Defend Truth


No-go territory of early or snap elections


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

There is an undeniable lure of early elections among South Africa’s main political parties – both for the ANC and the main opposition parties.

Is the African National Congress merely getting ready for elections at a routinely scheduled time of between May and August 2019, or are there plans for early or snap elections in the second half of 2018? Early elections in South Africa would be an egg dance, and the same goes for the ANC potentially reclaiming the council in Nelson Mandela Bay.

There is an undeniable lure of early elections among South Africa’s main political parties – both for the ANC and the main opposition parties. The ANC sees a Democratic Alliance that is uncertain in the post-Zuma and policy spaces, and Economic Freedom Fighters who thrive on a parasitic attachment to ANC vulnerabilities.

The opposition parties in turn see an ANC working through the Zuma aftermath, only warily rebuilding organisational integrity and citizen trust. But the bottom line of the lure lies in the ANC currently reaping benefits that are evident in public opinion polling.

It is, however, a two-edged sword for the ANC. On the one side, Ramaphoria rules, for now; polls show that the ANC will win elections if they are held now. The voting public is still delirious about Jacob Zuma’s exodus, despite his lingering, menacing shadow. The Ramaphosa regime exhumes a fresh sense of accountability and assiduousness, even if burdened by baggage of dyed-in-the-wool Zumaists in its ranks.

On the other side, the Ramaphosa ANC is only inching into the age of post-Zumaism. It is taking small (but seemingly increasingly firm) steps to get more distance between Zuma and the ANC’s Model CR. It is an understatement that these steps need to be consolidated. Elections will also bring the tensions of nominations and factional contests for control right into the ANC’s fragile centre stage… unless ANC election strategists see an election as the glue to give a common purpose to the factions.

Several signs that the ANC may be readying itself for elections flowed from the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) late March meeting, despite ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule stating that early elections were not discussed. Other signs came from scheduling processes in Parliament – where the likelihood of an unusual 10-week recess starting end-June emerged this week. On the ANC front, there are pressures for the ANC’s provincial structures to sort out their electoral matters, performance of the MPs and MPLs have been reviewed, there are guidelines to select public representatives, and we learnt that branches will start nominating candidates in due course.

The ANC is also sharpening its internal processes for dispute resolution and integrity, hoping to build organisational character. By their very nature, these processes will take a good number of months to complete.

The Electoral Commission (IEC) is obviously not election-ready yet; with a push the lookout will be better by mid-year. The IEC is still busy correcting its flawed, address-deficient voter registrations. In June 2016, the Constitutional Court ordered the IEC to record the addresses of everyone who appeared on the voters’ roll after December 2013. Electoral fraud had necessitated the demand. (Electoral list fraud is more likely at local level than at national, but rectification is necessary for the legitimacy of elections generally.) The IEC will again report to the court in June 2018.

Either way, early elections would be an egg dance for the ANC. Given the electoral list issues there is no possibility of a “snap” election held within the next few months; but also no guarantee that the Ramaphoria bubble will be alive and well and available as an override later in the year. Hence the ANC would do better rebuilding its base than chasing bubble-based victories.

South African voters are in a new space of electoral decision-making, where the balance between identity-linked party identification and voting on the basis of assessments of government performance fluctuates continuously. Identity voting is not immune from performance evaluations. The latter have been rising in importance for ANC supporters in the years of ANC-Zumaist corruption and capture, which have destroyed much of the popular trust in the ANC, and have elevated questions about honest, accountable government.

The anti-Zuma voter reaction was against both the person and his transgressions, and against the systemic corruption and under-delivery of services that flourished under his watch. Voters are now in a phase where they demand follow-up through cleaned-up state institutions; they look for new pages in terms of appointments and operations. These voters might very well regard early elections as “cheat” polls in which the ANC hopes to get a quick endorsement before being required to show that it has the will and capability to improve on the Zuma years.

For the next round of voting, voters will want to see evidence beyond campaign promises. They might demand proof that no more Life Esidimenis unfold, and that pit-toilet death-traps at schools are eradicated. They want to see that job creation campaigns are more than glossy launches. It might help the predominant governing party too if communities no longer feel they need to take the administration of justice in their own hands, given police and court failures to contain crime and secure the safety of vulnerable people. Collectively, these shortcomings have a massive effect on voter perceptions of especially the ANC.

For the ANC to minimise such drawbacks it would need to have made progress by the time elections come. For the Ramaphosa ANC it is the choice between the seductive bubble and proving to the electorate that it is worthy of renewed trust.

The ANC is under pressure too to show that it is no longer the weak and undermined formerly dominant party that was opposition parties’ fruitful target. The “new dawn” ANC will also have to differentiate itself from the EFF durably. For a brief spell between Nasrec and now the EFF appeared to be leading, with the former colossus in tow. The EFF boasted about being the engine that drives the ANC, and February’s parliamentary motion on land expropriation strengthened the image. The EFF embraced the space and set the pace at Nelson Mandela Bay’s vote of no confidence and in weekend land grabs.

It is only in recent days that the ANC has started appearing to be in recovery mode, reclaiming initiative, seemingly finding its own feet. These were small steps: saying it will not be dictated to and potentially held to ransom by the EFF through the Nelson Mandela Bay vote, hence refusing to become the EFF’s lackey, starting to articulate land policy in an autonomous voice, and acting against EFF-inspired land grabs.

The ANC would do well to ensure that it rebuilds itself and regains citizen confidence that it can do governance effectively and ethically, before it tries to reclaim councils – or plunges into an early election. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted