With barely six weeks until municipal elections on August 3, the ANC finds itself under substantial pressure. The governing party is struggling with a number of interlinked challenges that are hampering the development of a groundswell of campaign enthusiasm so vital to mobilise voters.
The usual controversies surrounding candidate selection procedures have once again caused deep divisions. Despite this being a perennial issue, the ANC have struggled to secure community buy-in for the current crop of candidate nominations that have left deep scars mired in protests with often-violent outcomes.
And, after 21 years of not announcing Mayoral candidates prior to local polls, the ANC have been forced to be much more reactive in the face of Opposition demands - and in particular more effective personality-driven campaigns from the DA.
Under pressure, their announcement of Mayoral-elect candidates late on Saturday night was itself fraught with internal wrangling.
To add to the ANC’s problems, the governing party was unable to make a critical appointment of its Tshwane Mayoral candidate due to deep divisions and only later announced former cabinet minister Thoko Didiza as a replacement for the sitting Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa. This in itself is an indication of the substantial concern the party has for its continued governance nation’s capital.
For the ANC, this campaign was always going to be tough. Years of debilitating leadership under President Zuma have not only weakened the Alliance but have sewed the seeds of electoral disillusionment which dangerously can lead to a poll struggling to muster excitement, enthusiasm and energy.
Ultimately, weak and rudderless leadership on the national front is now being felt within the governing party as well. With tainted leadership, the ANC was always going to take its biggest electoral risk in sticking with President Zuma – and its foot-soldiers are now feeling the after-effects.
Even for a powerful entity like the ANC, getting its supporters to the polls on Election Day remains its most critical challenge. Amidst deep internal divisions, factionalism, leadership paralysis and splinters in COSATU, a cohesiveness of strategy in terms of both message and practical organization/canvassing seems missing.
It’s all left to a rather tired ANC – an organization, whose coattails of power and patronage remain impressively potent, yet seem unable this time round to ignite any excitement into electoral politics.
Whilst power and the role of the incumbents in exercising it remains a crucial asset to the ANC, the governing party has largely been unable to set the agenda for the political discourse over the last few weeks. This is remarkable for a party as large and as omni-present as the ANC.
Despite its largely unfettered access to the SABC and an increasingly supportive set of print-media options, the ANC finds it tougher than ever to dominate the debate. Repeated attempts since the beginning of the year to define domestic politics in terms of Race are substantially less effective than originally thought.
The ANC’s enemies (the DA and EFF) are simply less easy to define in terms of propaganda. Whatever the discourse about Maimane, he, together with others have transformed the party racially. Similarly, whatever your thoughts of Julius Malema, the ANC does not own populism or the revolution anymore. These are critical factors in adding to the difficulty the ANC has in ‘labeling’ its opponents to suit its own discourse.
With Race (and populism) a diminishing trump card for electioneering, the ANC will either need to find a fresh set of issues in haste or it will need to ratchet up populist rhetoric in an attempt to regain ownership of the broader campaign platform.
These issues are now beginning to play themselves out in the first opinion polling just undertaken by Ipsos for ENCA.
Although the high degree of undecided voters can alter the vote across many different scenarios, early polling suggests a broad disillusionment with the ANC and higher levels of voter fluidity than before. This creates a bigger ‘swing vote’ in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) that is now up-for-grabs.
For Opposition, converting a majority of the undecided to jump ship from their hitherto historical political homes will be their key task. For the first time, the vulnerability of the ANC in the nation’s largest and most prestigious Metro’s is apparent. Indeed, Election 2016 certainly does represent the Opposition’s best chance to unseat the governing party in its core urban heartland.
But, just as the pressure is on the ANC to defend its control, so the strain of gaining electoral ground will also be felt by the Opposition. Mmusi Maimane is under intense pressure to show electoral growth and failure to at least hold the ANC to a below-50% performance in one major metro outside Cape Town (or Midvaall) may be seen as too little to cement his leadership. Similarly, should the EFF only muster a less than dramatic few percentage points gain to its national tally, it too will face internal introspection over strategy.
South Africa enters the final straights now of its most competitive – and uncertain – local government elections ever. The opposition have the ANC against the ropes although the ANC have usually been strong finishers.
This time though, the larger national issues of alliance politics, internal dissention and political leadership cloud the local nature of the campaign and work against the ANC. And, the pincer movement on the moderate right from the DA and populist left from the EFF is starting to take its toll on the ANC. Expect some surprises – and a host of unresolved messy, coalition councils after August 3rd. It won’t be easy in local government but it will sure be interesting!
* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.