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A calm before the storm or just another quiet(ish) election campaign season?

A calm before the storm or just another quiet(ish) election campaign season?
Illustrative image: ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Netwerk 24) | A boy carries an ANC poster in Mamelodi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Lefty Shivambu) | Luthuli House, Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Lubabalo Lesolle)

The past few weeks have seen a period featuring what may have been a curious lack of energy in the election campaigns of some of the major parties. So far it is hard to see which two or three big issues will define this election. This may be a sign of how difficult this situation is for our political leaders and perhaps a sign that our different constituencies are further apart than they have been in the past. Enjoy the relative calm, it is certain not to last.

Assessing the election season’s energy level in a country as big and diverse as ours may well be impossible. Accordingly, gauging whether this election is so far duller than previous elections may be a fool’s errand. Additionally, voters’, journalists’ and politicians’ memories of previous elections will probably relate to the final days, when parties are pushing the hardest, not of the many somewhat boring months before the fires are properly started.

All that said, before parties began campaigning in these polls it was assumed that these elections and the campaigning would likely be more energetic than any elections since 1994, particularly because of the ANC’s decline and the possibility of new parties entering national and provincial governments.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024

So far, this expected heightened level of conflict to reflect the importance of the elections has not really happened.

There may be several reasons for this failure to strongly engage.

The first is that it can sometimes appear as if different parties, and their leaders, are speaking only to their base constituencies. This means that instead of parties having arguments between themselves about the same three or four issues, they are speaking directly to their own constituencies about issues that sometimes narrowly apply to them.

The result: no real arguments about the same issues between different political players, no clash of ideas, no heated exchanges.

This may be another demonstration that different groups in our society are moving further apart, and more evidence of our ever weakening social cohesion.

At the same time, it seems clear we are in a process of political transition, away from the ANC’s dominance over the great majority of our public life. It may be, though, that party political leaders are not certain which direction voters will take. 

Often, they are not sure what is going to happen, and what voters appear to be wanting.

This may make it difficult for political leaders to know what to do. One might have a sense of them on a raft in a patch of calm sea, unsure which direction to start paddling in. And until they know which direction the wave is going, they don’t know where, and when, to start paddling.

This may encourage politicians to stick as closely as they can to what they have done in the past, in the hope that this will lead to the same result. Or at least ensure that they cling to their already loyal constituency.

To sum this up, it may be quite difficult at the moment to assess where the floating voter in the middle of our politics is.

This is also reflected in some of the polling, where polls have come up with different findings about the views of the electorate.

End of an era

At the same time, it is clear that we are in the middle of the end of an era.

The past thirty years have been so utterly dominated by the ANC that almost all political debates and fights have occurred within the party. For the moment it is not at all clear what a post-ANC period would look like.

For everyone in our politics, what is coming next is new and unknown.

Thus, our slightly strange present may be a symptom of that often-quoted phrase, that the “old is dying and the new cannot yet be born”. The apparent dullness of this phase of the election may be one of the morbid symptoms appearing as a result. 

There may be other reasons for this lack of energy.

In the past, during the period of ANC dominance, the ANC almost defined campaigns. Everything the ANC did was news, whether it was Thabo Mbeki sitting on a floor in 2004 (he refused to sit in a chair offered to him because the voter sitting in the chair was much older than he was), or Zuma claiming in 2009 the ANC would rule until “Jesus comes back”, or the role that President Cyril Ramaphosa played in the 2019 election.

So far the ANC has appeared to be unable to get its election campaign into gear. Even Ramaphosa seems to have admitted this in a conversation with the party’s national executive committee that was recorded and subsequently published in the Sunday Times.

In that recording, he told NEC members they were not pulling their weight.

There is much public evidence of this, in that in many urban areas it appears other parties have more posters than the ANC. As News 24 reported, ANC elections head Mdumiseni Ntuli has admitted that they ordered their posters too late.

It may well be a sign of the continued influence of the ruling party on our politics that if it puts no energy into a campaign, the entire ANC-less election campaign lacks fizz.

One of the bigger variables in this election might be whether the ANC can get more energy into its campaign, particularly in the final two weeks before the elections.

It is likely that in the next few days, this situation will change. Someone will provoke a fight (the IFP may already have done this with the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal over the dismissal of a cultural adviser to King Misuzulu kaZwelithini).

Also, some parties may well have kept their bigger issues, their campaigns designed to appeal to floating voters, for closer to the elections. This may mean that they move from speaking just to their base constituencies, towards trying to find the floating voter in the middle ground. To do this, they will try to incite other parties into fighting with them (this may explain MK’s incendiary manifesto).

Read more in Daily Maverick: The King Am I — MK’s incendiary manifesto manifests grinding contempt for SA’s democracy and Constitution

In other words, the situation we have seen over the past few weeks is very likely to have been the last of the calm. Enjoy the coming storm. DM


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