Guest Column

Marginal Power, Blurred Lines & Diluting Stereotypes: SA's changing political landscape

2016-08-24 10:44

Daniel Silke

A funny thing happened on August 3 – well, actually, three funny things happened. Amidst the horse-trading and drama of the DA/EFF axis of rule now evident in Tshwane and Johannesburg, South Africa moved into an era of new politics – almost overnight. And this new politics can redraw traditional boundaries and confound old prejudices.

Firstly, we are entering an era of "Marginal Power". Just as many of our gold mines are marginally profitable, so the ANC today is only marginally in power if we extrapolate the 54% local election result and apply it to a hypothetical national ballot. In fact, assuming a messy course of correctional action on the part of the governing party, it may sustain further losses come 2019 and be perilously close to losing an overall national majority.

Marginal power brings with it a host of related and "domino-effect" type consequences. This is especially true in a single-dominant political system that has characterised South Africa since 1994, but is now dissipating.

When you are no longer guaranteed to hold power, you cannot offer the same job security and longevity of largesse. Careerists' intent on using their political linkages may consider alternative political movements more likely to dispense patronage into the future. Diminished power and authority is a lesser pull to party members as the pendulum of success swings to other political brands.

The stark reality is that without the virtual guarantee of sustained election-after-election victory, the ANC is weakened.

Greater competitiveness

Ultimately, Marginal Power brings uncertainly into the party political discourse. This clearly can stimulate better performance from politicians across the board as hard work and delivery trumps entitlement and arrogance in office. Marginal power therefore means greater competitiveness and South Africa as a whole - rather than just the party apparatchiks - are likely to be the winners.

The second broad trend is "Blurred Lines" in our mutating political discourse. Over the least week, at the inaugural Metro sittings, we have been witness to almost incongruous scenes of EFF caucus members cheering DA Mayoral candidates and singing derisory songs of the ANC. Although this is more a case of ‘your enemies enemy is your friend’ than a genuine pooling of goodwill, it has a deeper effect.

Any Rip Van Winkel who fell asleep prior to August 3 and awoke three weeks later would clearly stare on in disbelief as Johannesburg Mayor Raymond Mashaba thanked the EFF for all that they had done for South Africa. The EFF cheered on as new Tshwane Mayor, Solly Msimanga, agreed that land issues were critical to the future of South Africa in his opening address.

Similarly, Julius Malema might've started a renewed debate in opposing the inclusion of verses of Die Stem in our national anthem, but it was Mmusi Maimane from the DA who seemingly expressed similar reservations on the topic. Whilst from Malema, this suggestion might sound a tad ‘radical’; from Maimane it seems much more mainstream.

And, with the EFF seeking to steer the political discourse to its constituency, issues of delivery to the poor find common ground with the DA. Both parties can agree on eliminating the hated "bucket system" or providing better housing et al.

Meaningful change

Blurred lines will also be felt as the ANC attempts to play the EFF at their own game by appearing almost as populist. Early indications from the new opposition-ANC in Tshwane suggest that the social policies of the EFF might be dissolved into aspects of ANC-speak.

For the DA, it has to deliver. Its middle-class support base is solid with nowhere else to go. But its small but increasing township base needs reassurance that their vote will bear fruit. A concentration on poorer areas of the new Metros it governs will surely blur further the old prejudices that the party is driven by white or atavistic tendencies. And in so doing, the DA can also play it all ways – looking after its broadly capitalist base yet revive a social conscience that is also part of its DNA.

Finally, marginal power and blurred lines all come together in diluting stereotypes. Perhaps, this is the most important outcome of the vote. Here, a DA-led administration – even with EFF support – can result in meaningful change.

And, even if that change is limited, the mere fact that Opposition is in control does not mean that the ancestors are coming to get you. Even a minimal reduction of wastage and graft can have a positive effect and be acknowledged as such by the voters.

Simply put the stereotype that the sky will fall in when the DA governs will be put to bed. In Johannesburg and Tshwane, the consequences of living under a different political administration other than the ANC is brand new to voters.

The DA had asked the electorate for a chance – which they now have. If they don’t intentionally squander it – or be up-ended by a vindictive ANC - they will have broken the stereotypes that have so hampered their breakout appeal to black voters in the past.

And, given the ANC’s hold of Ekurhuleni, Gauteng voters also have the potential for side-by-side comparisons of differing approaches to governance.

Power is critical

In the world of realpolitik, power is critical. And a stronger DA now has its own powers of patronage and largesse. Although there will be greater accountability, all political parties who gain power will to a degree try to keep those who can assist their longevity in office relatively happy.

This is critically important in a country like South Africa where power – and the ability to dispense it – is an attractive political aphrodisiac. The DA now has this – albeit in minority form – in the large Metro’s but it too can now play in the big league.

This is also important in diluting the stereotype of a smaller party without the political clout to not only effect change but play the political game as well. And, the DA can use this to enhance its appeal and attract new and younger talent to its brand.

Just like a house of cards, political changes in the next few years could bring this window of opportunity crashing down. But for the moment, the era of marginal power, blurred lines and diluting stereotypes may have a profound effect on all political parties with unseen and unintended consequences into the future.

- 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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