With the analysis of South Africa’s recent election focusing largely on the more micro-deficiencies (and strengths) of the various political parties, their leaders and their campaigns, it’s worth noting that once again, a Southern African country has voted back those in power despite a less-than-optimum record of accountability and delivery.
Along with Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola and probably Botswana later this year, Southern African nations still haven’t embedded real competitive politics with an electoral change of party at the ballot box.
Perhaps the former colonial struggles are still too recently entrenched in the minds of voters to consider voting for the non-liberation alternatives – after all, real party contestations are occurring in both East and West Africa where the colonial struggle ended decades earlier leaving a longer period of democratic maturation and generational shifts to alter the political landscape.
In the South African context though, there are some special features that have kept the ANC in power – despite the most glaring of deficiencies. And, these features have largely been as a result of the special relationship of economic dependency that the ANC has developed and nurtured with its voters since 1994.
Ironically, the inability to grow economically has meant that the roll-out of social grants (and related benefits) has become a potent political force in itself. In essence, dependency has replaced opportunity in South Africa. And, with among the worst levels of unemployment in the world, dependency is the only safety blanket that a whopping 17 million citizens can hold onto.
For voters who receive grants – and even for those who don’t – there is a direct linkage with the political party in power that rolled out said benefits. After all, social security was virtually non-existent prior to 1994 and is clearly identifiable with the ANC in power.
When it comes to risking a vote on an opposition party, voters may also feel they risk their pensions and grants. Since the system has efficiently delivered to them in the last 25 years and since many of their prospects are so limited that it’s the only thing that works for them, voting for a political party like the DA (or even EFF) poses risks.
Of course, it comes down to a matter of trust. If voters perceive the DA to be a party that they cannot rely on to provide at least the same social benefits as the incumbents, it just becomes tougher for the larger opposition party to gain electoral traction. At least with the ANC, voters will argue, their pensions and benefits remain intact – the DA being something of an unknown quantity with no track-record in national government.
Voting for the Unknown
Somehow, this analysis also sounds rather familiar within the South African context. We have been here before when the old Apartheid National Party used the fear of losing pensions quite brazenly when campaigning among older White voters against their more progressive opposition. Not that the ANC was as crude as the old NP, but the fear of an unknown change-of-ruling party no doubt played a not-so-subtle role in the voting psyche of a block of voters.
Similarly, for the EFF, they were seen as an unknown. And the key aspect of their land policy – namely calling for all land to be owned by the State – would provide an additional trust deficit for the party which could’ve stunted even further growth. With such a sea-change on ownership as proposed by the EFF, disgruntled voters might’ve still preferred the party in power – warts and all.
But, it’s not just about trust where incumbents can – despite their worst intentions – still command loyalty. It’s about patronage and the embedded systems of advantage that have been used by the state since 1994 to reward those most closely associated with it.
Again, the irony is that South Africa’s bureaucracy has become bloated in the last 8 years under Jacob Zuma. The well-worn absorption of tens-of-thousands of voters into state jobs is an important political aphrodisiac – especially when there were precious few job offerings from the private sector to act as an alternative.
When you’re employed by the state, you become beholden unto the state. In this way, both those unemployed who enjoyed benefits – and those employed – where locked into some type of paternalistic relationship with the ruling party. And, as the ruling party so successfully conflated itself with the well-being of the state, the symbiotic aura reinforced itself.
Ultimately, then, would you risk your pension or your job for another political party that called for cutting back on state expenditure or trimming the fat from the bureaucracy? Not bloody likely, as the Brits would say!
Indeed, the ANC has therefore used its power to cultivate a relationship of political (and largely economic) dependency between vast swathes of its electorate and itself. For all the malfeasance so cynically displayed, the party crafted a master-plan at locking in support. And of course, cadre-deployment – masquerading as transformation – played a further role providing benefits that only the governing party in power could dispense.
The critical question now is whether the ANC can maintain these features which lock millions into some form of economic dependency on the governing party? And indeed, it’s becoming tougher.
Yes, social grants can keep coming but they need better GDP figures and revenue receipts to keep them secure. Any attempts to slow their scope and alter their conditions, can be met with voter resistance.
However, a bloated bureaucracy now needs tacking as cash is becoming scarcer and mismanagement takes its toll. Eskom is a case-in-point. This week, President Cyril Ramaphosa has already spoken about the excessive workforce in that troubled SOE and the needs for a negotiated reduction in personnel.
If the State wishes to cut costs, bloated par-rolls will have to be tacked – and with that comes substantial political risk as the virtual ‘sheltered’ employment of the last decade is whittled down. As soon as you threaten the economic security enjoyed by those whose livelihood is dependent on the state, you walk into a possible minefield of political insecurity.
And, if you tweak cadre deployment by employing the best rather than the best party hacks, you reduce their cosy relationship with the state as well. And furthermore, if you attempt to stamp out the patronage network of crony capitalism, you reduce the benefits from those used to getting away with subterfuge to fund their voracious appetites.
Both political power and the resources of the state have been at the core of entrenching the ANC and therefore making life very difficult for the Opposition. In a country in which there is a battle for survival for both the poor and middle classes as a result of limited economic options, the state has taken on a role in which it has politically milked its dependency aspects. Under these circumstances, the Opposition – neither the DA nor EFF – stood any chance of making headway.
A leaner, meaner state might threaten these relationships – and that’s yet another political risk that Cyril Ramaphosa will have to consider as he navigates an exceptionally tough course to reboot South Africa.