'Broad church' politics under pressure after election 2019

2019-05-13 05:00
President Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Gallo Images/ Brenton Geach)

The ANC will have to decide if it fears the rise of the EFF so much that it panders to its pressures – or whether it sees the bigger picture of the necessity for more centrist and market-friendly initiatives to kickstart growth, writes Daniel Silke.

Despite arguments from Ace Magashule to the contrary, Cyril Ramaphosa has extended the shelf-life of the ANC for another term.

Considering the appalling state of governance over the latter part of the Jacob Zuma-term, the 57% victory was nothing short of impressive – or it was also a reflection of how distanced voters felt from the variety of opposition alternatives. The ANC brand survived another five years, but it needed a new leader to give it some security.

But that's where the celebrations end. This is a new era in which the ANC has no more cushion that accompanied the victories in the 60 percentiles over the last two decades. It's now either deliver on the "New Dawn" or face a further erosion of support with 50% a dangerous new target.

The message from voters was clear – the brand gets one more chance with a leader that was considerably more popular than the party. If this leader stumbles (or is replaced by a lesser figure), things will go 'south' rather rapidly.

Significantly, both major parties in power, the ANC and DA lost ground – and in similar proportions too. Incumbents who bore the brunt of governance responsibility also bore the brunt of voter anger and frustration with service delivery on the ground and the broader economic and political malaise.

The DA suffered township-voter setbacks in Gauteng as their mayoral positions in both Johannesburg and Tshwane failed to convince voters they were substantially better than the previous ANC office-bearers.

Bucking this trend was a major reward for better governance in the Western Cape where the DA – arguably at their weakest given troublesome issues of leadership relating to Patricia de Lille and the water crisis amongst others – emerged with a notable victory despite some minor slippage.

Although the EFF has been steadily showing growth ever since their 2014 debut, their impressive increases across all provinces can still disrupt politics even further. With their original 25 seats, they punched above their weight in their confrontational style. Imagine what 44 MPs will bring to the discourse in future.

But more significantly, the swing towards the EFF from the ANC saw some parallels with the rise in the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) vote – largely at the expense of the DA. Perhaps the most significant secondary aspects of the election – other than the more vulnerable ANC- has been this drift towards greater identity politics and away from the more "centrist" political forces of the ANC/DA.

Perhaps too, we should not be too surprised at this development. After five years of heightened racial invectives and rhetoric from the EFF coupled with a more radical drift under Zuma and a muddied debate around land expropriation, a segment of the white (and probably Afrikaans-speaking electorate) was feeling more insecure.

Toxic political discourse the catalyst

The "broad church" that the DA had become since 1999 – when it gobbled up many former National Party (and even former Conservative Party) members – was bound to be tested at some point and a more toxic political discourse as a result of EFF strategy was the catalyst that unleashed a backlash.

Once seen as the protector of minority interests, the DA vacillated on policy and allowed itself to have to speak in the language of the ANC to perhaps appeal to a majority audience. In this way, the DA failed to straddle the complex two pillars of its desired support base and lost ground by satisfying neither end.

For the ANC, it shed a clearly more populist-oriented vote to the EFF. Again, the broad church approach frayed at the edges with tens of thousands either voting for Julius Malema or again, staying away from the polls in some sort of act of protest. Both major parties therefore had difficulty in appealing to all their component elements.

The beginnings of a more fringe-type of balkanisation of the centrist political parties is not a new phenomenon globally. In Europe where economic strains, immigration and religious and national identity play an increasing vocal role, establishment parties are finding similar issues in holding onto their fringes as more populist parties become more attractive.

Certainly, the EFF have substantial growth potential in future – more so than the FF+ just in terms of demographics. But, given the rising levels intra-racial tension embedded in both the political and economic debate within South Africa, identity politics and extreme forms of nationalism can extend to larger sections of the electorate.

So whilst we all dissect the voting patterns and behaviours, the seats allocation and the personalities elected, there is a warning for both major parties that is not partisan and cuts to a deeper threat to our democracy.

Political centrism – whether its quasi-socialist of the ANC or quasi-Liberal under the DA (and neither terms adequately describes the confusing philosophies of both parties) has taken a moderate beating in this election. But, bringing voters back to the centre will only occur under conditions of the improvement of the lives of the citizens of South Africa – all of them.

Brake on rainbow nation growth

Deep rooted economic insecurity, inequality, endemic unemployment, governance failure and deep-state corruption undermine nation-building and have put a brake on the rainbow nation growth.

As the party of power at national level, the ANC ultimately faces its toughest test of all.

The need to restore growth and opportunity to all will be the eventual test of whether South African politics balkanises further into more dangerous territory or whether the emergence – finally – of a better life for all is able to offset and reduce this threat.

The ANC now (together with the DA where applicable) has to find common cause here – or face a damaging rise in fringe politics that has – as has been seen in Europe – left many countries greatly destabilised and deeply divided.

The ANC will have to decide if it fears the rise of the EFF so much that it panders to their pressures – or whether it sees the bigger picture of the necessity for more centrist and market-friendly initiatives to kickstart growth. The choice the ANC makes will play a crucial role in which side of the equation gains traction for the next five years.

Fortunately, the rise of the fringe is still limited when stacked up against the broader election result. And, South Africans and their politicians should not assume the worst. But now is the time to take the electorate's warnings very seriously and lance the boil in its infancy.

- Daniel Silke is the director of the Political Futures Consultancy in Cape Town. He can be found on Twitter (@DanielSilke) and his website.

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