Opinionista Saul Musker 25 April 2018

View from Afar: South African politics has lost its centre of gravity

Two months have passed since former President Jacob Zuma announced his resignation. In the moment that he stepped away from the podium, South Africa’s political landscape was fundamentally altered. As it continues to shift and form itself anew, what future exists for the opposition?

Jacob Zuma, for all his sins, gave us one thing: he provided a coherent logic to our political order. The latter years of the Zuma administration witnessed a flourishing of our opposition parties and a renewal of civil society organisations and the critical media. If in the immediate aftermath of 1994 a broad cross-section of South Africans was united by relief and euphoria, in the Zuma era it was brought together by a common enemy.

The immense scale of corruption and State Capture exposed by whistle-blowers and journalists turned Zuma into an arch villain, a threat to democracy which absorbed every ounce of popular attention. Since at least 2015, after the sudden removal of Nhlanhla Nene as Finance Minister, the anger and frustration generated by successive scandals and crises in government served as a shared basis for action, a reason for even the most unlikely forms of co-operation.

In this period of darkness, the Democratic Alliance – previously dismissed by many voters as a “white party”, an inheritor of the nationalist agenda – surged to the fore as a leader of the anti-corruption movement. The Economic Freedom Fighters, which at its establishment had been characterised as a collection of dangerous, opportunistic extremists, became its vocal ally. Conservative white voters cheered on Julius Malema and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi as they excoriated Zuma from the benches of Parliament. Trade unions and grassroots activists celebrated the court victories of the DA. Civil society organisations found their voice (and a steady stream of financial support), having struggled to gain traction since the end of apartheid. In all of this furious energy, a strong opposition emerged to the corruption of the regime. As recent months have demonstrated, it was a successful one.

Now, though, the villain has left the stage – and with it our centre of gravity. The election of Cyril Ramaphosa pulled the carpet from beneath political parties and civil society activists who had for years defined themselves in opposition to the Zuma administration. Suddenly, critical court cases were either moot or withdrawn, and leaders like Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema could not rely on harnessing public anger at the ANC to fuel their popularity. The standing ovation which Ramaphosa received after his first State of the Nation Address in Parliament was proof that the prior political order has been restored, in which opposition parties were forced to dance around a popular and unifying leader in government.

In the absence of the Zuma piñata, opposition parties need to define themselves anew.

The DA, for one, must contend with renewed attention on its predominantly white leadership, after a brief reprieve in which the party could use its anti-corruption agenda to mask such criticism. It was remarkable, in fact, how Zuma transformed the DA in the public light – with Maimane juxtaposed against a ridiculed and reviled leader of the ANC, suspicion of the opposition party was temporarily relaxed. For a short time, vocal criticism of the DA could be seen as strengthening Zuma’s hand. Now, though, the DA is again being judged by a “normal” standard, and not the extraordinary one that prevailed before February. Zuma will no longer act as a mirror to deflect critical attention.

In this context, the party faces a make-or-break strategic choice. It can either revert to its former tactic of appealing primarily to a strong, mostly conservative base of racial minority voters, and rely on high turnout to deliver a few cities and a third of Parliament to its grasp, or it can outflank the ANC on its left and appeal to a younger, broader, more progressive support base that includes black voters.

In short, will the DA retreat into hard-line liberal territory, its ideological comfort zone, and make the defence of property rights its central appeal? Or will it try to consolidate its gains, and embrace a bold, centre-left platform that takes the most popular of the ANC’s policies and adds to them creative proposals to redistribute wealth and create jobs? Ultimately, the latter two imperatives are the most concerning to South African voters, and no party will gain national power without taking ownership of them.

The EFF must also chart a new path, no longer able merely to channel anti-Zuma frustration. Its determined pursuit of those implicated in State Capture earned it praise from diverse quarters in South African society, and won it wider support. It can continue to foreground its opposition to corruption, nepotism and incompetence – as it has already done to great effect – or it can refocus attention on its original policy agenda, the Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian platform which guided its 2014 election campaign. This will endear it to the same core of far-left voters which it absorbed in that contest, but it will not allow it to significantly increase its reach.

The EFF’s primary obstacle to expanding its support is the fear that its radical platform engenders within racial minorities and the middle class, which are the groups most likely to leave the ANC. If it fashions itself as a party leading the charge against corruption, it may keep some of those voters which the ANC cannot win back. If it presents itself as a communist party without the support of labour, it will remain relevant but never electorally dominant.

Thus far, both of the two major opposition parties appear to be defaulting to their old settings, rather than trying to consolidate their gains. Instead of focusing attention on a popular alternative policy platform, the DA has been caught up in running battles over the future of Patricia de Lille (still a popular figure) and internal debates over diversity in the party. The fact that the majority of reporting on its Federal Congress focused on the so-called “diversity clause” indicates that the party has been unable to unshackle itself from old criticisms about transformation. The EFF, meanwhile, has reverted to the firebrand rhetoric that characterised its initial launch, with the attempted removal of Athol Trollip in Nelson Mandela Bay and a desperate attempt to portray the ANC’s turn towards expropriation without compensation as its own victory.

Neither of these strategies is likely to work. If the DA and the EFF do not correct their course soon, they will fail to lock in the gains made under Zuma. Instead, they will return to their former status as smaller parties that rely on a strong, but narrow, ideological support base, and their progress will be circumscribed.

This matters for all of us, and not just the leaders of these parties. If the opposition cannot regain its footing and increase its support, the strength of our democracy will be in jeopardy. The risk is not that voters will remain unendingly loyal to the ANC, as many have predicted. Rather, if unemployment is not drastically reduced and service delivery continues to falter, increasing numbers of people will lose faith in the political system entirely and turn to other means of expressing their frustration.

Cyril Ramaphosa is certainly a capable leader, but he inherited a bureaucracy in disarray and an economy marked by profound inequality and structural obstacles to growth. It will take at least a decade, and almost certainly longer, to begin to reverse these conditions. Between now and then, we need strong and viable opposition political parties with broad appeal to channel and organise the inevitable anger that will result, as last week’s protests in Mahikeng reminded us. If they cannot perform this role, then a large number of South Africans will pursue other means of effecting change – and that, for this country, is the worst case scenario. DM

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