South Africa


2019 Election season: When political noise turns into a cacophony

2019 Election season: When political noise turns into a cacophony
An African National Congress (ANC) supporter celebrates during ANC's final mass election rally at Soccer City Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 May 2014. South Africa is to hold its 5th general election since the end of Apartheid on 07 May 2014. EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI

Furious winds are blowing around SA politics these days. Some are coming from within the Zondo Commission of Inquiry, as more evidence is heard about the State Capture era. In KwaZulu-Natal, former president Jacob Zuma is creating whirlwinds of his own on what purports to be an ANC election campaign tour. Meanwhile, the opposition parties appear to be blowing hot and cold on many issues. It is becoming increasingly clear that our politics has changed so much over the last year that politicians don’t quite know where they are just yet. It is becoming increasingly clear that this election will be very different from all of the others. While it is true that they will be more contested than ever, it is also true that the ANC will, for the first time, have the option of actually going on the offensive against both the DA and the EFF, which could change the nature of the campaigns dramatically.

It can always be tough to measure how a political party, or a particular strategy of that party, is doing. There are some metrics that can be used polling, a close evaluation of the national discussion, the number of tweets that appear to support a party (although that may be more useful to those who study Twitter bots), the people calling in to talk radio.

Since our last national election the ANC has lost three metros, dozens of other councils, suffered through the State Capture era, changed its leader and removed a president of the country. Meanwhile the DA has changed its leader, won three metros, lost one of them, gone through the damaging and entirely unnecessary Patricia De Lille saga, and had a serious conflict about diversity within its ranks. The EFF, meanwhile, has appeared to gain ground, through the power it has wielded in the metros, its general ability to determine the subject of the national discussion, and its never failing inflammatory rhetoric. At the same time, it has also lost the best enemy it’s had so far (in Zuma), and been hit hard by the claim that it is corrupt after the collapse of the VBS Bank.

In other words, it’s difficult to know how all of this is being felt among voters. And with the voters not speaking until probably May 2019, it is hard for parties to know how much precise power they actually have. It may be for this reason that the EFF is appearing to flourish in terms of the national discussion. Its supporters are vocal, and loud, while the voters of other parties are not. It may be a classic case of a crowd being made up of 200 people but only 20 of them are shouting. The views of the other 180 are not necessarily heard, but in an election, they still vote.

However, the election that is now coming is likely to be very different from those that went before it for at least one important reason.

For most parties in most democracies, the longer a political party is the party of governance, in other words in power, the more the scandals mount up. A brief examination of human history would suggest that in most cases, scandals are almost inevitable, if a party is in power for long enough. Established democracies, like Germany, France, the US, and many others have all suffered from this problem. The longer a particular person, or a party, is in power, the greater the temptation.

As a result of this, the ANC has often gone into elections facing a barrage of criticism based on its record of governance. Public meetings involving ANC representatives have degenerated into opposition parties queuing up to make claims about the ANC. At times, it’s appeared as if the party has had no answer to this. But that has now changed. And changed significantly.

For every claim that opposition parties will throw at the ANC, it now has a retort. To the DA it can shout and scream about De Lille, and about the problems in Tshwane. It can also claim that the poor in Joburg have not been properly cared for. In other words, it now has a track record of governance that it can attack. While it would be difficult to claim that the DA’s misdeeds are on the same scale as the ANC’s (as far as it is known in the urban-based media, the DA has not actually elected anyone to office who has been convicted or accused of or on a serious offense involving corruption), this may not actually matter to voters. That is because all the ANC may have to do is to actually give its voters (or those who used to vote for it) a reason to vote for the green, gold and black.

To the EFF, of course, the ANC is likely to make comments involving the letters “V”, “B” and “S”. It may also use the worst of the party’s racial rhetoric against it, and make claims about how a vote for the EFF is an irresponsible act, a vote for radicalism and instability.

In the middle of all of this are the voters, who may find it all more of a cacophony than actual political noise. That means that deciding who to vote for could be more difficult. Some could, in turn, just switch off the noise and ignore the elections. Or others may feel that in this case, it is simply better to be led by their political identities; in other words, to vote how they feel their identity leads them. This would obviously be good for the ANC, and bad for the DA.

Meanwhile those in the media will have to try to sort through the noise. So high are the stakes in this election that anyone who is seen as influential is likely to come under attack. The stakes for the media, and those within it who have influence, are likely to be very high as well.

All in all, it could appear that South Africa is going to be a political pressure cooker in 2019. But pressure cookers cannot stay at the same temperature for ever. The election will come one day. It will have a different flavour to those that have gone before it. And when it’s over, much of the current pressure should be released. And things may start to cool down.

Maybe. DM


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