The ANC will be forced to go back to the drawing board and realise that the history of the liberation movement alone is not enough to keep South Africans loyal, writes Mondli Makhanya
The listless faces on the stands at the ANC’s manifesto launch in May should have been the first warning.
That day, the people listening to speeches in the sparsely populated Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium couldn’t stomach the boredom and went outside to toyi-toyi and chat.
The ANC’s rally in Port Elizabeth was meant to be a formidable show of force that would scare off opponents who stupidly believed they could unseat the party in this heartland city, which is the resting place of the great Govan Mbeki and bears the name of the world’s greatest icon.
Instead, it turned into a huge embarrassment as President Jacob Zuma delivered his speech to a rapidly emptying stadium.
A month later, the ANC tried to redeem itself by filling up the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.
This outing was a lot more successful, but the crowd was just as bored and by the time proceedings were over, the bulk of the stands were empty. This should have been the second warning.
Last Sunday’s Siyanqoba rally at Ellis Park in Johannesburg should have sounded the third warning shot.
As the ANC-sanctioned camera feed panned across the faces of the people in attendance, many of them looked like folks who had been lured to a date under false pretences and couldn’t wait to get back home to their real friends.
Lack of excitement
Since the inaugural 1994 elections, every ANC campaign has oozed energy.
Even outsiders would get caught up in the moment and would be overwhelmed by the history of an organisation that prides itself on being Africa’s oldest liberation movement.
This time, the ANC had to introduce the “dab” dance move into its routine to inject excitement into its campaign.
The consequence of this low energy was there for all to see on the Independent Electoral Commission results board this week as the party was delivered jabs, uppercuts and knock-out punches.
The results board told of an ANC that was being pushed out of the power-broking major cities into the periphery of influence. It is now highly possible that by the end of this week, four metropolitan cities will be in the hands of the ANC’s opponents.
As if this was not hurtful enough, the president and ministers will now govern from a city run by the opposition.
Luthuli House and the ANC heavyweights who live in Johannesburg will have to live with the idea of paying water and rates to an opposition-controlled municipality.
All for nothing
Falling below 50% in the metros was a personal humiliation for some of the ANC’s trusted hands.
Danny Jordaan was last year parachuted into Nelson Mandela Bay by the national leadership with the express mandate to rescue the municipality from dysfunction and to salvage the ANC’s chances in the local government elections.
He must now return to Safa House a humbled man, and he’ll have to face many football colleagues who were resentful that he saw his ANC mandate as being above that of the football delegates who voted him president of their federation after a hard-fought battle.
Another parachuted candidate, Thoko Didiza, will have to live with the fact that lives were lost and tens of millions of rands of property was destroyed when the party forced her down the throats of Tshwane ANC members who would have preferred someone else.
She will now either return to her parliamentary role to face an even more emboldened opposition or settle for another deployment, knowing that the death and destruction was all for nothing.
The most undeserving victim of this week’s events is Johannesburg’s Mayor Parks Tau, who, if the proposed coalition takes over, will have been punished for the sins of others.
Tau has been a visionary mayor who has put Johannesburg on the right road.
But because voters were venting against the rot at national level, he will not be able to complete his mission of revolutionising the great big city of Johannesburg.
This week, party hacks were scratching their heads and asking how it came to this. How was the energy sapped?
How did the cord that tied the organisation to its natural base loosen so much that they were prepared to ignore warnings about the return of apartheid if they left home?
How did the “blessing” of the poor with food parcels, title deeds and last-minute infrastructure projects fall flat? How did a lavishly funded campaign fail to ignite the passions of the masses in the same way previous campaigns had done?
These are silly questions that should never be asked in the first place because the answers have been there all the time – if the leadership and activists cared to listen.
They have been provided by commentators, veterans, civil society activists, the ANC’s allies, the clergy and the media.
And, most importantly, they have been provided by the people themselves, many of whom are supporters who are grateful to generations of ANC members who sacrificed their lives and livelihoods so that the good republic could be born.
Had they listened, they would have learnt that South Africans despise being treated as if they can be exclusively owned by anyone.
Because they did not listen, they kept the organisation deep in a cesspool of scandals; they could not hear the cries of people who were being taken advantage of by their public representatives; and they deluded themselves into believing that holding leaders to account was an idea conceptualised by imperialists.
Freedom above all
The party was badly punished this week and given a wake-up call that, as arrogant as it may sound, South Africa is not your typical post-liberation society.
South Africans may feel an affinity for the former liberation movement and its history, but they have a strong ownership of their freedom.
They ask questions, they critique, they criticise and they talk back – often rudely. Occasionally, they burn things down and cause havoc.
This week, many of them liberated themselves from the liberation movement. They may come back, but it will be on their terms and not because they are prisoners of history.
This 2016 earthquake could dramatically alter the landscape beyond just the shift in political power.
Perceptually, it changes the view, often found in liberated societies, that only the liberator can govern.
Once people in the inland provinces have tasted the hand of another party in government, it becomes easier to become a floating voter who shops for the best deal. Political parties then have to work harder to win the love and trust of the citizens.
If the opposition coalition makes a success of the heavily populated metros, they will be in charge of the path to the hearts of those who doubted them.
With the ANC’s national support now hovering in the mid-50s, the 2019 general elections have suddenly become a more open contest.
As far as provinces are concerned, the nation’s industrial heartland, which the ANC won by just more than 52% in 2014, will be up for grabs.
The big building on the hill in Pretoria could also be within reach and the ANC could be forced into an uncomfortable coalition in the future if it wants to retain control of national government.
Those with an eye on big positions at the ANC’s national conference in 2017 will be wondering this weekend whether they will be inheriting an organisation that will be shouting from the opposition benches in the next cycle of Parliament.
What happens next?
There will also be an effect on the relationship between the emerging business sector and the incoming authority.
Up until now, the relationship between black business and the ANC has been a comradely one.
This will have to be redefined as the business players walk the tightrope between an ANC-controlled province and a metro run by another party.
Big business will also have to evaluate how it deals with tiers in the same province controlled by different parties.
Of immediate concern in ANC circles is what ripple effect the loss of the metros will have on other towns in by-elections and the next local government polls.
There will be concern about the drop in support in second-tier municipalities, which also contain a growing number of “clever blacks”.
For opposition parties, this moment is theirs to waste. Citizens in the nation’s most powerful localities have shown that they are willing to experiment and give someone else a chance.
In many countries, such opportunities have been squandered by individuals for whom the taste of power has had an intoxicating effect.
For the ANC, it is a moment to reflect on how it has to operate in a nonreligious environment in which people are increasingly breaking with the liberation mythology that surrounds it.
The party will need to make some brave decisions in the time leading up to the 2017 conference.
Besides the obvious decision that the party is too afraid to make, the other big one is whether the next wave of leaders should be people who remember the first moon landing or whether the party should make a generational leap and install people with more nimble minds and bodies.