980s and the UDF.

Daily Maverick spoke with Jacobs about the ANC’s future in the province and its attempts at conjuring or feeding on a proud past.

In 1994, in spite of what appeared to be massive support for the UDF, the Western Cape was won by the National Party, the only province in the country Nelson Mandela’s ANC did not win. What did you think at the time and how do you explain this?

It was a strong sense of disappointment and betrayal for us as coloured activists and the ANC. I remember 1994. I was in Lentegeur the night after the elections and the results came in. Coloured branches in the ANC managed only 20% of the vote. We all felt devastated and wondered why ‘our people’ were doing this to us. We tried to justify it. The whole notion of the ‘swartgevaar’ and that voters had opted for the devil you know. That is still the narrative. We had always intended to build nonracialism but it seems the ANC has lost its way in terms of doing this.

In fact, our own studies have indicated that we have failed. We did a survey about who was perceived to be more nonracial and the DA came up trumps. So the ANC must practically implement nonracialism, but what does it mean in the Western Cape context where a coloured backyarder is pitted against a black person in a shack? The DA has upgraded rental stock in coloured areas and that sends a very strong message, ‘We are here for you’. Those old divides still exist. So the ideal of nonracialism has not been accomplished.

Today, however, people say ‘show me what you are going to do… Don’t talk about your struggle credentials’.”

Yet you are in a way. Who are you in the ANC go to back and consume the brand equity – or the shine – of the UDF and use it to try to fix your mistakes? Besides, the people of the Western Cape have democratically voted for the DA. This is 2016, not 1983.

This is a valid question. Yes, how dare we claim the identity of the UDF as the ANC and what arrogance do we have to do that? But if you look at the history of the UDF, you will understand it was the mass mobiliser of the ANC. The UDF was the internal strategy of the ANC. It was the vehicle. I think the ANC needs a bit of the UDF now.”

You were fighting apartheid then. What are you fighting now?

As an organisation, a political organisation that wants to modernise and renew, we have always talked about the social contract with our people and being grounded. So we use terms like ‘the people shall govern’, ‘forward to People’s Power’. All of those concepts were born out of the UDF.

When I grew up as a young UDF activist in the 1980s I knew when I was involved in the UDF that I was an ANC member because it was the internal wing of the ANC. I think the difference then was that you had independent structures inside the UDF covering a whole range of issues like the Cape Housing Action Committee that dealt with housing. You had your UWCO, United Women’s Congress, which was the women’s organisation; the Western Cape Student Congress. Then you had SAYCO, CAYCO, which was about the youth. There was GALA, a Gay And Lesbian Association. There was space for everybody. The UDF was everything for everybody under the broad umbrella of anti-apartheid.

But 20 years later we are in a democratic South Africa. We have just had an election that has been free and fair and the majority of the people in this region voted for the DA. We must respect the outcome. We are disappointed but we must respect that because that is what democracy is.

People have voted but if you ask what is the underlying reason for why, it will be because of the perception that the ANC is plagued by internal fighting. They focused on our internal weaknesses.”

Have you been a good opposition?

No we have not. Opposition means we need to have our pulse on the ground. Look at all the other social movements like Equal Education, Social Justice Coalition – whatever the supposed agenda – I think the social movements are also spaces that we, as the ANC, must go into. We need to show our people, on a daily basis, constantly, that we are involved in bread and butter issues. We need to form a broad front with like-minded progressive organisations. And we, as the ANC, must earn our leadership, we can’t claim it because of our struggle credentials.”

Well, the irony is that you say you need to return to the past and the UDF and those struggle credentials. Isn’t this a contradiction?

This is about reconnecting with values. It is about looking back so we can be better. Back to the future, so to speak. Obviously our context is different, our realities are different. A lot has changed in the last 33 years. We must not be romantic about what is possible. The decline of the ANC is not a new phenomenon. If you look at the lessons of the UDF, even at its dissolution, people were grappling with this. Did the ANC need to be a modern political party or does it still need to be a broad literation movement?”

So what are you hoping for?

For people in the ANC to plough back and not to ask what is in it for them. The ANC needs good people now more than ever, a servant leadership that makes a contribution. A lot of those values have been lost. These have been replaced by greed, a sense of ‘us and them’. A lot of people in the ANC now want position, they fight about who is going to be on the list and are not focusing on what communities need. We are very inward looking and so we forget the culture of caring.

But the electorate has spoken. People are not happy with the ANC and, by extension, the president. How we take these lessons to renew ourselves to correct ourselves and present a leadership at the next national conference is going to be key.”

So what is to be done?

We need to modernise. We need to focus. Elections are too important to be left to politicians. The DA understood this a long time ago and outsourced it. Elections must be run by professional people and politicians must be told ‘this is how you do it’. The DA has a template, a check list, and they stick to it. When it is registration time, they do it. It is like a mechanical operation, machinery with precision.

We, as the ANC, can’t dismiss that. There are 1,500 voting districts in the City of Cape Town alone and we do not have organisation presence in each of them. That is something we have to work on. We could not put a party agent together in many of them.

If we want to appeal to a broader audience we have to venture out of our comfort zones. Let’s engage in spaces that are critical of us and we must engage truthfully. Politics is not only about power, it is about bringing people together with a common goal.

Liberation movements tend to eat themselves. We are at that point now in the ANC. It is a difficult period. When you put a mirror up and look at yourself, the person that you knew a few years ago and the person you see now is not the same. Part of our reality is to accept the mirror. The people have spoken. The ANC of Nelson Mandela and OR Tambo is not the ANC of today and so we need to accept that. We can’t stay the same. But how do we manage the complexity and changes? Those are the issues.

The soul of the ANC is located in the people I remember from a better ANC. It is in our DNA to reconnect. It is in the doing. Watch us in the next 18 months.” DM

Photo: ANC WC secretary-general Faiez Jacobs. Photo by Denvor de Wee, Netwerk24.

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