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2019 Elections - ANALYSIS

Curiouser and Curiouser – the strange case of the 2019 elections

The IEC National Elections Result Centre in Pretoria. (Photo: Deaan Vivier/ Gallo Images/Media 24)

This has, by any standards, been a rather strange election campaign by the major parties. The ANC is riven with factionalism, the DA spends its time attacking other parties rather than putting its own message across, and the EFF is beginning to emerge as a force bigger than just one man, Julius Malema.

While the elections are now just two days away (and the results perhaps three or four), predictions are flying thick and fast. And the result itself will give good indications of how the country has changed, and in which direction it is likely to be going.

It is now becoming possible to examine the campaigns themselves, and how they have been received. This can give us some early clues as to the mood of the nation. A close examination of the campaigns, how they have landed, and how they are different from those in previous elections, may give important insights into what has changed in the country, even if the election results turn out to be well within current predictions.

The first point to make is that this might well be the last election between only a few “big tent” parties.

It is becoming more and more clear that South Africans are splintering into different constituencies. The era of just a few big parties may be coming to an end. A party like the DA that used to represent minorities and some urban black people, now appears to be losing the force of gravity necessary to keep all of those constituencies in one tent. Some white voters appear to be moving towards the FF+, others may be attracted to the Capitalist Party of SA, still, others are tempted to give their vote to the ANC of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

This could well have an impact on the ANC in the longer run. It could also accelerate, because of the structure of our politics. The system of proportional representation means that very few votes are wasted (the only votes that are wasted are those that go to parties who don’t get a seat, or have votes “leftover” in the seat allocation process). The fact that there has been a possible weakening of the authority of the centre also has an impact here.

And of course the situation within the ANC is such that it continues to appear that a split, or splintering, is imminent, the severity, timing and nature of it depending on how the contestation between Ramaphosa and secretary general Ace Magashule ends.

(Ace Magashule, obviously, being a figurehead for the forces loyal to Jacob Zuma and his “philosophy” of “governing” South Africa – ed)

Perhaps the next most important dynamic is the growth in the constituency attracted to radical change – which is a wordy way of saying that the Economic Freedom Fighters has clearly grown in support.

But perhaps more importantly than that, it has had an outsize impact on the nature of the communication during this election. And that has changed the nature of the national debate itself. While Julius Malema was often labelled as “extreme”, and seen as representing just a small group of people, that has surely changed.

He, and his party, now give the appearance of being part of the political establishment. This is probably a reflection of his clever use of the Parliament rules, and the leading role he and his fellow fighters took in the fightback against former President Jacob Zuma.

Key to this has been what looks like the establishment of a national structure for his party. In the past, the EFF could give the appearance of a one-man party (the gender reference deliberate here – ed). Now it seems to be giving the appearance of a sustainable political force.

If this is reflected in the final voting tally, it could mean that the EFF is going to be an important part of any discussion in our politics for many years to come.

However, there is a note of caution that should be introduced here. Polling appears to still show that the party is concentrated in the north of the country, and in particular Gauteng and Limpopo. In places like the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal it is still battling to make headway and establish any kind of presence.

The appetite for extreme positions is also reflected in the air time that has been given to another person who claims to be radical, the Black First Land First movement, led by Andile Mngxitama. He still appears to be a part of some kind of “spoiler” initiative. He previously took money from the disgraced PR agency, Bell Pottinger, and tried to protect the Guptas and Jacob Zuma.

But due to the extremist nature of his comments, and through the narrow interests of the Freedom Front Plus (which took his party to court in a bid to deregister it), he has received a lot of attention. This may, or may not, have had an effect of legitimising his message.

While these dynamics have been under way, another dynamic within the ANC has also been revealed for the first time in these elections.

In the past, the ANC has generally stopped the infighting and gathered itself around its leader during elections. When he was secretary general, Gwede Mantashe once said that he preferred to have two election cycles every five years because the campaigns helped to foster unity in the party.

That no longer seems to be the case. The sniping, the continual rumours around an alleged attempt to remove Ramaphosa from office, and of course the situation around Magashule, all of this has given the impression that it is a house properly divided.

And particularly, that the divisions that led to its Nasrec conference and that outcome have not been healed.

This is likely to be most important dynamic after the election (presuming that the Institute of Race Relations poll is wrong and the ANC remains in power). It is likely that we will see these divisions spill over, perhaps as soon as the discussions around Ramaphosa’s cabinet begin.

This could well lead to much turmoil within the ANC, and a situation where there is little certainty. Much will depend on the Cabinet appointments, and whether Ramaphosa is seen to be able to assert his will or not.

It may well still be fair to say that the most important dynamic in South Africa is what happens inside the ANC, rather than the result of an election itself.

There is another dynamic which has become much more apparent in this election, which is related to the way the political parties discuss themselves. More and more, it seems, parties are attacking other parties, rather than concentrating on their own offerings. More parties are using negative campaigning rather than offering a version of the future.

There is plenty of evidence for this. The DA has thousands of posters claiming that a vote for the ANC is a vote for the EFF. While it has done this in the past (in 2009 it’s final election poster blared the words “Stop Zuma”), it seems to have almost avoided discussing its own offering this time around.

Other parties have done the same, the FF+ simply uses the phrase “Slaan Terug” or “Hit Back”. The EFF, while focusing on its core call, “Our Land and Jobs Now” has also spent time criticising other parties.

And of course, everyone has had a go at the ANC. The ANC for its part has also tended to focus on the other parties, perhaps to move the focus away from its own internal problems.

There are several reasons for this. Most of the big parties now have major problems in themselves. The ANC is involved in a battle royal between Ramaphosa and Magashule, the DA is embroiled in problems around race-based redress, and the EFF is battling perception issues stemming from theier leaders’ role in VBS scandal. Even the UDM, generally seen as clean, may now find it has to explain why it is still defending Mongameli Bobani’s reign as mayor in Nelson Mandela Bay.

All of that said, this is important for the future.

It is unlikely that these parties will be able to resolve their problems. That means that our political conversation could soon devolve simply into a fight to prove that other parties are worse, rather than that one’s party is better. In other words, we may find that only negative campaigning is used. In short, there will be a race to the bottom.

This is likely to deepen distrust among voters, with the net effect that fewer and fewer people vote.

And this is the other big dynamic in this election.

Research by pollsters suggests that fully one-third of eligible voters won’t actually cast a ballot on Wednesday. This is surely the highest proportion of people not voting in national and provincial elections since 1994.

While this also happens as democracies mature, in our case, with so many pressing problems, it is a bad sign that so many people are simply giving up hope in formal politics. This is storing up trouble for the future.

To look at all of these dynamics taken together, it is not an optimistic picture. All of these trends may well be negative in the longer run. However, there is still space for voters to speak, and for leadership to emerge after that.

Certainly, it will take a massively surprising result to turn any of these trends around. DM

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