The squeeze: Inside the rush for votes

2019-05-03 06:00
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 12: African Nationa
ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa wave to supporters as he arrives during the partys Election Manifesto Launch at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on Saturday, 12 January 2019. Cosatu, expects the events to unite the movement and erase factions and divisions that have rocked the province. (Photo by Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

Politicos, strategists and pollsters refer to the final days of an election campaign as "the squeeze". That's when the bigger parties bring the full weight of their remaining resources and party machinery to bear in a desperate attempt to try and convince the last remaining undecided voters to support them.

This weekend will see the squeeze play out in three stadiums in Johannesburg, with the DA holding their final campaign rally in Dobsonville, Soweto on Saturday, the ANC at Ellis Park on Sunday and the EFF in Orlando, Soweto, also on Sunday.

The ANC has historically been the best performer in the final stretch of an election. The party has never shirked to use its position as an incumbent government to its benefit and its machinery has always been able to grind out an extra few percentage points before polling day.

The target of the squeeze has always been the DA. The ANC has historically managed to not only increase their leaders' visibility in the final days, but also to launch painful attacks on the DA. And although these attacks haven't pushed the official opposition beneath the waterline, it has had a debilitating effect on the party's numbers in the past.

This time around the ANC has some strategising to do. It's not that easy anymore to target the DA as the "party of whites" as it has done in the past, even though ANC secretary general Ace Magashule has already invoked the race card. President Cyril Ramaphosa, unlike his predecessor, does not want to run a racially divisive election campaign but he needs to attack the DA in some form or another.

The EFF however poses a different challenge for the ANC. The red berets have made inroads into the ANC's support base, mostly because of the ANC's problems with corruption and the EFF's positioning against it – that notwithstanding its own issues with graft and malfeasance.

ANC on the backfoot

In the past, when the squeeze was on, the ANC has just had to concentrate on the DA, but this time the EFF also poses a material threat to the governing party. It will have to squeeze both parties with a message damaging enough to knock a few percentage points off the both of them. But it hasn't had an effective anti-DA or anti-EFF message the whole campaign.

In the Western Cape Magashule has been campaigning alongside Ebrahim Rasool and Tony Yengeni and denouncing the DA provincial government as "the worst racists" and warning against voting for a white party, but there have been no major national attacks on the DA as in previous elections.

The party has also refrained from targeting the EFF, preferring to repeat that Malema "must return home to the ANC" and eschewing attacks which might hurt them in return. The ANC has almost handled the EFF like an errant and temperamental younger sibling, rather than the political opponent and very serious threat that it is.

The ANC's own message has been focused on itself. Wherever Ramaphosa has gone he has spoken about the ANC's own mistakes and its own faults, citing state capture and corruption as the party's biggest mistakes over the past five years. At rallies and when giving speeches, during door-to-door visits and at sectoral engagements, Ramaphosa has had to explain what went wrong inside the ANC during the tenure of former president Jacob Zuma and he has had to explain how he will fix it. He has repeatedly acknowledged that many ANC leaders and senior figures have become embroiled in corruption but has sought to put the focus on what the party will do to extricate itself from the morass of wrongdoing.

This message has played well with the DA and EFF, with some strategists explaining that the type of explaining Ramaphosa has had to do puts him and the ANC on the backfoot. This, according to some pollsters, makes the ANC and Ramaphosa look weak and apologetic, not firm and determined.

In 2016 the ANC suffered serious losses when it lost control of three metropolitan municipalities (Tshwane, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay) on the back of the Constitutional Court's scathing Nkandla judgment (where Zuma was found to have violated the Constitution and his oath of office) and the revelations about state capture.

And in 2019 the party has tried to put all the revelations about capture and corruption into perspective by portraying itself as responsible and honest about its mistakes; and the only party that can reasonably take the country forward.

Will this make a difference, given how the electorate punished the ANC in 2016?

The country has over the past year been rocked by revelations of corruption and poor governance with a series of inquiries and committees exposing the extent of the rot under the ANC.

And it has provided the DA and the EFF with a target rich environment from which to pick and choose.

Ramaphosa portrayed as part of the mess

The DA has relished it, centering their campaign on the ANC's corruption, hammering home the message that a vote for the ANC is a vote for corruption and has sought to portray Ramaphosa as part and parcel of the party's sordid immediate past. They've also launched classic television attack ads and on Thursday night projected some of their slogans on the ANC's headquarters in Johannesburg. Luthuli House glistened under the words "Growing corruption together".

The EFF for their part has steered away from corruption as a central message (perhaps because of their own range of skeletons in the closet?) and have focused on their mantra of jobs and land. Party leader Julius Malema has not shied away from denouncing the ANC, saying the party is dying, but he hasn't fired the series of broadsides Mmusi Maimane and his colleagues have.

DA strategists were apparently flabbergasted by the ANC and its alliance partners' poor showing on Wednesday during countrywide May Day rallies. There was an expectation that the ANC would start reverting to type and attack the DA for being too white, elitist or threatening to bring back apartheid, as has happened in the past.

But Ramaphosa, the SACP and Cosatu steered away from it, with the president infusing his usual stump speech (mea culpa, the economy, services) with praising the working class.

At every single election, bar the 2016 municipal election, the ANC has managed to go into overdrive in the last days before polling. It could count on a machine honed over many years, it had deep reservoirs of resources and it could count on its history as a liberation movement to dispel any doubters of its credentials.

But it is yet to kick into gear in 2019.

The squeeze is on. The ANC's leadership, including every member of the top six leadership, is in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and in the Western Cape trying to corral the last remaining voters. The DA is gearing up for a last effort in Dobsonville on Saturday and the EFF, with its limited budget and almost no access to polling (except Malema's gut-feel), is fanning out away from the prying eyes of the national media.

The DA has a clear objective. The EFF has stuck to its message.

And it's the ANC that's fighting the uphill battle.

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