Mpumelelo Mkhabela

A weak ANC does not a winning opposition make

2017-10-27 08:19

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A weak ANC does not a strong opposition make

The scandal-ridden ANC, whose standing in society is at an all-time low, provides a boon for opposition parties. In a competitive democracy the ANC would face a drubbing in 2019.

But, will it? Not necessarily.

The weakness of a governing party doesn't equal the strength of its opponents. Political parties hoping to challenge the electoral dominance of the ANC would be mistaken for thinking they can defeat the ANC purely on its own weakness. They will have to do more than just watch the ANC destroy itself.

Some of the ANC's political opponents spend a lot of time analysing its weaknesses instead of putting forward an alternative political vision for the country. They have to be innovative to convince voters that they are a better vehicle to carry the hopes and aspirations of the nation so well-embodied in the Constitution, the document on which President Jacob Zuma, according to the work of one cartoonist, urinates with pleasure.

The opposition parties can't hope that voters will be swayed by the fact that they have experienced for themselves the economic hardship, the buffoonery at the highest level of the state, the ubiquity of corruption and the humiliation of seeing the country being auctioned off to foreigners under the ANC government.

Real and graphic as they appear to those who are addicted to news headlines, they are not entirely self-evident to voters. Nor do they automatically presuppose the need for political change.

Depending on the ANC's internal weaknesses does not constitute an electoral strategy. It's like a football team whose victory hinges on its opponents scoring own goals. Only a mad coach would think of such a thing as a strategy. But there are signs, however, that opposition parties are not innovative enough in putting forward convincing alternative policy positions to attract voters.

The danger for opposition parties is that the chronic political illnesses of the ANC can serve as a disincentive for them to show hunger for votes. It can also serve as a paradox of plenty, referred to by economists as the "resource curse".

This concept describes the underdevelopment of a country that is rich in natural resources. In this case, the blunders of the ANC could be a resource for opposition parties.

But, absent shrewd political strategies to convert the resource into the desired political outcome, the resource can turn into a curse, instead of a benefit. Adding to the potential "curse" that opposition parties are facing is the fact that ANC leaders have become adept at admitting their weaknesses – and promising a new dawn or so-called "self-correction".

ANC leaders and spokespersons have carefully mythologised the party to the point that when they speak of it, it's almost as if it is distinct from its members and leaders, including the corrupt, who constitute it. They have repeatedly admitted that their weaknesses could cost them votes.

This is one of the ways through which the ANC keeps itself a relevant and consistently promising brand. But voters are not given a sense that opposition parties, individually or collectively as a coalition, are more than ready to govern.

In a country where voters vote with passion, opposition parties will have to work more than twice as hard as the ANC to profit from disgruntled voters. ANC supporters have over the years developed their own method of punishing the ANC: staying away from the polls. While it is their democratic right not to vote, the danger is that it deprives democracy of the necessary vibrancy.

Voter apathy does not, however, suggest that the appetite to shop around for alternatives is absent. The decent support that new parties received when they first contested elections shows that there is willingness among voters to consider alternatives.

The support that Bantu Holomisa's United Democratic Movement (1999), Patricia de Lille's Independent Democrats (2004) Mosiuoa Lekota's Congress of the People (2009), Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters and Zanele Magwaza's National Freedom Party (2014) gained suggest that voters do consider shifting allegiances. But the lack of dynamism particularly in the leadership of some of the new parties resulted into quick stagnation.

All these parties, like the ANC itself, were established as a result of particular grievances they sought to address. But there had never been so grave a grievance post-1994 than now. The collapse of governance, the tyranny of the Zuma factor that the ANC has allowed to flourish, and the decline of the country in all major areas of national concern create a conducive environment for an electoral shake up.

But nothing should be taken as a given in electoral politics. Opposition parties, who might be hoping to leverage on the genuine national grievance, should know from their previous experiences that it would take more than the ANC's own weaknesses to defeat it at the polls.

- Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria. 

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. 

Read more on:    voters  |  anc  |  election  |  opposition
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