I’m picking up bad vibrations: ANC’s many Digital Vibes-spiced problems in a time of elections
The ANC goes into the local elections on 1 November with more and bigger problems than it had in previous campaigns — the Digital Vibes scandal being foremost.
As the nation digests the full contents of the Special Investigating Unit’s report on the Digital Vibes scandal, the effect it may have on the local elections is increasingly important. While this is only the brand-new, latest, most egregious and enraging symbol of corruption within the ANC, it is important because it involved especially horrifying examples of callousness — well-connected people running away with the money that was supposed to help citizens from contracting and dying of Covid-19.
It is also clear that the ANC is well aware that it has a mountain to climb in the aftermath of the Zondo Commission. Major questions which need to be answered are whether voters believe electing another party into power in their council will really end corruption and whether “normal” services will be restored at all. The answers are not clear.
Of all the major parties, the ANC is the only one that has to campaign in this election against its own track record in government. It is mainly the ANC councils that are failing and where corruption is occurring. The party’s manifesto launch and the comments by President Cyril Ramaphosa are an implicit admission of that guilt.
However, the situation may become even worse for the ANC.
While the corruption which has been examined by the Zondo Commission reveals how deeply entrenched certain practices were, they occurred before Ramaphosa came to office and could perhaps be blamed on former president Jacob Zuma.
The Digital Vibes scandal occurred on Ramaphosa’s watch and involved a person he himself appointed, the now-former health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize.
Here Ramaphosa and the image he is attempting to portray may be vulnerable. He cannot claim to have taken decisive action against Mkhize. Placing someone on special leave, and then allowing him to resign hours before the Cabinet reshuffle is not an act of righting wrongs through bold action.
Then there are the details of the scandal that was broken and led by Scorpio’s Pieter-Louis Myburgh, that money flowed from the health department to a luxury holiday in Turkey, how as Mkhize was warning South Africa about the forthcoming second wave of Covid-19, Taheera Mather was spending R90,400 at a Gucci shop in Sandton.
It is likely that this scandal will continue and will not be forgotten on the day voters gather at the polls, 1 November.
This is because some of the officials in the health department are still in their posts. These include the director-general, Dr Sandile Buthelezi (currently on “precautionary suspension” with full pay), and a deputy director-general, Dr Anban Pillay.
The important questions are whether there will be proper accountability for this scandal, will people go to jail, and will that include Mkhize himself?
It would surely follow that if money was stolen from the department during a pandemic, and some of the money found its way to Mkhize and his family accounts, people should be jailed. It is almost certain that there will not be any proper accountability before voting day, perhaps not even before the 2024 elections.
The ANC has other complex problems on the campaign trail.
While this is about local government, questions might well be asked about Zuma, who is still a hugely divisive figure. Many believed his incarceration for defying the Constitutional Court was a victory for the rule of law, but others feel he was unfairly treated.
Either way, his absence at the ANC’s election manifesto launch on Monday was expected, but still interesting. Particularly so because the two previous presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, were both there.
The other person who was missing from the stage on Monday night was the secretary-general, Ace Magashule, who is currently suspended.
While there is very little evidence that he has the following that Zuma once had, it is still indicative of the problems within the party. The snags over the candidate selection process and the fact that the ANC missed the first deadline to lodge its candidates’ list may well have been a consequence of that suspension.
Closely linked with that is the level of violence within the ANC.
Last week ANC councillor Tshepo Motaung was killed in a hail of bullets in Tshwane. He was the fourth ANC councillor in Tshwane to have died in the past year. It follows the killing of three women in KwaZulu-Natal outside an ANC meeting this month.
While the ANC has gone into elections divided before, including in 2016 and 2019, these divisions may well spill over into the campaigning itself.
All of this points to much bigger problems for the ANC in this election campaign than in past campaigns.
Still, this does not necessarily translate into an automatic loss of support at the polls.
It may be important to ask if voters believe that changing the party in power in their council will automatically result in less corruption.
The parties who will benefit most from the ANC’s problems appear to be the DA and the EFF, and perhaps Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA.
Some voters may find it difficult to believe the EFF’s promises that it will do away with corruption. While its leadership refuses to directly react to accusations about the VBS scandal, there is strong evidence that both its leader, Julius Malema, and its deputy leader, Nyiko Floyd Shivambu, did personally, and massively, benefit from the scandal.
Meanwhile, the Mr Delivery party, the DA, has also had some problems in government. Stevens Mokgalapa had to resign as the mayor of Tshwane. In Nelson Mandela Bay, the current DA mayor (and its mayoral candidate for the elections) is Nqaba Bhanga. He was recently involved in a post-curfew car crash in which two people died. The accident happened, perhaps coincidentally, after his birthday party.
Voters may believe that there are very few candidates who will prevent corruption.
Of course, some of the newer and yet untested players may well convince people that they will prevent corruption, but that is not certain.
This creates a situation where the ANC may have to chiefly rely on what might be its main, also weakening, weapon: Ramaphosa himself. He still has the highest approval ratings of all politicians in the country, even if that support is weakening.
The ANC may well rely on him to appear in public often to make the party’s case. But if he is seen to fail he could become vulnerable within the party itself.
For the moment, the Digital Vibes scandal is a defining image of the ANC’s failing-grade governance during the pandemic. It is important for the party to try to move on, to change the story. How it will do that with people like Carl Niehaus campaigning for it, remains to be seen…
This election is happening in strange circumstances where the country is facing huge problems.
The ANC’s only saving grace may be that other parties are also suffering in those same strange circumstances and have problems of their own. DM