In about 600 days, South Africans will be voting in the 2024 elections. For the first time since the middle of the twentieth century, just who will occupy the Union Buildings will be in serious doubt.
Voters in provinces like Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal will be unsure of the composition of their government. This is cause for great excitement, but no-one should be naïve about the scale of the task of taking down the ANC.
Recent media reports have focused on opinion polls showing vastly differing pictures of our political landscape. Amidst this confusion, the ANC’s support levels have been the focus of much discussion. Can the governing party really fall as low as 38%? Is it possible for the party to pull off an absolute victory in 2024?
A question to which some answer is needed, however, is one asked with incredulity: how is it possible that a governing party responsible for multiple national crises can still have the support of more than 45% of voters?
The answer is not a simple one.
Fundamentally, the ANC has six key advantages when it comes to electoral support.
The first advantage is that South Africa, while being a young country in terms of the median age of its total population, has an electorate that skews older.
This skewed make-up of the South African electorate ensures that the ANC retains electoral goodwill from its three most significant historical claims of success:
– the ANC is widely perceived to have brought an end to apartheid;
– the ANC won a formidable election victory in 1994 with a truly historic leader in Nelson Mandela; and
– the ANC oversaw a decade of economic progress through its implementation of pragmatic and successful economic and fiscal policy between 1996 and 2007, while benefiting also from a post-apartheid goodwill dividend and favourable global commodity circumstances, ensuring wide socio-economic improvement and the rollout of services like electricity, water, and housing.
These material benefits were primarily experienced by a generation of South Africans denied these things, and who still form a key part of the electorate. These voters, justified in their initial support for the ANC through the improvement in their quality of life, ensure the party continues to enjoy the electoral dividends of its early successes in government, even though these successes have been followed by escalating disaster since the 2007 Polokwane conference.
The clear correlation over time between ANC electoral support, GDP growth, and access to water, electricity, and housing is no accident. The ANC government in its first decade in power truly did deliver a better life for millions denied such by apartheid. The 2004 election saw the ANC fall just short of 70% of votes cast nationally. This was an incredible electoral achievement for a party after a decade in power. This highpoint of mass ANC support, achieved under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki, no figure of universal love or admiration sufficient to attracting a substantial personal vote, cannot be explained by means of lazy tropes that reduce voters in that election to ballot cattle.
Critics and opponents of the ANC must face up to the fact that the ANC achieved transformative successes in its first decade in government – successes that, aided by other factors discussed below, inspired enduring loyalty among key electorates.
The ANC’s second advantage is its party structures, while greatly diminished in recent years, remain the most formidable political structures in the country. Such structures ensure a campaigning and mobilisation ability comfortably outstripping other parties in the build-up to election day.
The third advantage is that the ANC has shamelessly blurred the distinction between party and state. Often considered to be a matter of lacking constitutional or democratic integrity, the erosion of this distinction, not dissimilar to the approach of the National Party, in reality translates into a cunning long-term political strategy.
The devaluation of a distinction between the ANC and the South African state and government has allowed the party to use state capacity and resources to promote narratives that the ANC, rather than the taxpayer-funded South African government, provides such things as grants and housing.
These claims, massive in scope, but small in fabrication scale at grassroots level, have been made over almost three decades mostly beyond the capacity of opponents to rebut. To a significant extent, this has entrenched the belief among people kept from civic and political education by both apartheid and ANC governments that a non-ANC government will not provide the same social benefits to voters.
The fourth advantage that the ANC has is that it has also been unashamedly thuggish in its behaviour, in informal street politics and often local government – punishing voters and whole communities who vote against it. This has given a terrifying credence to the threats that non-ANC elected officials cannot or will not provide state support. Anecdotes are rife in rural areas and townships of intimidation of people with anti-ANC feelings or voting intentions by thugs known to be affiliated to local ANC structures.
A fifth advantage is that South Africa’s population is tragically uneducated in terms of civic rights and democratic systems, weakening democratic accountability mechanisms, primarily the ballot box.
During the 2019 election campaign, I wrote an internal report for the political campaign I was working for at the time on an incident in which a community vandalised a voter registration tent which belonged to the Electoral Commission (IEC). Why did these citizens commit this odd act of violence? Because when they confronted the local ANC municipal councillor about lacking service delivery, the councillor had told them that they hadn’t received proper service delivery because the IEC had not demarcated their ward for such delivery.
