Mahlatse Mahlase

NDZ knows something we don't, and she's using it to win an election

2017-08-24 13:06
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

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This week, Statistician-General Pali Lehohla revealed one of the biggest failures of the ANC-led government. Poverty has deepened. Statistics South Africa’s Poverty Trends report shows that more than 30.4m of us are living in poverty. This is three million more than in 2011, two years after President Jacob Zuma took over from his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.

The numbers have shocked many, but you just have to go to some of our country’s many townships and rural areas during the day, to see how many young people, who are supposed to be economically active, are roaming the streets. If you do, it will be clear to you that half of our citizens live in poverty.

The number of unemployed graduates sitting idle at home is also an indicator that education does not lead to the great escape of poverty’s vicious cycle. You also have to listen to the black middle class that is buckling under debt, because even though, on paper, they are now active participants in the economy, they carry the heavy burden of looking after their relatives. 

Just earlier this year, the SA Institute for Race Relations released figures showing that there are more South Africans dependent on social grants than those who have jobs ­– a fact that continues to send shivers down my spine. These are the very people who turn up at the ANC rallies as the presidential contenders criss-cross the country campaigning for the nation’s most important job.

They are not necessarily card carrying members of the ANC, but they have seen the patronage and allegiance system at work. So, when the local councillor or branch chairperson sounds the call to come and attend a leader’s rally, they respond. They are guaranteed a new T-shirt and often a day’s meal.

Weeks ago, at what was supposed to be Speaker Baleka Mbete’s endorsement for the presidency in Soweto, it was mainly pensioners and a small group of young people who turned up. Mbete came ready with her speaking notes on the resolutions of the ANC policy conference. When they got a chance to voice their concerns, those gathered demanded jobs, support for a local farming project for the aged, and decried how councillors were giving the few available (and often temporary) jobs to their friends and relatives. 

Hungry and desperate for jobs

Then when Lindiwe Sisulu was launching her campaign at the historic Walter Sisulu square, where the Freedom Charter was signed, the programme director was at pains to explain to the residents of Klipspruit that Sisulu, who is also the housing minister, would return to deal with their housing problems. Her speech said nothing about their immediate concerns. I don’t know if she ever did return, but the pensioners left feeling cheated. 

This week, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is in North West. Her lobbyists had worked the ground hard. An impressive fleet of more than 40 minibus taxis – loaded mostly with women, young and old – were in tow, following her from Brits to Marikana. They were given brand new T-shirts – branded NDZ for president, and on the back was her election mantra, Radical Economic Transformation. Few of those attending could explain what Radical Economic Transformation was.

But what they do know is that it’s time for change – they are hungry and desperate for jobs and are tired of looking enviously at their fellow South Africans in suburbia driving fancy cars and eating in fancy restaurants.

We spoke to many older women, who said they were there because they were hoping Dlamini-Zuma would deliver much needed jobs. One told us that, because Dlamini-Zuma is a woman, she understood that they were mothers and grandmothers, carrying the heavy responsibility of feeding their children and taking them to school. 

The woman, who said she was a member of a "forgotten generation" aged between 45 and 59, reasoned that Dlamini-Zuma was likely to understand their suffering and respond to their desperate cries. When she went job hunting, she said, she was told she was too old, and when she went to the government’s grants agency – SASSA – she was told she was too young for a social grant.

On the face of it, the calls for radical economic transformation are dismissed as populist slogans because there is very little details about what it means. But in reality, the slogan finds fertile ground among the desperate and hopeless.

Not everyone is connecting the dots

Dlamini-Zuma’s campaigners say this is part of the strategy – creating the critical mass for support for change in the status quo. That is why she almost never veers from this script, repeatedly saying: "We cannot continue to have a rich South Africa, but with poor South Africans."So, while her other contenders to the throne, including Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, berate the dismal state of the ANC despite being part of the leadership, she is talking about the economy.

Few of those who attend the rallies speak to us of the stories that dominate the news headlines: the Guptas, a possible Cabinet reshuffle, the recent motion of no confidence in Parliament, the crisis in state-owned enterprises, the 783 charges against President Jacob Zuma, and the implosion within the ANC.

Not everyone is connecting the dots, that these crises have contributed to our economy’s junk status. Many are ready to dismiss them if a new leader can ease their real burden, and help them put food on the table.

Yes the implosion in the ANC contributed to the party’s dismal performance in the local government elections, but come 2019, when Zuma is no longer the face of the ANC on the ballot, the sorry state of the economy is likely to dominate the discourse.

Are Dlamini-Zuma and her supporters on a vote-winning path?

- Mahlatse Gallens is political editor of News24.

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