The ANC got a well-earned klap this week that confronts it with a bitter choice – to drop its ball and chain, President Jacob Zuma, or haemorrhage for three more years.
A racially mixed electorate in the cradle of the liberation movement, the Eastern Cape, rejected Nelson Mandela’s party to vote in a middle-aged white man. The province of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko gave its biggest town to Athol Trollip, the next mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, a Xhosa-speaker but not a struggle-ista. The era of struggle politics makes way for the era of delivery. Voters want stability and services. Corruption finally got the back of voters’ hands.
Poor results from the other three large, battleground metros – Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni – where the ANC fell below 50%, reduce its national performance well below the psychologically significant 60%.
Whatever the final tally, it’s vindication for the DA, and disappointment for the EFF, whose expectations to double or triple its 6.6% first election tally will not be met. The EFF’s minimal party funding proved a strong handicap.
Zuma crudely played the race card in the last days of campaigning, but could not blind enough voters to his abuse of state power. Yet, he may survive.
There is an analogy to Robert Mugabe, our neighbouring president whose capital city’s been an opposition stronghold for more than a decade. Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s other substantial town, has been an opposition stronghold even longer.
Walking out of most of his residences, official and private, President Zuma finds himself in opposition territory: Cape Town, Nkandla, perhaps Tshwane and Johannesburg.
In Harare right now, President Mugabe owns a mansion with dozens of rooms. It belongs to him personally and, since he has never earned an income outside of government, the money had to come from taxpayers.
But here’s the interesting thing: the president lives in a town controlled by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change for a decade – and his party crushed the opposition nationally! In much of the last 10 years, hatred for Mugabe in his home capital is so great he could not dare venture out without an army of security.
Yet despite this, at least until recently, his political hold over the country accelerated. Perhaps it is only old age that is dampening support. The new economic crisis, which is very real, would not have stopped him in the past.
Is it time when, like senior Republicans in the US who understand the special risk of Donald Trump, ANC supporters have to stand up to their own leader for their country’s sake, or be forever judged guilty by history?
Mugabe eviscerated his opponents, partly by destroying the economic base of the opposition and the country – agriculture, agricultural manufacture, and the trade unions.
There is no indication that Zuma would mind if the similar fate happen here.
Is Zuma’s henchman at the SABC, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, oblivious of the analogy? In 2005 Mugabe conducted the brutal Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out Rubbish) to get rid of Harare’s opposition voters. Recently Motsoeneng proudly announced Operation Clean-Up, his effort to remove opponents among the public broadcaster’s journalists.
South Africa now enters arguably its most important moment since 1994. Jacob Zuma is responsible for the governing party’s decay, but will he be the fall guy? In the past he always put up a straw man, at the price of an ambassadorship when the buzz died down. The portents are uncertain.
The DA adapted under Tony Leon to consolidate white support, then under Helen Zille to open the way for black support, and under Mmusi Maimane to prove he could build into a liberal party a post-apartheid black base.
“If you don’t see I am black, you don’t see me,” meant Maimane could be liberal without forgetting race.
At the start of her term of leadership, Helen Zille, whom the press find prickly, had two strategic insights that bore fruit this week. The first was to build from local level upwards. She was the first to buck tradition and lead the party from a city rather than Parliament. Her second was to skip a generation, to promote a new, black generation of leaders looking past the party’s immediate needs.
The latest election results have answered key questions. They have shown the ANC on the back foot, well below 60% nationally. They showed the EFF may be near a potential ceiling when the two richer parties are out in force. And they put wind at the back of the DA.
South African public life is undergoing a tectonic shift that is hard to grasp up close. But there is a connection between the Nkandla-Gupta-state capture, the SABC’s harassing of honest journalists while losing control of its finances, and the new economic and political crisis across our northern border in Zimbabwe.
I know, because I watched it up close.
In 1980 I stopped off in newly independent Zimbabwe to see the Minister of Information, Nathan Shamiyarira, to discuss the shamefully white newspapers in his country. We had a great meeting, and agreed on what was wrong. He then proceeded to suborn all of Zimbabwe’s media in service to the ruling party.
Since then, Mugabe has forfeited Zimbabwe’s sovereignty behind a smokescreen of attacks on imperial powers. Now his currency is the American dollar, which ends Zimbabwean monetary control. Cross about Western conditions for loans, he looked east, but he antagonised China when he could not repay their loans. He is now the geriatric with the begging bowl. He just does not understand economics.
Zuma and the ANC are at a crossroads. With Zuma, economic decisions will bring ratings downgrades and spiralling corruption. Without him, a new, thoughtful path is possible.
An extraordinary moment. Is the ANC ready for it? Jacob Zuma, quite obviously, isn’t. DM
John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of BETWEEN THE LINES.
John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africas future through its past, which has just been published.