To many of us, it’s patently absurd to blame the IEC for something like service delivery failure, but the most desperate and poor people in our country today still endure a legacy of having essentially no frame of reference for grasping democracy and how government works.
Successive apartheid governments considered these people to be sub-citizens, who thus had limited, if any, exposure to the real consequences of the ballot box. My own awareness of politics and democracy, as is likely true for many, sprang from the basic assumption that my parents had a right to participate in choosing government, that their parents had that right, and that I would have that right on reaching voting age. That this inherited assumption of civic rights and opportunities remains limited is a damaging consequence of democratic and civic exclusion.
Cynically or negligently, the ANC has done little to substantially remedy this civic poverty, trapping millions in tragic ignorance, diminishing the true value and impact of democratic political accountability.
The cynic might now self-righteously proceed to denounce this civic ignorance. But I would caution against too much such stridency here: ignorance is one thing, but ignorance of ignorance of ignorance – not knowing that you are entitled to know what you don’t know, but others beyond your frame of reference do know about your rights as citizens – is quite another. This while likely living a life of inner-city or rural or township fear, malnutrition, and poverty. The abstractions of the ballot box too often are simply irrelevant to those enduring the brutality of destitution.
This persistent civic ignorance ensures a significantly less critical democratic environment than that which the ANC should by rights face. This has been to their electoral benefit and will remain so unless explicitly addressed.
The sixth and final electorally advantageous factor for the ANC to be discussed here is how the party has ensured political debate almost exclusively on its terms, trapping its opponents, especially the DA, in a strategic and tactical quicksand.
This mostly comes down to the immediate aftermath of the 1994 elections. No party immediately post-1994 could realistically have aggressively challenged the moral and political standing of the ANC – especially not the ANC of Nelson Mandela. This is what drove the decision of the NP, the second largest party after the elections, to join Mandela’s Government of National Unity (GNU).
Politically this was undoubtedly a rational decision. If it was going to be a sustainable factor in post-apartheid politics, the NP had to show its rejection of apartheid, its endorsement of its successor governing party as legitimate, and its ability to be something other than an apartheid party. For all the soundness of the argument and the good it did them then, the NP would not last another decade after the GNU.
The same, perhaps even more damningly cruel choice put the DA’s predecessor, the DP of Tony Leon, in an unenviable position after he had been offered a cabinet position. Had Leon accepted Mandela’s invitation, the DP would likely have gone the route of the NP. It did not and promptly replaced the NP (now rebranded the ‘New’ National Party) as the official opposition in the 1999 election. In making the decision to be the most obvious opposition to Mandela’s government outside the GNU, the DP secured its existence where the NP/NNP did not, and possibly even preserved the idea of opposition politics in South Africa, but it also paid the price. This descendant party of liberal opposition to apartheid, in many respects a historical ally of people like Mandela, instantly became the party opposing Mandela.
In the perverse logic of the time, opposition to Mandela’s ANC was simplistically considered to be indistinguishable from supporting apartheid and opposing non-racial democracy. The DP/DA never quite managed to shed this label. For decades the liberals fought to be a thorn in the side of apartheid’s champions, only to unfairly end up inheriting their crown upon the collapse of the system they so opposed to NP scorn. It is a testament to Mandela’s strategic genius that he managed to practise politics with such strategic insight as to have the ANC’s most formidable opponent stumble into a trap that continues to hamper it a decade after his death and two after his presidency.
Tony Leon, it must be stated, could not have realistically joined the GNU and avoided the fate of the NP/NNP. His decision was, for all its later consequences, the right one.
However, with the DP taking on the role of opposition to the first post-apartheid government, it was only too easy for the ANC to encourage an entrenched distrust of the DP/DA among many black voters who, mere years earlier, would have considered the party to be broadly on their side. And this the ANC did brilliantly. Today, the DA struggles against a thirty-year-old belief among some voters that, at its heart, the party wants to see a return to apartheid because it was the opposition to the first ANC government. The ANC, though they still try, did propaganda properly once – and portraying the DP/DA as the party of apartheid was a messaging master stroke.
These initial developments after 1994, however, were by no means the end of the ANC’s successful efforts to ensnare opponents. DA-mned if you do, DA-mned if you don’t.
