South Africa

ANALYSIS

South Africa’s most pressing question

South Africa’s most pressing question
People of ward 37 in Soshanguve voted in a by-election following the death of ANC ward councillor Siphiwe Montlha on September 05, 2018 in Tshwane, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

As a journalist wandering the hallways and doorways of our politics, I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has taken me aside and asked me the most personal of political questions: ‘Tell me,’ they will whisper, ‘who should I vote for?’

Of course, I have no answer to such a personal question. As a journalist, it is simply not up to me to advise someone on who to vote for. But the fact that the question is being asked so many times, and sometimes incredibly publicly (once even on the radio), suggests that there is a large number of floating, undecided voters out there.

The reason for such a feeling of uncertainty is mostly directed at the ANC internal divisions that are threatening to turn into a chasm, as well as the problems within the DA. Most often, that feeling of a lost compass revolves around one crucial question: If they vote for the ANC are they voting for the ANC of President Cyril Ramaphosa, or are they voting for the ANC of someone completely opposite, a faction that contains too many people who themselves caused the problems of our recent past who, in turn, still openly support former President Jacob Zuma, regardless of his near-catastrophic nine years in power.

It is amazing how consistently “Who should I vote for?” conversations run. Almost always, when speaking to people from the urban middle classes, it goes along one of these lines:

Stephen, look, I used to vote for the ANC, but you know, when all of that stuff started to come out about Zuma, I just left it, I didn’t vote in 2016. And now, I like Cyril, I really want him to be a good President. But you know, yoh, Ace, and Mabuza, I just can’t trust them. So tell me, if I vote for Cyril, will that be enough? Or must I vote for someone else to keep the opposition strong in case Ace, or even Mabuza, somehow pushes Cyril out?”

The other line will often go like this:

I was okay (or happy) to vote for the DA during the Zuma years, and I think Mmusi is a good guy. But I don’t know any more. The DA seems to be tearing itself apart, it doesn’t know what it is any more. And that Patrica de Lille thing stank to high heaven. And I think Cyril would be okay, you know.”

Interestingly, I don’t get nearly as many questions, or doubts, from people who claimed to have voted for the EFF. This may well be because they don’t have that many voters in the urban middle class, but it may also be because their voters are not really “swing voters”: people who voted for the EFF once are very likely to vote for them again. They are a smaller but much more hardcore constituency that often borders on tribal.

All of this is important because it suggests that Ramaphosa is in fact by far the most important factor and variable in this election. In some ways, some swing voters may be deciding which party to vote for based solely on their analysis of his actual power in the ANC. This might well explain the huge interest in this issue, and why so many people (such as myself) write so many articles about exactly that, about whether he is gaining or losing traction within the party.

The ANC itself seems to be aware of this. On Monday evening Mineral Resources Minister and ANC Chairman Gwede Mantashe gave an interview to the SABC News channel. At the end of the interview, he was asked how unified the ANC was at the moment, going into the election. In reply he said:

The ANC is going to do well in the election. Let me tell you one asset we are having, one asset we are having is Cyril Ramaphosa. He is quite an open-minded president. He has quite a good political and intellectual content in putting an issue forward, and people understand him better. He speaks all of the 11 official languages equally, and that gives us an edge….”

The response is interesting in that Mantashe goes straight to the leader of the ANC. In other words, he’s putting what the ANC sees as its biggest vote-getter front and centre. But Mantashe has always been one of Ramaphosa’s biggest fans; it is perhaps due to his design of the voting system used at Nasrec that he won there in the first place.

However, it is not certain that, if ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule had been asked that question, he would have been so forthcoming about his support for Ramaphosa. In fact, it seems unlikely. It must also be true that the factions that oppose Ramaphosa are prepared to do things that we have not seen before during an election campaign. The fact that former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo is still jostling for influence shows this. Over the weekend City Press reported that Ramaphosa’s rally in that province was delayed because of possible sabotage, buses were suddenly unavailable because of a mysterious “block booking” at the last moment. This means that those factions are clearly still prepared to fight during an election, which is a dynamic new to the ANC.

At the same time, there is still consistent chatter about Magashule and Mahumapelo, and others (and by others, we probably mean Jacob Zuma), wanting to use the ANC’s 2020 national general council after the election to remove Ramaphosa. In some ways, for these voters, this is a big fear. The fact that this chatter has been so consistent (the idea was first mentioned roughly a year ago) suggests that there could be action behind it.

However, those who want to remove Ramaphosa still have not answered the bigger problem that would loom after that. Which is who would they replace him with? It’s worth remembering how Deputy President David Mabuza appeared to betray the Premier League at Nasrec. Also, there seems to be no person who would be acceptable to all sides.

And that’s before we ask the question, would the ANC actually survive an NGC that successfully removes Ramaphosa as a single political entity anyway?

For those voters who are trying to determine Ramaphosa’s current strength, there is possibly no better test than the list process that is currently underway to determine who will represent the ANC in the National Assembly. It has already been through a national list conference, a national executive committee meeting, and is now supposedly at the vetting stage. Technically, this phase is supposed to see a committee going through those on the list, and making sure that there is no one there who will embarrass the ANC. It is an excruciatingly deep and high-stakes political process.

Some cases are easy, anyone with a criminal conviction cannot go to Parliament.

Some cases are more complicated, what about people who have been charged but not convicted?

And what about those, such as Women Affairs Minister Bathabile Dlamini, who has been found to have lied under oath by the Constitutional Court, or Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who has been accused in the Zondo Commission of taking bribes? They are much harder cases to determine, as their supporters will claim they have not been convicted.

This may mean then that some voters might like to wait to see that full list. That will accomplish two things:

  • First, it will help them know who actually would represent their vote in the National Assembly.

  • Second, it will help them know how strong Ramaphosa actually is.

In the meantime, the group of swinging voters (Stephen! Watch your language, young man! – Ed) that has a closer affinity to the DA may take another look at the party. While some in the ANC have refused to stop their in-fighting during the election, the DA appears to be managing to put on a united front. Issues around De Lille are now well behind them, the manifesto has been published (which may mean the arguments around racial redress are paused for the moment), and their campaign posters have been up for ages (and for some, the pre-recorded phone calls have passed from slight annoyance to incredibly frustrating). This may mean that they, slowly, become an attractive proposition for some.

Just the fact that there are so many swinging voters (Stephen! This is the last time! – Ed) in this election could turn out to be important for other reasons. Voting in most democracies is largely about identity. That is why certain geographic areas voted so strongly for President Donald Trump in the US, or for Brexit in the UK. In our case, because race (and therefore whether you were oppressed during apartheid or benefited from it) is such an important determinant of a political identity it has tended to almost direct the many voters’ choices. Now, just the fact that there is a group of swing voters (Better! – Ed), albeit only between the ANC and the DA, suggests that political identities are changing. There are white voters quite prepared to vote for the ANC to support Ramaphosa. There are black voters considering voting for the DA to stop a return to the ANC of Zuma.

This suggests that our political identities are changing. It’s an important shift. In the longer run, it means that elections become much more contested, and that political parties will have to work harder for voters. It may well also mean that their choice of leader is more important. In other words, all parties will need to have leaders seen as both inspirational and corruption-free in order to compete properly. Also, it is a strong sign that the ANC could not afford to have a leader like Zuma ever again, if they were to contest truly democratic elections. DM

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