First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Somewhat surprisingly, the ANC also displaced the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in a ward in Maphumulo. But the politics of patronage remain embedded in these by-election victories and in the broader dynamic of local government politics. In spite of the ANC’s good showing in the by-elections, those are not necessarily a reliable indicator of the scenario for later in the year.
One question that keeps popping up is whether independents will be the wild card in KwaZulu-Natal. With little more than minor exceptions, the party system is in disarray. The majority ANC is being held together with masking tape. At a national level, it has never had a more compromised and divisive chief operating officer than Secretary-General Ace Magashule.
In KwaZulu-Natal, provincial secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli and chairperson Sihle Zikalala struggle with the reins of horses bolting in different directions. The ANC’s much-vaunted capacity for criticism, self-criticism and self-correction has steadily descended into a self-defeating prophecy. The real threat, though, is that an ANC in trouble is a country in trouble. A strong ANC is in everyone’s interest, whether you support it or not. The rest of the parties are placing bets on the political race card.
The DA is a dead horse. Its liberal credentials have been flogged to tatters. The 2019 general election convincingly showed its supporters on the right edging into the laager of the Freedom Front. Its left has either headed to Vancouver or drifted off into the wilderness. The DA’s centre is a bickering ramshackle of experimenting white grandees and ambitious “clever blacks”. That tension is irreconcilable. Something will have to give. The DA has never been as far from political power as it is in 2021.
Still clambering is the IFP. It has profited from the ANC’s housekeeping woes. Its not insignificant grip on municipal councils, especially in the rural heartland of the province, gives it huge political and financial leverage. Amakhosi and izinduna who have received a taste of patronage from the ANC through salaries and other benefits might now be hedging their bets: the IFP could offer an even softer pillow. With the passing of the Zulu monarch and an unknown, untested successor, this swathe of traditional leadership could push the political fortunes of the province in an unpredictable direction.
The chamber of political darkness has been ideal for a creeping EFF. Too few are prepared to call out the EFF for the danger it presents to a constitutional democracy. Like the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, the EFF has gnawed its way around disenchantment of every sort. It’s a home for political malcontents, lumpen elements, tenderpreneurs and anybody easily swayed by empty rhetoric. By the time people recognised that the fascists in Europe were anti-democrats, it was too late to reverse the rot.
It is in this political fray that the independents offer a semblance of difference. The terrain of free association outside party constraints favours both the independents and a fed-up electorate. In 2020 the Constitutional Court found that “being coerced to form or join a political party is an issue that may fundamentally touch one’s inner core; a matter that goes to one’s conscience”. That judgment will not affect these elections, because independents are already empowered to contest local government.
Many of the independents will come with baggage. They will usually be candidates tossed out by their parties for a transgression. But the field remains wide open. Were civics and social movements to put up their own candidates, we might see a different flavour of active citizens eager to make a difference in political office. The time for that kind of difference is now. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.