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South Africa

ANC Leadership Race: Can Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma give voters enough reason to head to the polls come 2019?

ANC Leadership Race: Can Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma give voters enough reason to head to the polls come 2019?

As Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma goes on the campaign trail around the country (and actually leaving KwaZulu-Natal from time to time) she is finally giving us a sense of the policies she is interested in. Wherever she goes, the initials are the same: RET – Radical Economic Transformation. She often adds a few sentences that link the words “land” and “expropriation”. For someone who hardly ever used these phrases before, it is clearly for campaigning purposes only. If she were to win the leadership of the ANC, she would be taking over at a time when the party is at its weakest, electorally speaking, which means she is likely to take the same strategy to national elections in 2019. But is this strategy enough to keep the ANC in power? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma does not appear to be a natural political campaigner. She has very little time for glad-handing, or speaking to the media, or even answering questions. Unlike Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who takes on the issues of the day directly (corruption, the #GuptaLeaks, the economy), Dlamini-Zuma tends to avoid them. On Tuesday she refused to answer questions from journalists, saying it was not a press conference. It’s a strategy unlikely to win her friends among the urban-based media.

But when she speaks at a podium, it is all about Radical Economic Transformation. About why white people should not fear it, about why it is necessary to keep the peace in our society, about why it is a historic imperative to change the ownership patterns and those who manage businesses and own the JSE. She has never spoken like this before.

Generally speaking, in her iterations as African Union Commission Chair, Home Affairs Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister and Health Minister, Dlamini-Zuma has not spoken much about the economy. One should remember that during the Mbeki era, the only people who ever mentioned the economy were Thabo Mbeki himself, and Trevor Manuel. It was not the kind of open issue that it is now. All of this indicates that she is doing this either because she believes all of the ANC policy she helped to implement in the past was wrong, or because it is useful to her campaign.

There can be no doubt that this issue is an indicator to people in the ANC of which side she is on. If someone uses the phrase, they generally support Zuma, if they talk about “inclusive growth” they’re more likely to be on the Ramaphosa side of things. This is why Malusi Gigaba does so much tap-dancing and uses both phrases interchangeably.

But, for general ANC members, those in the branches in both urban and rural areas, Dlamini-Zuma’s message is also about change. Considering our racialised inequality and the rural/urban divide, it has the potential to be a powerful message. Imagine for a moment that you are one of Ramaphosa’s advisers. How do you counter it? By saying that a vote for him is to keep things as they are?

So, if Dlamini-Zuma were to be able to win in December, what would happen next, how would this message fare around the country, among the people who actually have to vote, and decide whether the ANC continues in power or some other formation takes over?

In these discussions there is often a simplistic notion that the poor will always want to eat the rich, that as a result of there being more poor people than rich people the ANC will stay in power, and the middle classes, and particularly white people, will go to the wall.

There are massive problems with this analysis. It presumes that the economy is the only issue, and that the vast majority of the country will simply swallow the notion that the rich must be eaten. Voters are more complicated than that. The ANC has consistently positioned itself as the guardian of the poor, and with less and less success. Last year’s local elections show that in urban areas, people don’t buy it as easily as they used to. They have become cynical about this message. With good reason.

For this message to work, the ANC would also have to ensure that the economy was the only issue. In many democracies, this is effective, as Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But, generally speaking, a slowing economy leads to political change. It is the party in opposition that benefits, and the party in power that suffers. In other words, voters may hear the message of “RET”, but also know that it’s coming from the same green, gold and black colours that have led to the current economic situation. This makes it a much harder message to sell.

It also should not be presumed that the opposition will be standing still. They will try very hard to make the main issue about corruption. Should Dlamini-Zuma win, and President Jacob Zuma himself stay on in the Union Buildings after December, the scandals will only continue. In fact, they’ll probably just reproduce. This would mean that the only way not to have corruption become the major issue of the election would be to control the media. Suddenly, the people who run the SABC will become important again. But the staff at the SABC have become proficient in finding ways to push back against people like Hlaudi Motsoeneng. The independent media, despite declining revenues, is unlikely to die in just two years. Corruption scandals will continue to seep through to voters.

Then there is the issue of land, and land restitution. There is no doubt of this issue’s power but until recently there has been no wide-scale hunger for radical action there. The ANC government has demonstrated how low on the list of priorities this has been by the amount of money given over to land restitution. And while Julius Malema may claim otherwise, his manifesto of land expropriation without compensation has not won him power in any part of the country. So, while it may appear obvious that just this issue alone could win an election, the evidence suggests that is actually quite slim.

One of the features that our democracy shares with others globally is that very few voters actually know the policies of the party they are voting for. Bluntly, policy has never really been a main issue in the past. This could change, but it would be surprising if this were to change dramatically in a short space of time. It could almost certainly be done, but it would require hard work, and an opposition that is unable to counter the message in any way.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the 2019 elections is going to be the poll, the percentage of people who actually vote. If you look at urban areas, the heartlands of the DA, it seems that most of their potential pool of voters is coming out. They are registering and voting. The ANC’s pool of potential voters appears to be several times larger than that of the DA (although, the only poll that can tell us this with any accuracy is actually the election itself). The reason that it has lost power in several metros is that people who used to vote for the ANC did not do so last year. And, if current trends continue, one of the saddest aspects of our politics could be the sight of long queues in the suburbs on voting day, made up of people who have been able to vote their entire lives, while in the townships, people who were only allowed to vote for the first time in 1994 do not bother.

The real challenge for the ANC is to give its potential voters a reason to vote. Considering that they may not be voting precisely because of Jacob Zuma, it could be hard to get them to vote for Dlamini-Zuma. Unless she gives them a reason. Which is possibly what this campaign would be all about.

Dlamini-Zuma is pinning her hopes that the issues of the economy and land will be enough to win her power in the ANC. She may be right. But the country itself is much bigger than the ANC. She would be foolish not to try to  make these the issues. However, on its own, it might not be enough for her to become President. DM

Photo: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma delivered a Key Note Address during the meeting of the African Editors and Press Officers to Popularise Agenda 2063 held at GCIS, Tshedimosetso House in Pretoria, 24/10/2016. Picture: H.E Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma with Acting DG of GCIS, Mr Donald Liphoko

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