Local Government Elections ANALYSIS
Herman Mashaba’s forthcoming political choices will seal Action SA’s fate
While it appears that Action SA is getting more attention than other parties, its leader, Herman Mashaba, may soon need to make a few difficult decisions, which could limit further growth.
One of the big questions ahead of the local government elections is, where will the “ANC vote” go, should voters decide to stop their support for the governing party? For the moment, of all new players in the political market, Herman Mashaba’s Action SA is gaining the most attention.
While some of this is because the party is well-resourced, it may also be because Mashaba’s message is carefully designed to hit home with potential voters, with a strategy that involves previously held views around race and how and why people vote.
As the pandemic continues and unemployment rises there is evidence that the three biggest parties are losing traction, while the IFP is not moving out of its stronghold in KwaZulu-Natal (and, to an extent, in Gauteng).
At the same time, some of the smaller parties, such as Bantu Holomisa’s UDM, may be losing support.
Additionally, the percentage of people planning to vote appears to be declining, indicating that they are not energised by what the current players are offering.
There is now a large gap. And it is a gap which Mashaba is exploiting. He has become very active. A brief look at the Action SA website has the potential to be exhausting.
Last week, Mashaba unveiled a memorial for Nathaniel Julies who was killed, allegedly by police officers, in Eldorado Park in August 2020. Other party members were in Tshwane looking at the water situation in Hammanskraal, and yet others were in Mamelodi investigating the deaths of two children who drowned there.
The party publishes statements twice a day. In certain parts of Joburg green Action SA posters adorn (some would say “litter”) the landscape.
While all of these issues are different, the theme is the same: in the world of Action SA, all of South Africa’s problems are caused by the ANC.
Mashaba has been explicit about this from the very start. He has said that he will work in a coalition government with any party except the ANC. Even a question in a radio interview about his own party’s first birthday is responded to with criticism of the ANC.
It is likely that Mashaba and his party are doing this deliberately.
They may be reading the national mood as building against the ANC. And that it will be possible to get votes from people whose main motivation is to vote “against the ANC” rather than “for” any particular party.
One of the key indicators of voting behaviour, here and in other democracies, is identity. Our racialised inequality has led to a situation where commentators have claimed that racial identity is the prime determinant of voting behaviour.
It should be remembered, as other commentators have pointed out, that in our recent past black voters have been more likely to change their voting behaviour than white voters.
In KwaZulu-Natal the IFP governed after the 1994 and 1999 elections, then the province voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ANC when former president Jacob Zuma was its leader, and now the ANC is worried about losing support there.
In Gauteng it appears that some black voters moved from the ANC to the DA in 2016, and then possibly moved back, or stopped voting.
Meanwhile, white voters appear to have moved from the New National Party in 1994 to the DA (which included the NNP) and then pretty much stayed with the DA for the last 20 years.
But despite these movements, there has been a consistent view that many people vote for the ANC because they are black. Now it may be that Mashaba is trying to decouple racial identity from voting behaviour.
Take the example of the Cuban engineers.
The ANC has historic ties with Cuba, and Cuban soldiers fought against soldiers of the apartheid regime at Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, in 1988. For many years Cuban leaders have been treated in South Africa as heroes by the current government and many voters.
But when the then Water Affairs Minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced that Cuban engineers were coming to help with water problems in South Africa, Mashaba led the charge against them.
This forced the National Society of Black Engineers of South Africa to consider its constituency, which, of course, included black engineers who are unemployed. As a result, it came out against the move. That allowed other organisations, including the overwhelmingly white union Solidarity, to do the same.
The moves started a much bigger conversation in which many people criticised Sisulu, and in particular the cost of the initiative.
The identity of the people who were criticising Sisulu suggests that Mashaba may have been able to use this to decouple racial identity from voting behaviour, that he may have been able to separate black voters from the ANC on the issue of Cuba.
There are other examples of this behaviour.
Mashaba has also been championing the cause of the three people who died underground in the Lily Mine in Mpumalanga. Pretty Nkambule, Solomon Nyirenda and Yvonne Mnisi died when the lamp room container they were in sank deep underground.
Some of their relatives have refused to leave the site of the mine, demanding that their remains be recovered. The company that owned the mine went into business rescue, while the cost of sinking a new shaft that would allow the lamp room to be recovered has been estimated at around R130-million.
Mashaba has been supporting the families and launched a civil court action aimed at helping them get restitution.
This has allowed Action SA to consistently criticise the mine’s management and the ANC government for allowing this to happen. This is part of a move to show that Action SA cares more for black miners and their families than the ANC does.
While it appears that Action SA is getting more attention than other parties, Mashaba may soon need to make some difficult decisions, which could limit further growth.
It is unlikely that he will win enough votes to control a majority in any council or metro, even in Joburg where he is running as the mayoral candidate.
This means that for him to have any power at all and to avoid relegation to the opposition benches, he will have to join a coalition with other parties. It may be that the greater the number of parties in a coalition, the less stable it is.
Senior figures in the ANC have said that they expect to govern through coalitions in the near future. (Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina recently published a book on the subject). Mashaba has already promised to never be a part of a coalition with the biggest party in the country, the party most likely to be able to form administrations in councils.
This limits his options after the elections. He could end up having to join a coalition with his former party, the DA, and the EFF. This is unlikely to lead to stable governing.
He could even end up in a position where he wins just enough seats in a city to form a coalition with the ANC and no one else. And yet he has already shut down this option.
Also, just going into a coalition with a group of parties, a potentially unstable coalition, could cause him to be tarnished by the behaviour of his coalition partners. He could be politically damaged by being in an administration that is perceived as corrupt.
There can be no doubt that Mashaba has sunk significant resources into Action SA. This may turn into some support in the elections. But what is likely to be more important over the longer term are the political choices that he makes in the coming weeks and months. DM
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