South Africa

ANALYSIS

The end of the ANC’s ‘Better Life for ALL’? Likely to happen, and it would be devastating for South Africa

From left: Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach) | Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Lulama Zenzile) | Good leader and former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille. (Photo: Leila Dougan / Daily Maverick) | ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | Herman Mashaba, leader of ActionSA. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

These 2021 polls, which certainly will be remembered for the pressure felt by the ANC, may have also been the final election in which any of the major parties tried to claim that they are for a better life for all South Africans.

Such a shift could have profound consequences for our politics. It may introduce a dynamic where the only way to win elections and run campaigns is to aim to win what might be called “50% plus one”. This may increase benefits to campaign for certain groups and against other groups. That move, in turn, could change South Africa’s political game fundamentally. 

One of the more remarkable occurrences of this last local election was the fact that both ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance were campaigning in the same constituencies, in the same part of the country (Gauteng) while using the same shade of green. Looking deeper at some of the parties may reveal more similarities.

Consider Cope, ActionSA and perhaps even the Good party.

What really differentiates them from each other?

ActionSA and the Good party are both run by people with strong personalities, but there the differences may be hard to discern. Cope, which exploded onto the political stage with more than a million votes in 2009, has all but disappeared.

To look through their policy documents or the promises they make is to see these parties making the same claims, that they will improve service delivery, stop corruption and somehow improve the lives of people.

If it is possible for so many voters to move from the DA to ActionSA within the space of just two years, this suggests that some voters do not see that much difference between them.

This gets to the heart of one of the big challenges: running a political party and winning votes. In many democracies, it is not possible to get vast majorities or to appeal to everyone. This is why in the US and the UK dividing people has become a deliberate political tactic. They use wedge issues to do this in an incredibly cynical and, frankly, evil fashion (Barack Obama once remarked that the Republicans used the issues of “God, gays and guns” to do this; Donald Trump, of course, went even further on issues of identity).

It appears that this is the kind of politics we will see from now on. Already, it seems, some in the ANC have seen this, and are beginning to move towards this kind of politics.

In an interview on the sidelines of the ANC’s “Thank You” in Soweto on Monday, Panyaza Lesufi, the deputy leader of the party in Gauteng, was fairly explicit about it. Talking to Newzroom Afrika’s Pelane Phakgadi, he said this: 

“We can’t be everything to everyone, it’s a difficult mission. In Gauteng, if there is a price that we’ve paid, it’s that we can’t be everything to everyone. Because those that have roads will complain about something, those that don’t have the roads will complain about the roads, those that we’ve given houses, they will complain about something, those that don’t have houses will complain about houses, those that are not employed will complain about something, those that are employed will complain about something. So we can’t be everything to everyone; the African National Congress needs to pick up a niche and stand for that niche.”

This may be the biggest indication yet that the ANC is about to abandon the concept of a broad umbrella standing for the entire country. And while its critics have argued for many years that it has not been a party for the entire nation, it has at least claimed to be. 

Accordingly, many other parties have also been forced by the prevailing political and societal winds to make similar claims.

Up until this point only smaller parties have been explicit about standing for just a small group of people. Al Jama-ah, the Patriotic Alliance, perhaps even the IFP are good examples of this.

Now, bigger parties may consider being explicit about working for particular groups only.

In the recent past, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have arguably tried to appeal to one group – young, black people – by trying to portray themselves as the only party fighting anti-black racism. But some of the public comments of its leaders (Julius Malema’s “it’s not time to slaughter the whites… yet”, “it’s time to cut the throat of whiteness in Nelson Mandela Bay”, Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi tweeting this week that “Whiteness is a big problem”) may indicate that the EFF is also campaigning “against” a particular group.

The bigger parties may now follow this strategy, by identifying wedge issues and using them to campaign in the way the EFF has done.

Of course, this would be destructive and result in more difficult contestation in our society. It would also be a huge change to our politics.

But there are some handbrakes that may prevent this kind of extreme shift from taking over completely.

Our country is so diverse that winning “50% plus one” still means that a party has to win the votes of a vast number of different constituencies. This makes it hard for a party to succeed by campaigning against other parties, or constituencies it doesn’t really care for.

Even if it is the case that we are moving into an era of permanent coalitions, this handbrake may still apply. It would be hard for a party representing a constituency to work with another party that had campaigned explicitly against that same constituency (in some ways, this has happened already: before this election both the DA and the FF+ said they would not work with the EFF).

This means even parties that are aiming for less than “50% plus one” may still find it difficult to form a coalition by actively campaigning against a particular group.  

But it could still cause problems.

Parties that win a small majority in some places may be tempted to serve only their constituencies, simply to stay in power. They could introduce a “permanent campaign” while in government, and thus disadvantage other groups. This could reduce social cohesion and make services worse for “other” people.

But, it is worth repeating, while this may work in local government, it is unlikely to work in national, or even provincial, government because of our social diversity.

In the meantime, parties wanting to contest in 2024, and particularly in the local elections in five years’ time, may find that the only way to seriously contest for power is to properly differentiate themselves from other parties.

And doing that requires a great deal more than just finding the right shade of green. DM

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All Comments 9

  • Absolutely, and to differentiate themselves, they need to better nail their colour to the mast. Presently none of them does. (Except, Fascist EFF who want to kill anyone white or who disagrees with them.) Party policy statements are anaemic.

  • Electoral reform cannot come quick enough. The reform will be the death-knell for the ANC, who have created a worse life for most South Africans through their corruption, cadre deployment, mismanagement and ineptitude.

  • Things will look vastly different if the shift to voting for local parties strengthens. I don’t care much about a party’s national policies when it gets to my council vote : I want local service delivery from local people.

    The DA and the ANC do the same cadre deployment, parachuting people into councils from party internal lists.

  • Well, maybe a long time ago ,the ANC was the synonym for a “ better life for all” but certainly over the last decade or more , that has degenerated into a “ better life “ for some cadres and most definitely not for the general populace, who have experienced the fruits of corruption in fewer jobs less service delivery etc etc. Not a good story to tell.

  • Having travelled widely on the African continent, the biggest threat from “niche” politics is that it opens the door to mobilisation based on ethnicity. This is called “tribalism” in other African countries. One of the easiest ways to get 10% of votes in a country is to claim to represent an ethnic group that feels marginalised. Freedom Front + is doing this now. IFP has been doing this all along – in a muted way.

    But if you want to see a total destruction of South Africa’s political system, we must fight this tendency lest we follow in the footsteps of Liberia, DRC, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, CAR, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and other countries where ethnic politics morphed into brutal civil war.

    The great benefit to SA of the ANC’s “broad church” was that it had a zero tolerance for ethnic politics. We need to retain that culture in SA’s body politic.

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