Guest Column

ANC weakness makes opposition momentum more significant

2019-04-02 17:00
Mmusi Maimane during the Democratic Alliance (DA) manifesto launch at the Rand Stadium on February 23, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The DA launched its manifesto ahead of the 2019 national elections set to take place on May 08, 2019. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier)

Mmusi Maimane during the Democratic Alliance (DA) manifesto launch at the Rand Stadium on February 23, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The DA launched its manifesto ahead of the 2019 national elections set to take place on May 08, 2019. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier)

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With pressures mounting on the ANC, South Africans need to see the May 8 vote as not just about the governing party but just as much about the very stark choices presented by the major opposition parties, writes Daniel Silke.

Election 2019 is turning out to be not quite what Cyril Ramaphosa had hoped for.

It has been a dismal first half of the ANC's election campaign. Dramatic political disruptions have clearly set back the Ramaphosa "New Dawn" turning it more into a rather murky "New Dusk" – foggy, messy and lacking in any clear direction.

Between the Eskom meltdown, the highly suspect ANC party lists, the subterfuge of the Andile Ramaphosa saga and most recently, the distressing state capture allegations against ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, the governing party now looks like the proverbial rabbit caught in bright headlights not quite sure how to move given its fragile internal status and increasingly combative factions.

Despite this, the governing party is largely expected to remain in power – and with a relatively healthy majority as well. We know the emotional, historical and patronage (overt and covert) hold that the party of liberation has over large swathes of the electorate – and that is unlikely to change in five weeks' time.

And, despite the relatively weak input from President Ramaphosa in recent months, he remains the single-most attractive political asset for any political party in South Africa and still represents hope for reform although this has begun evaporating since its 2018 highs.

Most opinion polls published reflect the continued dominance of the ANC. However, most were conducted prior to the latest batch of load shedding and the publication of the Pieter-Louis Myburgh book. Whilst one does not expect a major drop in the ANC vote as a result, the combination of forces at play – together with increasingly economic burdens on consumers – are likely to push the ANC vote to a lower level of their still-dominant range.

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In other words, whilst the president might've hoped for a vote in the upper 50% or even in excess of the 60% mark, the normal margin of error might well push the ANC's vote closer to mid-50%.

In most countries of the world, a single party receiving anywhere close to these levels would be considered a landslide victory – yet in South African terms, where voter shifts are incremental rather than substantial, a loss of momentum even of a few percentage points strong may be enough to change domestic politics and policy-making post May.

An ANC off its polling highs represents an equal opportunity for both the DA and EFF to take up the slack – at least in terms of the proportional representation system. Frustrated ANC sympathisers often choose to stay at home rather than vote for an opposition entity. In itself, that raises the percentage momentum for the DA and EFF – as was seen in the 2016 local government elections when the Zuma factor kept tens of thousands of traditional ANC voters at home.

With a very moderate decline in the overall ANC majority, the question then arises as to which of the opposition parties will derive sufficient benefit. Again, even a moderate increase in support for either the DA or the EFF will provide an indication of the readiness of the electorate for change – either towards a more business-friendly approach or towards populist/radical solutions.

This election is therefore now less likely to be the 60% endorsement of the 'saviour' Ramaphosa and more about the momentum shifts amongst opposition parties.

By implication, should the DA stagnate to the early 20% levels (or less) whilst the EFF grows to anywhere over 10%, it will be clear that the momentum for opposition voters is shifting towards populism. Under this scenario, many in the ANC will see the EFF as a more attractive ally since its share of the vote is likely to grow the most – at least in percentage terms.

Similarly, if the DA did manage to achieve its absolute upper-limit of about 27%, its showing will also be a signal to the ANC that a different set of reforms is possible – and perhaps more in line with those seemingly advocated by the Ramaphosa administration. 

The position is complicated further in the real battleground of Gauteng, where any drop to below 50% for the ANC will result in attempts to create new governing pacts and alliances. The choice for 'alliance partner' in that province – failing an outright win for the ANC – can have a profound effect on the future course of policy making. An ANC/EFF pact can unleash a more radical thrust from the ANC with substantial national reverberations.

In all of these postulations, it remains clear that the momentum of opposition parties remains critical to the future course of the ruling party. Whilst the ANC will never publicly admit that it is influenced by public opinion in this way, one should not underestimate the message that a strong DA or EFF showing would send to Luthuli House.

Large nationalistic-political parties who regard themselves as interchangeable with the fortunes of the state will always refuse to acknowledge that smaller entities affect their thinking. But the momentum of the opposition can – and has – already been critical in the historical path of South Africa's political struggles.

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Back in 1989, FW De Klerk was struggling to gain sufficient buy-in from a white electorate increasingly nervous and inclined towards the extreme right. He interpreted that year's election as a vote for reform by taking both the NP and DP (now DA) vote – combined at about 70%. What followed was a reform agenda from De Klerk largely supported by the DP.

Similarly, a stronger DA showing will provide that reform impetus for Ramaphosa. A powerful EFF will put immense strain on an ANC who in part would like to see Julius Malema return to the fold.

With pressures mounting on the ANC, South Africans need to see the May 8 vote as not just about the governing party. It is just as much about the very stark choices presented by the major opposition parties. Opposition strength will be critical in directing the course of the future – even if those parties remain still far away from holding the real reins of power.

Momentum, it would seem, will be the key issue – for everyone.

- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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