Opinionista Susan Booysen 6 March 2018

Shifting ground and quicksand towards Election 2019

Will the new political dynamics of early 2018 still hold by the time South Africa gets to Election 2019, somewhere between April and June next year?

South Africa’s 2019 electoral season is open – and big-campaign, result-changing developments are unfolding. The political ground is shifting, while political parties go into organisation mode, assembling campaign commanders, recruiting foot soldiers and bragging about budgets. The state of readiness is tangible; it is as if the election is now … rather than in 2019.

Will the new political dynamics of early 2018 still hold by the time South Africa gets to Election 2019, somewhere between April and June next year? Will Ramaphoria – citizens’ thankfulness for the end of the Jacob Zuma season, the reward for just not being Zuma, for starting to conduct government as an ethical president and governing party should – still prevail come 2019? Will the opposition parties grow into the new spaces?

The answers depend on how well the parties handle the present and anticipate conditions a year down the line. The future is not cast in stone. Early campaigning (now and in the coming months) will change the final 2019 pre-election conditions.

Judged by early announcements, the conventional campaign tricks are upon us: there will be rallies with empty but pregnant-with-promise speeches, T-shirts bearing the faces of political gods, and (if the past is anything to go by) food parcels to compensate for non-delivery at other times. Yet, in time, the big “campaign events” of Election 2019 will be remembered as presidential change, and political parties reorienting themselves thereafter.

Voters need to start bracing themselves for waves of election campaigners, from all of the parties that can afford it (but these campaigners will be called “volunteers”) arriving on their doorsteps and phone lines on “listening campaigns”.

In the past the African National Congress has been big on such “listening” – but can there still be credibility in claiming not to have known? Or, can the Democratic Alliance (DA) continue to blame the complexities of multisphere government for conditions on the ground? Other opposition parties have an easier message: “(Of course) things will be better if we get voted in!”

The most-targeted voting bloc in all phases of the campaign will be the young and unemployed: success in targeting the young-unemployed-black category of citizens could deliver for the campaigning parties.

However, political parties beware: past research showed that South African voters are savvy and cynical, and exposure to the Zuma era has fortified these attributes.

The ANC is the big winner in the current phase of campaigning. It is being rewarded handsomely for shedding a president – there is a positive mood generally, the rand has strengthened, there are promises of investment. With Zuma on board the ANC was a sitting campaign duck – opinion polls indicated that a Zumaist ANC could end up on the wrong side of 50%. Then the ANC resuscitated prospects of retaining an outright majority, or do better.

Polling in February this year by Citizen Surveys showed substantial improvements in public perceptions of ANC government performance. Cyril Ramaphosa’s approval rating came in close to 60%, compared with Zuma’s 24% of late 2017. The ANC gained a president who would add rather than detract from ANC support. Political paradise was upon the ANC, albeit a year before the actual election. By the time of the elections – between April and June 2019 – much of the Ramaphosa dividend might have worn off.

Contrasting with this high, in policy forums the ANC was juggling identity issues that were exacerbated by its leadership transition: is the ANC the policy-certain, reasoned political player that global economics expect, or the populist party which plays radical to appease activists and Zumaist campaigners clothed in the radical guise?

These conflicts could catch up with the ANC closer to Election 2019 – except that opposition parties are torn too: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) dabbles in bromance but constructs distance from the new ANC president; the DA suffers internal fallout because of a seeming absence of answers to the new life the ANC seems to breathe. The opposition parties had to measure up to a new political world. Ironically, their leading roles in #ZumaMustFall helped them to sustain their support bases, but it was the ANC that was rewarded in the main.

The opposition parties could nevertheless be assured of ongoing feasting on the remains of the Zuma era, on complicity and shared responsibility of the current ANC, and incomplete change away from that time. Only sustained, growing and visible action will bring voter rewards to the ANC rather than the opposition: voters want “restitution” for the higher taxes they are paying due to the Zupta excesses.

On the alliances front, formal and informal, several configurations will be affecting the political parties. First, the Tripartite Alliances is in flight again. The SACP has returned to Cabinet. Its electoral outing, contesting 2017 municipal by-elections in Metsimaholo (winning three seats and kingmaker status) is probably an experiment on ice. Cosatu, judged by statements late last year, is reporting for duty, to again help the ANC do election campaign legwork.

More volatile is the bromantic mini-alliance, now you see it, now you don’t, between Julius Malema and Cyril Ramaphosa, especially visible in Parliament (EFF lieutenant Floyd Shivambu looked on, disapprovingly). There were questions: could reconciliation develop? Of course there were denials. Convergence found sustenance in both some broadly shared principles of land redistribution-restitution, and commitment to narratives that are more radical than political practice.

Opinion polls have not been indicating notable growth since 2016 for either the EFF or DA; this meant they require new approaches. The new ANC-EFF affection is impacting on co-operation in metropolitan councils between the EFF and the DA alliance. The EFF with its kingmaker potential is set to convert the Nelson Mandela Bay council into an ANC-EFF-governed local government. The odds are that this post-Zuma realignment could snowball into reconfigurations in other opposition-controlled councils. Perhaps Malema is keeping those cards up his sleeve, for bargaining power on a policy issue or political control further down the line?

Voter registration is unfolding in this phase of electoral preparations, and the EFF shows it has learnt from 2014: its 6% could have been substantially higher had all followers been registered as voters. The DA in 2016 had notable success on this front: much of its performance was due to literally every supporter and member being registered, and being mobilised to vote.

The electoral games of these three parties – the ANC, and the the two main opposition parties – are light years away from the existing microparties, and the only in-between party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The IFP in 2016 (and subsequent by-elections) recovered somewhat, and the panning out of the Zuma dynamic in KwaZulu-Natal could create (small) openings for the IFP to win back former support.

Spare a thought for the microparties that operate in political quicksand, which hardly have resources to compete in the ANC-DA-EFF league, and which might be in their last year of parliamentary presence. Or, for Makhosi Khoza’s African Democratic Change, which still has to enter the ring. Their struggle is to retain the 0.25% of national support that will secure them one MP – and a place in the queues who get asked on national platforms for their opinions on the resignation of the president, or the Zupta-damages budget. DM

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