Tshwane events threaten South Africa

Daniel Silke

Watching events unfold in Tshwane, South Africans across the political spectrum can largely only hang their heads in shame and consternation.

The violent expressions of political frustration, coupled with community anger – and no doubt a fair dose of political thuggery and expedient hooliganism – creates a fresh sense of unease our country hardly needs.

Those who know the ANC, are well aware of the acute levels of factionalism now present. And, it’s not only armchair critics like this author who agree. As recently as last week, Higher Education Minister Blade Ndzimande spoke of a possible ‘implosion’ of the governing party.

There are a myriad of issues that may be seen as a catalyst to this latest wave of violence. They all need to be addressed.

Clearly, the ANC failed to adequately read the mood of a Metro that is more politically (electorally) divided and contested than originally anticipated. With the latest opinion polls pointing to a real danger of the ANC at less than 50% of the allocated seats, the nation’s capital is now politically up-for-grabs.

So when you factor in the deep local factionalism already existing – and add to this a national element of factionalism flowing in advance of the ANC’s elective conference at the end of next year, you have a tinder-box just waiting for the moment of ignition. And Thoko Didiza was just that.

Now, add to this already toxic mix two important political factors. Firstly, diminished ANC support means that councillor positions (and even within the broader local government bureaucracy) are fewer.

Yes, those careerists within the governing party have to up their game in order to get nominated - their paths to a decent salary now stymied by their own party’s decline in electoral fortunes.

When access to the resource of patronage becomes that bit more scarce, it’s every man for themselves. And, we see this for sure in Tshwane.

Related to this is a more confrontational and aggressive political milieu in which more militant political rhetoric is fast becoming the norm. A dissolution of the politics of competitive tolerance to one of polarization compounds the prevailing unease.

As if that is not enough, the second key political catalyst shows how when pressured to alter operational methodology, you have to have done your homework – well in advance.

The ANC have been forced into a corner – largely by the DA – into changing the style of the local election campaigns.

Over the last few years, the DA has increased their support partially by running a more personality-based local government campaign in key Metro’s. These have been based on promoting the personality of their mayoral-elect candidates in conjunction with a broader local and national party campaign.

With a modern trend towards a greater role for personalities – especially in rapidly urbanizing metros – the ANC have belatedly and somewhat reluctantly been forced to follow suit rather than ask voters for a blank cheque and then nominate the Mayor post election as was done in the past.

But in their inexperience and under pressure to react to the DA only 6 weeks before the poll the ANC have simply botched Tshwane.

With such clear divisions on the ground, a growing gulf between the NEC and the Gauteng Provincial arm of the party and flagging local branch structures, any attempt to change the status quo has been enough to fuel violent demonstrations.

Local government is probably the most sensitive sphere of the three-tier system we have. Residents have stronger emotional allegiances to their councillors – and certainly to their mayoral candidates who are often seem as the final bulwark against wayward and corrupt local administrations. And, we should not shy away from ethnic and language factors that are more acutely felt in local politics than sometimes at the more distant national level.

If you don’t secure buy-in from local branches in this process way ahead of time – especially in an era of combustible factionalism – don’t expect your rank-and-file to simply acquiesce. And, ironically, even if you bring in someone who has a clean track record like Thoko Didiza, without the necessary spadework months before, you can still expect trouble.

What really bodes ill is the violent nature of the political protest action. While most South Africans may have little sympathy for such bad political management of an internal mayoral nomination, what really concerns them is the unedifying displays of public violence and wanton destruction of public property.

And, disturbingly, it raises a question few really want to confront: If this is the level of protest on a localised matter of a mayoral nomination, what would be the reaction if the ANC were to begin losing at the polls? How would its members react to a more serious loss of a major Metro for example? Would it accept the result peacefully or would the levels of Tshwane protests witnessed this week be a proverbial Sunday-school picnic by comparison?

Tshwane therefore presents us with an unfortunate window of all that is wrong in the way the governing party runs its affairs. And it is also a window – or a flash forward – into a dystopian political future we need to avoid at all costs. Ultimately it’s about leadership and until that void is filled, we may be in for an unsettling new normal.

* 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.

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