Opinionista John Matisonn 22 August 2016

On Strategy II: DA-EFF 1, ANC 0

With the ANC seemingly hell-bent on becoming a rural party, Zuma could pull support for the party lower than 50% by 2019 if he remains president.

Watching the ANC flounder between amateurish claims that it could still run Nelson Mandela Bay and introspecting sans mention of its off-limits deadweight president, versus Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema’s virtuoso performances outlining their reasoning, values, strategies and plans in the last week, you could be forgiven for asking: Which parties behaved like a government this week, and which like the opposition?

As one eternally conscious of the history and pulling power of the ANC, it is time to pinch myself: how long can a party this bankrupt survive in national government? After weekend news that the ANC will do what we all feared, scapegoating the honest and competent elements in its ranks like the Gauteng leadership of the ANC, hope of regaining metros at the next election are being shattered.

The ANC seems determined to become a rural party. If Robert Mugabe can wake up every day in an opposition city yet remain a powerful president, why, Jacob Zuma seems to have decided, can’t he? Zuma is betting that the two countries are basically the same. But maybe the vast differences in power centres in the judiciary, media, business, unions and the rest of civil society will prove decisive in the end. If Zuma remains president until 2019, he could yet pull ANC support below 50%.

This is the eventuality the DA and EFF are contemplating. If they can take a long view, hold themselves together, start to deliver honest government, while watching the ANC self-immolate, they may have a path to power.

Consider the meaning of what we observed this past fortnight.

First, the election results themselves.

According to UCT political scientist Professor Robert Mattes on CTV’S BETWEEN THE LINES, the EFF’s increase by a couple of percentage points from the general election two years ago was constrained by two factors: the low turnout of its main support base – black youth – and its high unfavourable quotient among black people outside that core group. If true, that may represent a ceiling for the EFF that is difficult to break. Youth always register in lowest numbers, then show up less reliably on election day.

For a clue about Malema’s thinking, notice how he changed. During the campaign he predicted a doubling or tripling of EFF votes, and control of several towns. Late in the campaign his rhetoric shifted, as he reminded voters that he had only R10-million to spend. Money did talk. If his figures were correct, he was outspent 35 to 1 by the DA, and 100 to 1 by the ANC.

Malema’s presentation against the backdrop of Alexandra township after his party had pondered the results reflected a sobered leader. If he has not seen the polls Prof Mattes has, he sure acted like he had. Mattes found that black South Africans outside Malema’s core youth support were turned off by the EFF’s disruptive and disrespectful antics in Parliament. In Alexandra, he had new focus: the people have waited too long for service delivery to be stalled by ideological disputes. We must visibly put them first.

Some believe the “arrangement” to vote in DA mayors will hurt him, but his decision not to accept the blue lights, big cars, titles and salaries buys him respect. The EFF will fight the DA over budgets, seeking high-profile shifts of money to poor areas. He needs older voters to take another look at the EFF.

The DA’s biggest asset, like that of the EFF, was that opposition vote-getter, Jacob Zuma. People vote a government out, more than they vote an opposition in. Mattes argues that Maimane’s leadership helped redefine the DA. He believes the DA ceiling was not so much that it was seen as white, as that black voters did not know what it was. Maimane started the process of looking inclusive. Generous funding put his telegenic image in TV homes. Maybe claiming the mantle of Mandela’s brand of non-racialism was not such a bad campaign move.

As the results came in, Maimane announced that the DA had won a plurality in Nelson Mandela Bay. Commentators missed the reason why: he knew the results before the IEC announced them because the DA ran a parallel counting system in the metros. And it was accurate. Later he made the same announcement for Tshwane.

Contrast that with Danny Jordaan’s press conference claiming it expected to form a government in the same city. Jordaan was the sitting mayor, but the ANC was clutching at straws. The ANC’s only idea in other jurisdictions this week seemed to be to suborn councillors greedy for a shred of power. Anti-white talk of the campaign out the window, bring in the white Afrikaner Freedom Front Plus as a coalition partner.

So what do we know? First, the EFF is not COPE. It grew enough to live another day, and perhaps grow. Lack of money was tough in a nation-wide local government campaign. Can Malema be trusted? Let’s see.

As for the ANC, only it can save itself. We have seen powerful political parties collapse in a generation. Smuts’ United Party ruled in 1919, but was dead in 30 years. The National Party was all-powerful until 1994, but died even quicker. Leadership matters.

The talk in the corridors of power is that Zuma still plans a Cabinet reshuffle to install a deputy finance minister to undermine Pravin Gordhan. He has to go through with his nuclear purchase to meet commitments to President Vladimir Putin. If there is a ratings downgrade in December, he will feel free to fire Gordhan as Finance Minister, blaming him for the woes actually caused by President Zuma himself.

Will he really be that irresponsible, and will the ANC let him? Perhaps it is too late to save the party. With the decision-making body, the National Executive Committee, firmly in the president’s pocket, those in the ANC who see the oncoming train are impotent. Perhaps that’s why they rage against the ANC leadership ever more publicly. Perhaps they see, clearer than we do, the dying of the light. DM

John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of CTV’S BETWEEN THE LINES.

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