Mpumelelo Mkhabela

The important message the upcoming election results will send South Africans

2019-03-22 06:00
South African residents stand in long queues in Cape Town, South Africa on 18 May 2011 to cast their votes in the municipal elections. (Photo by Gallo Images/Foto24/Lulama Zenzile)

South African residents stand in long queues in Cape Town, South Africa on 18 May 2011 to cast their votes in the municipal elections. (Photo by Gallo Images/Foto24/Lulama Zenzile)

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Given the many indefensible and crippling problems facing the governing party, the 2019 elections will communicate an important message, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

Every election has a unique feature. 

For the majority of South Africans 1994 was about the freedoms they had long yearned and struggled for. The snaking queues said it all. For the minority, for whom voting wasn't entirely new, the dawn of the new era triggered fear of the unknown.

With the apartheid wounds fresh, 1999 was still about the past and its legacy which only the ANC was deemed qualified to eradicate. But with five years of the ANC in power, the opposition had material to begin to punch holes in its performance in government. In response to shortcomings, the ANC would point to the difficulties arising less from its weaknesses than the depth of the legacy of three centuries of colonialism and apartheid. It was a fair point.

By 2004, there were signs the ANC had gotten to grips with governing. It had built a proven record. It went on to secure a two-thirds majority vote for the first time. The economy was beginning to respond positively to the ANC's interventions. It reached a historic growth peak by 2006.

In a few years, South Africa had moved from bankruptcy under apartheid to a budget surplus. The credit rating agencies accordingly upgraded South Africa. The government could afford a massive social security rollout to cushion the poor, for whom growth did not translate into jobs.

Notwithstanding the turmoil within the ANC in 2007, voters were prepared to reward the resilient party with another overwhelming majority in 2009. Riding on the successes of the past, Jacob Zuma cruised to power with his mshini wam of blatant thieving of government resources. Whereas in the past there had been attempts to stem the tide of corruption, (like the establishment of the Scorpions, and the passing of many tough anti-corruption laws) under Zuma malfeasance was raison d'être.

In the next election in 2014, the electorate began to ask serious questions. Decline in voter support showed. With little, if anything, to show on his own record, Zuma appealed to voters based on general aggregate performance of the party since 1994. But that record and the wounds of apartheid – however overwhelming the legacy – were beginning to lose bite as mobilising factors. National conversations were increasingly becoming about immediate past performance. 

To its credit, though, the ANC could not be threatened nationally because post '94 it had embarked on a massive branding campaign. Even for those born after 1994 chances are that the first political party they could recognise was the ANC. Brand recognition has become a substitute for historical recognition. The ubiquitous T-shirts bearing the faces of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and now Ramaphosa, that people wear casually in rural areas and townships have a huge brand significance.

The DA is far from reaching even a quarter of that recognition nationally despite consistent growth over the years and Mmusi Maimane's attempts to reach out to the masses in ways the DA hasn't tried in the past.  If it remains consistent with its brand exposure, and hopes the ANC doesn't fix its blunders, the EFF might get closer to the ANC's brand appeal relatively quicker with its brand of populist politics.

History has its limits

The innumerable problems arising from the Zuma era brings to the fore the immediacy of the issues that affect people on a daily basis, reducing the ANC's ability to appropriate its struggle credentials fully. Zuma taught voters that however important, history has its limits, especially when it is used to legitimate the capture of the democratic state by uncouth business people.

As thing stand, there is a new struggle against state capture and all opposition parties have a right to claim credentials for it. Ramaphosa is trying to show a break from the state capture era and to lead the new struggle.

But Ramaphosa faces a dilemma. He can't convincingly appropriate the past while the country faces immediate issues of load shedding, well-known corrupt people still roam the corridors of government, and public debt and massive unemployment continue to grow, among other issues.

The opposition parties are using all these to test whether the evidently unhappy electorate is confident to ditch the mighty ANC. But declining confidence in the ANC due to load shedding and other issues doesn't automatically translate into confidence in the DA, EFF or UDM. It only creates possibilities for the opposition.

Elections will communicate important message

Given the many indefensible and crippling problems facing the governing party, the 2019 elections will communicate an important message. If the ANC returns to power in eight provinces with a comfortable national average support, the opposition, not voters, will have to do serious introspection. It would mean the ANC's immediate past record had no impact on voter sentiments.

It would mean the Ramaphosa factor would have been powerful enough to compensate for the disaster of the wasted nine years and the decline of the struggle against apartheid as a mobilising factor. In fact, such a scenario will make Ramaphosa more powerful not only in the ANC but also in society in general. 

The opposition has very little time to dent Ramaphosa's prospects. Like the opposition, he too is talking about the nine wasted years. With such mutual distaste for what has happened, Ramaphosa wins because he is using the power of incumbency to actively demonstrate that he is doing something about it. Opposition parties need much stronger messages if they are serious about taking on the powerful ANC brand led by someone who is seen as more credible than the predecessor.

Yet, the ANC has never been so vulnerable. But the vulnerability won't automatically translate into voter support for opposition parties. Not because the voters are stupid, as some in the opposition think. It's because the opposition itself is stuck on being the opposition rather than an alternative government.

As I have argued on this platform, a weak ANC doesn't a strong opposition make. The 2019 elections will tell us a great deal about the opposition as it will about the future of the ANC as post-liberation party.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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:    da  |  anc  |  eff  |  cyril rama­phosa  |  elections 2019
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