Leon grew the DP/DA into the official opposition, and when Helen Zille took over, the diagnosis that the DA needed an adjusted approach to grow into government seemed sound. However, this thinking was based on the unstated flawed assumption that South African politics would continue in the fashion of its history: as a rule, national governments are formed by a single party with a majority in the appropriate chamber of Parliament.
Hindsight is of course 20/20, but had the DA at that stage grasped that a national ANC defeat lay in a coalition of parties, these each having between 2% and 20% of the vote, the party might have had more courage and certainty in maintaining its ideological definition and establishing itself as the inevitable leading party of coalition government, rather than the only party that could grow above 50% to oust the ANC. But the mistake made then was an easy one to make. And so it adjusted politically to achieve this doomed aim.
The adjustment of the DA saw it buy into core fundamentals of the ANC’s definition of South African politics. In answer to an increasingly racial ANC, the DA implicitly responded – almost unnoticed by the party itself – by exchanging the fundamental value of liberal non-racialism for the sugar-coated endorsement of race-based politics of multi-racialism. The distinction between non-racialism and multi-racialism is a fine yet vital one: the former rejects race as basis for public policy where the latter does not, relying instead on ‘nice racialism’, on the venomous notion of representivity. Somewhat cruelly, one might consider the DA to have exchanged non-racialism for ‘capable racialism’.
This adjustment, it would eventually transpire, laid the groundwork for the DA’s first existential electoral crisis: seeing its support decline in the 2019 elections. What lay at the heart of this decline was a one-two punch.
Microwaving of young black politicians
One: the implicit urgency of promoting black people to public leadership roles to achieve representivity saw the microwaving of young black politicians into roles they simply were not ready for, while alienating experienced non-black party members.
Two: the ideological shift to progressive liberalism rather than the more classically liberal ‘freedom, federalism, free markets’ of the DP alienated swathes of white voters who had pragmatically shifted to the DP/DA – best considered the typical ‘yes’ voter in the whites-only 1992 referendum.
These hits followed each other quite logically, unleashed by the move from non-racialism to multi-racialism, and became, along with the assumption that the DA must grow to match the ANC in size, a perfect storm for the DA’s existential crisis after its loss of support in the 2019 elections and the collapse of Mmusi Maimane’s leadership of the party.
Tony Leon, like a frog in the Ramaphosa kitchen, got into hot water when he described Maimane’s leadership as an experiment. I would argue he was both right and wrong: Maimane’s leadership of the party wasn’t the entirety of the DA’s experiment, but it was the true product of the party’s experimentation with multi-racialism as a replacement for non-racialism.
Today, the DA battles the consequences of these two defining inflection points in its history: the courageous decision to oppose Mandela’s ANC, and the wrong-headed determination to grow at the cost of non-racialism. Tellingly, in both cases, the DP/DA were reacting to the superior political strategy of the ANC of Mandela and Mbeki. Along with its initial successes in government, the ANC’s strategic victories over their opponents during their first decade in office still pay interest at the ballot box today.
Cumulatively, these six fundamental electoral assets of the ANC offer something of a multi-faceted explanation for the remaining high support levels of the party, despite its catastrophic record in government over the last decade or so. It is short-sighted and verging on unwise condescension to ignore the underlying and complex motivating factors that bring voters to support the ANC. Any opponent of the ANC must understand that these electoral assets of the party must be proactively neutralised if a comprehensive defeat of the ANC is to materialise.
It won’t be good enough to blame voters – as a strategy for winning votes, it’ll prove disastrous. Telling voters with nothing to lose that they will have nothing unless they vote differently isn’t a convincing argument. Failing to understand that the ANC’s support is a complex phenomenon of distinct components will perpetuate the fundamental misunderstanding of the ANC’s electoral power – hampering any effort to make democratic inroads. Furthermore, it’ll make inaccessible the many voters that opposing parties might want to win over from the governing party.
For all its catastrophic failures of government, the ANC has played the game of power well. It has acquired a formidable grip on millions of South African voters. In about 600 days, we’ll know whether the opposition, in the form of the DA, FF+, IFP, ACDP, COPE, UDM, PA, and ActionSA, who hope to establish a post-ANC coalition government of wild dogs, have learned that even the aged buffalo still has horns.
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