The ANC does extraordinarily well at the polls in the face of poor delivery, growing unemployment, and urban decay. Towns run by the party are mostly in a very poor state when compared to those run by the DA, yet come election time they overwhelmingly fall again into ANC hands.
This is the conundrum of South African elections.
There are a number of explanations for why the ANC dominates despite its failures, but the overriding one is straightforward. The ANC has a grip on the narrative of liberation and has been granted enormous leeway by voters. The loyalty of its supporters often permits forgiveness for its transgressions. The ANC admits failures, but then says the party itself will be the most effective in leading the fight against corruption and poor service delivery. This is believed, despite its poor record.
With this grip on the narrative of liberation, the ANC is able to keep a tight grip on core support. And that allows it to successfully refresh its image and make a new set of promises to its supporters, who show a great willingness to forgive. It also has the advantage of a hard core of supporters who work for the state or a local government and who know their jobs depend on the party’s fiscal largesse.
In its air war of posters and high level interviews, the ANC sounds like the DA in its promises of delivery and fighting corruption, but in the ground war of canvassing it is all about racial identity politics, more black economic empowerment, and land expropriation.
Over the years, polling by the Centre for Risk Analysis, CRA, has consistently indicated that the big issues about which people really care are unemployment and jobs, corruption, housing, education, and crime. The ANC cannot campaign on how it has lowered unemployment and improved delivery. While issues associated with identity politics, like black empowerment, are not those listed as core in surveys, they do tug on emotional bonds when part of a campaign.
While the ANC will remain dominant after Monday, the party could now face an accelerated decline. For the first time ever, there are growing signs that it will not receive a majority. A CRA poll shows the ANC will fail to win a national majority and only obtain 49 percent of the vote, down from just below 54 percent in 2016. The DA will slip from 27 percent in 2016 to 22 percent, and the EFF will obtain 12 percent. That all adds up to 83 percent, leaving 17 percent for the multitude of the smaller parties, which gained just 11 percent of the vote in 2016 and 2019. A recent poll by IPSOS also shows the ANC at 49 percent, but the DA dropping to below 18 percent, and the EFF at 14.5 percent. As with all surveys, there are user warnings that polls are snapshots, have margins of error, and that no assumptions are made about turnout on the day.
After Monday, the ANC will certainly have to govern in many more coalitions with smaller parties, but it will remain a mammoth force. The conundrum will remain in place.
The decline in turnout is probably a precursor to further declines in ANC support. Turnout this year is unlikely to exceed the 58 percent recorded in the 2011 and 2016 local government elections. With worries about Covid-19, many might wish to avoid voting queues this year. Disillusionment with the political process is also reflected in the relatively low rate of voter registration. Only 68 percent of those eligible to vote have actually registered.
The elections on Monday are for municipal positions, but voters tend to disregard local issues and vote as if this is a national election. That’s the reason why there are so many posters featuring party leaders. Ramaphosa is highly popular and widely known, and has given the party a fresh impetus.
A key advantage for the ANC is President Cyril Ramaphosa’s high rating. Putting Ramaphosa front and centre of the campaign gives the impression that voting for Ramaphosa can save the ANC and protect us from the less desirable elements within the party. It may defy logic to vote for a party to save us from a party, but that is the way it works.
Incumbency, a fawning state-owned SABC and a well-disposed eNCA remain critical advantages for the ruling party. Daily and detailed TV coverage is not something that is afforded to parties other than the ANC. The spotty TV coverage opposition parties tend to receive and the absence of basic coverage of civics and lack of debate leave the public ill-informed. This also means that parties such as the DA and most smaller parties battle to raise their profile.
Intermittent TV coverage means big problems for opposition parties wanting to promote their leaders and brands.
The CRA poll asked questions about how favourably disposed people are to the leaders of political parties. At above 60 percent President Cyril Ramaphosa has a huge favourability rating and all those polled were familiar with him. And his net favourability score, which is derived by subtracting the “somewhat” and “very unfavourable” scores from the sum of “somewhat” and “very favourable” scores is high, at close to 40. Four years as president means he has been on TV almost every night, and many feel they know and trust him.
By contrast, the poll found DA leader John Steenhuisen to be popular only among white voters. His overall net favourability score was, at nearly -17, pulled down by a low score among blacks who were polled. But what Steenhuisen really suffers from is low familiarity. All those polled know who Ramaphosa is, but nearly 46 percent of those polled said they had not heard of Steenhuisen.
What this largely reflects is the little TV coverage received by the DA in contrast to the ANC and EFF. It does not help that Steenhuisen has not had much time in the job, only becoming interim leader in October 2019 and Federal Leader over a year later. The real reason the DA may not do well on Monday, is that Steenhuisen is not sufficiently well known.
By contrast, EFF Commander in Chief Julius Malema is very well known, with a net favourability score of nearly -17 percent, showing he is highly divisive, something that enhances his appeal among his core supporters.
The rise of ethnic laager politics strongly favours the ANC and the EFF. The EFF beats the ANC on this score, but the ruling party is bigger and can point to its strong record. Despite the endless criticisms of the DA as a party of white privilege, ethnic laager politics is not its strong ground. Here it loses out to the Freedom Front as well as some of the smaller parties. It is some of the smaller parties that are willing to enter into coalitions that will help the ANC retain its grip on power.
[Photo: Gallo Images/Fani Mahuntsi]
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR