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LGE 2016: Politics Then and Now


Stephen Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

As we head towards next week’s local elections, the focus is on who will win what, and whether the ANC will actually lose one of the big metros. But amid all of the hurly-burly of campaigning, the shouting, the screaming and the insults, one of the benefits of an election is being missed. Sometimes the results don’t matter as much as what the changing conduct of our politicians tells us about how the country has changed.

To contrast the behaviour of our politicians now with how they behaved in 2011 is useful: it tells us how divided the ANC has become, how the DA has risen, and how the level of contestation is so much greater.

One of the problems for journalists covering local government elections is that there is often no single issue that dominates. This is not like a national election, where the personalities of national leaders are tested, and national issues are debated. Every metro, every council, every ward has its own issues and characteristics. As a result, other national issues related to politics can dominate up until quite close to the elections.

This time around it has been the behaviour of Hlaudi Motsoeneng and the SABC. In 2011 it was the Julius Malema hate speech trial, after he was tried (and found guilty) of breaking the Equality Act for singing Dubula Ibhunu. That case, and the issues that flowed from it, set the scene for the elections.

The SABC issue is an interesting echo of 2011, in that in both cases the ANC may have been given space to change the narrative, and shape their messages. Both times they have been given breathing space. If this happens again in 2021, the conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day.

If there is one fundamental difference between five years ago and now, it is this: The unity of the ANC that we saw in 2011 has just disappeared. It’s not just that the ANC fully backed Malema in court, and that he backed the party out of it. Back then, if you didn’t like President Jacob Zuma, you kept quiet. The party was the party was the party, and it set the line. Now, we have the sight of Marius Fransman in open conflict with his own party about whether or not he has been reinstated as its Western Cape leader. We have the sight of Zuma appearing to back him, while Gwede Mantashe sits at Luthuli House and fumes.

Back then, it was unthinkable that a Cabinet minister could refuse to meet the ANC, or refuse to implement its policies, or refuse to act against an underling (see: Faith Muthambi, Hlaudi Motsoeneng), with a resulting chaos and drama at the SABC. Which leads to an image of the ANC being impotent on a burning issue. An image inconceivable in 2011.

Talking of burning issues, back then, violent protests against an ANC decision about candidates was also unthinkable. The candidate selection process in 2011 was a moment of Zen compared to what happened in Tshwane, and what continues to play out in KwaZulu-Natal.

If the disunity of the ANC is one big development in the last five years, the other is the growth of the DA. While the EFF may be the new kid on the block and red tends to dominate the headlines, it’s the blue wave that this election could be all about. That’s testament to how the party has matured, changed, and developed sustainable structures, something the EFF, being a young organisation, is still battling with.

When the voting is done, on the morning of 4 August, the tallies to watch in the metros will be those of the DA and the ANC. The EFF, though it will proclaim its status as a kingmaker, will still play bit parts in any coalitions. This is a huge change from 2011. Back then, there was simply no chance of the DA taking anything outside Western Cape, save Midvaal. Now, that is all that there is to talk about.

One of the people who has changed as a result of this is the DA’s then candidate for the mayor of Joburg. A little known pastor called Mmusi Maimane. At the time, he was studying for his second master’s degree, and was almost timid when first introduced to the media. This is the man who is now perfectly comfortable telling Zuma, to his face, that “he is a broken man, leading a broken country”. If there is one thing that is clear now, it is that Maimane has got under Zuma’s skin. Several times this election Zuma has referred to him, not by name, but by race and party. Considering how the ANC used to simply ignore DA leaders, this is a political achievement all on its own.

Then of course, there is the formation of the EFF. In terms of actual votes, they might not make such an impact, but its importance will be magnified by the possibility of the need to form coalitions. It will be difficult, but not impossible, for EFF to win a municipality; Julius Malema has set his sights on an area in Limpopo.

In an interview with EWN the party’s national chair, Dali Mpofu (you can call him “advocate” should you see him in his Jaguar sports car on the streets of Sandton), reiterated the message that the EFF will not join coalitions with the ANC. That already gives the DA something to play with, should it find itself at a negotiating table across from people wearing red. This introduces more instability into our politics at a local level.

To look back five years, and contrast the picture then with the picture now, one is struck by how much contestation and instability has entered the scene. It’s not just that we don’t know who will win what, or how a coalition will govern where. It’s that the ANC itself is now so unstable that no one knows how its many parts will react. These various processes, the rise of the DA, the increasing turmoil in the ANC, growth of the EFF, look pretty much unstoppable now.

Just five years ago this picture seemed almost impossible to imagine. It is still possible for the ANC to self-correct. There is a conference next year which will probably dictate whether it lives and leads again, or whether it continues on its current path. But even then, it is likely to face more and more opposition.

Our politics is changing, perhaps more quickly than we realise. We will know more next week. DM


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