President Jacob Zuma stood up at the ANC’s fifth national policy conference on Friday and acknowledged his party’s challenges. He faced thousands of ANC branch reps and started with a quote from ANC founding president Pixley ka Isaka Seme on overcoming divisions. Patronage, corruption, social distance, factionalism, party election processes, and the resulting party splits, had hurt the ANC, said Zuma.
“We did not tear ourselves apart because of lack of progress at times,” he finished with a quote from Oliver Tambo. “We were always ready to accept our mistakes and to correct them.”
The conference was critical to the party’s future. Zuma said solutions-based proposals must emerge from the organisational renewal document, which has always been a frank assessment of the party and its challenges. But the ANC is fighting against gravity. No one knows its challenges better than the party itself, but it has been unable to take action, almost embracing its decline as a natural law.
There was an early win for those who believe the party can “self-correct”. Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe’s diagnostic report, probably the most self-critical internal party document we’ve seen in recent years, outlining perceptions of corruption, the Gupta family’s influence, and how leaders’ knee-jerk defences to allegations of corruption have damaged the ANC, was adopted despite opposition from the floor.
Yet there was little hope. Zuma set the tone when, after noting party challenges in his opening address, he diverted from the written statement and questioned the role of the judiciary in our democracy and criticised party stalwarts who have attacked his leadership. The ANC’s most powerful member could not stay on script, so how could the party?
The policy conference failed to provide direction on unity and offered little guidance on how the ANC would improve the nation’s dire state. The six-day event was a gift to opposition parties who are counting on forming coalition governments after the 2019 national and provincial elections. The conference confirmed that the ANC’s decline played into the opposition’s plans.
Delegates cheered on Friday when Zuma said the ANC had taken back Gauteng’s Mogale City from a DA-led coalition elected in 2016. “This conference must diagnose the real problems that led to the decline in electoral support, and propose effective remedial action,” said Zuma. Mantashe’s report noted ANC research before the municipal elections that said voters were unhappy with the 2015 firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, the Constitutional Court ruling against Zuma on Nkandla, the reintroduction of arms-deal-related charges against the president, scandals at SAA and the SABC, and the selection of local ANC candidates.
Zuma and the ANC’s problems have only increased since then and the policy conference failed to provide a solution. The University of the Witwatersrand’s Professor Susan Booysen described the policy proposals coming out of the conference as “dismal”. She said she had expected proposals on how the party would reconnect with voters and improve unity, but only heard measures on how to keep different factions “from each other’s throats”.
“What I know for sure, they did nothing to arrest the decline,” said Booysen on the ANC’s reduction in voter support, looking towards 2019. Professor Somadoda Fikeni from the University of South Africa said there was an “ember” of hope the party could address its challenges. Those at the conference wanting to confront corruption were victorious over those denying it. Yet Fikeni said, “I doubt it will stop the progressive decline. It could slow the decline.”
While not directly comparable, the ANC vote from the 2014 general elections to 2016 municipal elections shows progressive decline. In 2014 the party won 62% of the national vote, which is estimated to have declined to around 54% in the local elections. The ANC could lose its majority in Gauteng come 2019, and, considering the province’s large voting population, its national majority is also at risk.
Opposition parties are campaigning for coalition governments. One of the first things you’ll see on the DA’s website is a video of Mmusi Maimane championing a “realignment of SA politics”. The DA, which has already started its 2019 campaign, is pushing hard for coalition governments to be elected.
Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema on Thursday said we’re in the era of coalitions. He claimed the coalitions established in the metros after the local government elections had led to a reduction in arrogant ANC leadership. If the DA’s Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba, wanted to institute questionable policies, the EFF, which isn’t formally in a coalition agreement with the party but has provided support, can call it to order. Helen Zille was forced to apologise for her comments on colonialism because the EFF said it would withdraw support in DA-led governments, Malema said.
He claimed the ANC might take 52% or 53% in the next elections and that would mean the party would have to work with the opposition. ANC MPs are old and sick, often away from Parliament, and wouldn’t be able to pass laws with a thin majority, he said, without the support of opposition parties. “That’s going to be the ANC’s life going into the future.”
UDM leader Bantu Holomisa said, “There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind the ANC once again has come out clearly to say they’re not going to deal with their individuals involved in these allegations.” He was referring to the #GuptaLeaks emails. “It’s a good omen for opposition parties.” He said the ANC must not be allowed to form a government in 2019 and noted successful coalition governments over the last 10 years. “Coalitions are the only route,” he said on the country’s future.
There’s a chance the ANC could halt its electoral decline by electing credible leadership in December, but for now, according to Fikeni, the party’s 2019 chances rely on the weaknesses of the opposition parties’ positions. He said the demand for socio-economic justice means the DA might struggle come 2019, but there could be a group of leftist opposition parties, potentially including the SA Communist Party, which might contest the next elections independently from the ANC, that could find favour. The ANC’s best hope for 2019 is weaknesses in the EFF or DA, whose Helen Zille could still damage the party.
“It is a fragile and unstable form of government,” said Booysen on coalition governments. Instability in Mogale City has shown coalition governments aren’t always a positive option. If the ANC as an opposition party shows resistance, coalitions are even less likely to be successful. Holomisa listed KZN, Cape Town and the current governments in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay as examples of working coalitions.
The ANC was able to form a coalition government in Ekurhuleni after last year’s elections with the support of the African Independent Congress. Looking at the 2019 elections, even if the ANC doesn’t win majorities, it might be able to form coalitions. The key question is the EFF. Malema said he wouldn’t work with either of the ANC’s next potential leaders, Cyril Ramaphosa or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, but his party is unpredictable and likely to support whoever works in the EFF’s best interests.
Opposition parties like the EFF are in a prime position coming up to 2019. The ANC policy conference suggested only further decline for the party and voters will probably stay away, as they did in areas like Johannesburg in 2016 – which resulted in the ANC’s decline – or vote for the opposition. The ANC’s policy conference almost confirmed that in 2019 we’ll see more coalition governments elected.
In his closing address, Zuma was confident. He exhibited the arrogance that will almost guarantee opposition party coalitions are elected in 2019. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma delivers the ANC Policy Conference’s closing address (Ihsaan Haffejee)
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