‘Taliban’ win shoves ANC KZN further away from reality – and South African voters
The public show of support for former President Jacob Zuma displayed by delegates at the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal conference over the weekend demonstrates just how different the province is from the rest of the country. The fact that the delegates were singing their hearts out in support of Zuma, when much of the country is livid with him, shows just how separated the provincial party is from the national scene.
This unwavering support for what can only be described as the failed president could come at a cost to the ANC, though. An electoral toll for this support will have to be paid; based on current election trends, that price will be dire even in KZN itself.
The stand-out feature of the beginning of this weekend’s KZN ANC conference was the sight and sound of delegates singing the song “Wenzeni uZuma” (often translated as “What did Zuma do?”).
After delegates voted, it was obvious that Premier Sihle Zikalala had lost the support of this province in the ANC. The Zuma supporting Siboniso Duma, a member of what’s called the “Taliban” faction, won 930 votes and Zikalala received 665.
If anyone needed proof, this clearly showed how strong still is the ANC’s biggest province behind Zuma, and presumably against current President and ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa.
This is not necessarily surprising, after all Zuma dominated KZN for many years – it would be odd for his support to dissipate overnight.
However, it is also true that the KZN ANC now has a leader who supports Zuma more strongly than the incumbent leader. Zikalala and his team appeared to be moving slowly away from Zuma and towards Ramaphosa. Now the local party is firmly back in Zuma’s warm embrace.
Despite the previously unimaginable violence, chaos and destruction centred in KZN and Gauteng last year, despite all the Zondo Commission testimony and findings, and despite our current socioeconomic situation, the KZN ANC supports Zuma more strongly than it once did. Almost 400 lives and $3-billion in damages could not erase the love for a man who betrayed his own country.
Exceptionalism that indeed is, for Zuma AND for the KZN ANC.
And yet, if Zuma were still the leader of the ANC now, what percentage would it get in national and provincial elections?
Even when Zuma was still President in 2017 his approval rating fell to 20%.
The answer is surely a lot lower than it did in 2019 when it was led by Ramaphosa.
While the debate around whether there was what Ramaphosa called an “ethnic mobilisation” to this is important and complex, the fact the violence did not spread beyond KZN and parts of Gauteng is significant.
To some, this shows that KZN has a different character to the rest of the country, that is in a league of its own.
They could even point to our history, to the fact that we only became a nation state 122 years ago, or that our real nationhood only started in 1994. And that South Africa was always a complicated mixture of groups made up of different ethnicities, languages and races.
One could even argue that considering the rise of identity politics, and a politics based on more than the elements of identity based on race (elements like language and ethnicity appear to be driving voting behaviour more than race did in the recent past) it would be no surprise to see this “KZN exceptionalism” rearing its head.
But there are important limits to how far this argument can go.
It is true that in the years after Zuma became leader of the ANC in 2007 the party’s share of the vote in that province shot up – he was clearly the reason for this.
But the ANC is now nowhere near as popular in KZN as it was. During last year’s local elections its support fell to just 41.44% – in fact, it could be in danger of losing the province in the provincial and national elections in 2024.
It appears that the real exceptionalism, the real support for Zuma may be confined mostly to the large sections of the ANC in KZN, and not the province itself.
It is starting to be crucially important to differentiate between the two.
This is part of a much bigger phenomenon, one the ANC itself has warned about many times – the party that appears obsessed with internal dynamics will end up not winning back the support of the electorate.
Certainly, it may give the impression to many voters that its members are more interested in internal fights for power and access to money than actual good governance.
To put this in the crispest terms, for a party to show its support for a leader known to have led a corrupt regime, and doing it while in danger of losing the province could lead to political suicide.
Some may even suggest a certain irrationality, that to back Zuma now, knowing that he is unpopular in most of the country is just not a very wise thing to do.
But this also suggests that many in the KZN ANC, especially the higher strata, are simply unable to throw off Zuma – way too many are beholden to him and his faction. As a result, while demonstrating support for Zuma may win short-term support from some in the party, it will not translate into any kind of tangible political gain.
The most that these people can hope for is to challenge Ramaphosa, perhaps through a nomination of former Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.
But even if that happens, it is still unlikely that he could beat Ramaphosa in the ANC in December. And certainly, the figure of Mkhize on the ANC’s election posters is unlikely to convince voters that the party is serious about fighting corruption, while falling in line behind the Digital Vibes scandal’s central cast player.
The ANC could end up losing control of the national government, and many provincial premierships, should it indeed embark on such a callous and self-centred course. South Africa does not trust it anymore – choosing an openly corrupt faction as its standard bearer will go a long way towards breaking the ties forever.
There are plenty of examples of a political party being so isolated and insulated from reality to lose touch with the electorate, fight the wrong battles and lose major elections as a result.
The ANC in KZN may soon prove to be another example of this. This weekend’s conference foreshadows what could happen to the ANC as a whole. DM