South Africa

ANALYSIS

Herman Mashaba could be the main beneficiary of South Africa’s shifting political landscape

Herman Mashaba. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

There’s a growing gap opening in our political landscape. The ANC is rapidly losing the SA people’s confidence, and what was left of trust, while the DA seems to have lost some of its grip on the middle ground, leaving an increasing space for new players. The most likely to benefit from this moral and ideological atrophy is Herman Mashaba’s new outfit, even if there are still significant limits to what anyone can realistically achieve in the short to medium term.

There’s virtually no doubt about a yawning chasm in our politics. The ANC is sinking to new depths of the scandal swamp, with some of its public officials openly saying, and without a hint of irony or shame, that there is nothing wrong with ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule doing business with the state. The statement from its National Executive Committee this week that it is “embarrassed and outraged” over the scandal around Covid-19 procurement has led many people to simply refuse to believe them.

And yet, there appears to be no political force that comes close to successfully challenging the ANC.

The DA, obviously, is still closest to that task. Its (interim) leader John Steenhuisen said this week that their polling shows the party’s national support is better than it was at the time of last year’s election. But even that would appear to show the party is still well below the 30% mark, a full 28 points behind the 58% of the national vote the ANC received last year.

Then there is the EFF. For a while, it appeared that the EFF was rising strongly. But now, it appears to be in the doldrums, with a policy of trying to keep everyone at home for as long as possible during the pandemic. The VBS scandal has made a serious dent in the image of fearless fighters for the poorest of the poor and it seems to be making it difficult for its leaders to make much progress. Ideologically, the party occupies a space well to the left of where most South Africans, or the African nationalist right, depending on how you see it, are positioned. While some of their racial messaging does appeal to many of the forgotten people, their Gaddafi/Chavez-like socialist utopia doesn’t gel well with the voters who are proud and protective of their private properties.

It appears that there is a space that could be contested and, in the process, take the votes from both the ANC and the DA.

Step forward, Herman Mashaba.

At the moment, he appears to be the one man who can possibly embark on that quest and expect real results. He is seen as “politically black enough”, someone who suffered during apartheid and clearly understands today’s lived experience of the people the ANC forgot. Mashaba can also, being a spectacularly successful entrepreneur in his own right, speak to the middle classes of all races who are increasingly disenchanted by what they see as the DA’s libertarian pivot that helped unseat Mmusi Maimane and which threatens to reverse the advances the party made over the past decade.

At the same time, Mashaba has worked assiduously to use certain issues to bolster his support. His criticism of “illegal foreign nationals” has been tuned to reflect what many see as a rising tide of xenophobia in our nation. This tide may rise dangerously further if the events in Zimbabwe force another wave of economic and political refugees from the north. Mashaba’s challenge is to fine-tune his approach to still appear as the one near-populist politician in the country who can promise law and order while also preaching the freedoms that are seen as non-negotiable in modern democracies – not an easy task.

But Mashaba’s big advantages are what they have always been: he has name-recognition, and money and organisation are not the big problems they are for smaller parties. He appears to have the best chance of creating a proper movement.

It will not be easy. When forming a new political entity, one has to set the principles and policies, and find the right people to work with, the people who agree with the founding ideas and can perform well in leadership positions and will toil without plotting to take power from the leader in the not-too-distant-future. To put it another way, one of the reasons that Jacob Zuma was able to stay ANC president for so long was that for the longest time Gwede Mantashe was the secretary-general who was doing his job. The fact that this is not happening in the ANC these days and that the party is weakening by the day, just shows how important is this level of trust and support for the leadership.

And the last few weeks have seen Mashaba recruiting people to fill the important roles at his incoming party.

Last week the DA’s regional chair in Tshwane, Abel Tau, left the party to join Mashaba. He followed in the footsteps of Funzile Ngobeni, who used to be the chair of the DA caucus in Joburg.

He has said he will not fight for political power only in certain areas but in the whole country. While contesting only certain areas may in fact be a better strategy, he has said he is not going to take this line. This means that he will have to establish a massive organisation countrywide. The scale of this task should not be underestimated. In all of our democratic history, only the ANC has been able to have a candidate in each of the 4,392 wards in South Africa. Such organisation takes time, money and great expertise to set up – almost an impossible project to complete in time for the 2021 elections.

Already the message that Mashaba is sending is that the DA is not the place for black people. He is likely to keep making this point in the future.

As for the ANC, the sheer outrage of society at alleged corruption may be enough for him to score serious points here. He has spoken against corruption many times, and presents the face of someone against whom no serious corruption allegations have been made. (However, the DA is likely to claim that he was aware of corruption in the City of Joburg when he was its mayor, and did deals with EFF leaders to allow them to engage in corruption.)

The attitude of the ANC to Mashaba may be revealing in terms of how the party itself feels about this possible “threat”.

On Tuesday the Gauteng ANC said it was lodging a case of crimen injuria against Mashaba and The Citizen newspaper after he claimed on Twitter that ANC members had broken lockdown regulations at a recent funeral. The ANC says that those images were from an event before the lockdown. The Citizen carried his claims. But the paper has now retracted its story and apologised to the ANC and the family of the deceased. Mashaba is now likely to have to follow their example.

This is a minor incident, but the fact the ANC feels it had to act against Mashaba suggests it may well see him as a threat in Gauteng.

And yet, there are still significant limits to what Mashaba can achieve in the roughly 12 months before the 2021 local elections.

It is worth remembering that all of the significant political parties active now have roots that go back to the apartheid era. The ANC was formed to fight colonialism and apartheid, the DA was formed from the white parliamentary opposition to apartheid, and the EFF came out of the ANC. There are important structural reasons for this.

It is hard to form a new movement, and it is very difficult to create a new organisation. Julius Malema himself is likely to agree on this point. Mashaba may be rich, but he will still find it very difficult to do.

He has said he will not fight for political power only in certain areas but in the whole country. While contesting only certain areas may in fact be a better strategy, he has said he is not going to take this line. This means that he will have to establish a massive organisation countrywide. The scale of this task should not be underestimated. In all of our democratic history, only the ANC has been able to have a candidate in each of the 4,392 wards in South Africa. Such organisation takes time, money and great expertise to set up – almost an impossible project to complete in time for the 2021 elections.

And each time a local branch or structure is set up, the potential for scandal or abuse of funds or simple incompetent politics grows. Just one such scandal can tarnish his entire movement.

At the same time, our politics can be a very tough space. While Mashaba may well be making headway with near-xenophobic comments, at some point he could easily be slapped with findings against them by the SA Human Rights Commission.

Events this year have shown that our politics are now being conducted in a rapidly evolving space, where the speed of change grows, as well as the amplitude in public sentiment. Should he be successful in predicting the change, and even in driving the change, Mashaba has a chance to carve a space for his new political party. Many things will need to fall into the right place, and many a careful strategic decision will have to be made.

His biggest challenge may be the fight against voter apathy. One of the more likely outcomes of next year’s local elections is that people simply don’t show up to vote, especially if they feel none of the parties is worth their trust. Mashaba will have to energise the masses of people who do not trust the system any more. It is a monumental challenge, but he just might be up for it. DM

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