The Zelephant in the room

Andrew Donaldson says the ANC is not exactly rushing to discuss a certain cause of its woeful electoral performance


NO-ONE likes the smarty pants I-told-you-so stuff, especially when contemplating the results of one’s own pigheaded arrogance.

Which is why ANC veteran Frank Chikane’s claim this week that he had warned the party last year that unless they made fundamental changes they faced massive setbacks in the municipal elections was about as welcome as … well, the latest Thabo Mbeki hagiography at the Mahogany Ridge book club.

So, yes, Chikane’s report, The Soul of the ANC Under Attack, apparently went unheeded when he handed it over to the national executive committee last September. This weekend, as they attempt to come to terms with a woeful election performance, the NEC will in all likelihood continue to give it a wide berth.

And why shouldn’t they? If you’re going to ignore the elephant in the room, it’s probably better to be blind as well as stupid. That way, you can always claim that you couldn’t see what was coming…

As far as Chikane was concerned, the omens loomed ominously large, and included such scandals as the Gupta family wedding saga at Waterkloof air force base, the Nkandla security upgrades debacle, the attacks on Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, and the jamming of cellphone signals in Parliament.

These “situations”, as Chikane quaintly termed them, allowed opposition parties to “look like they were representing the interests of the people … In fact, there were times when members of the public wished that the opposition [would] take action to ‘stop’ their ‘own ANC government’ or parliamentarians from getting away with what they considered as just unacceptable.”

Well, hey, wasn’t that just like politics for you? 

The good reverend, you’ll remember,  was the director general of the Presidency in the Mbeki administration. And therein lay the rub. As a “clever”, Chikane is among the most ardent of Thabophiles. So why should President Jacob Zuma — not a great fan of the pipe-smoking philosopher — and his 85 allies in the NEC take any notice of him?

Judging by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s remarks ahead of the NEC’s meeting, the question of Zuma’s continued liability to the ANC and his considerable contribution to the DA and the EFF’s gains at the polls was not on the agenda.

“We want to do a thorough analysis of the elections,” Mantashe was quoted as saying, “but there is no item ‘president’. We will check: are we in decline, and is it a trend that will continue forever, what should we do to arrest that trend and turn it around?”

How all this could happen without a mention of that great elephant was anybody’s guess. But if it’s blame we’re after there’s bound to be plenty of that; the Ridge regulars expect much in the way of scapegoating and what have you. In fact, it could all be a bit Nkandla-esque: “It’s the architect’s fault!”

More alarming, though, was Mantashe’s suggestion that, with a turnaround in the party’s fortunes in mind, the electoral system itself may be overhauled because, as The Times put it, “it advantaged opposition parties at [the ANC’s] expense”.

The thinking here — if we can be that generous — appears to be quite unique. A vote for another party was not a vote for the ANC? Funny how so many voters got that wrong.

Mantashe’s beef was about the “strange phenomenon” that was the proportional representation, or PR, component of the vote. It somehow … skewed things. As he put it, “In a number of areas where we have a majority of wards, we ended up being smaller. The example would be in Port Elizabeth where we [won] 60% of wards but we end up with 40% overall.”

Ag, shem. It’s clear, then, the ruling party needs to be reminded how these things work. We made our mark, remember, on two ballots forms. One was for a ward candidate, the other for the party. The latter was the PR vote. 

The ANC’s national support had dropped from around 62% five years ago to less than 54% this year, with the result that it lost Nelson Mandela Bay to the DA and was now forced to enter into coalitions with opposition parties if it wanted to retain control of the Gauteng metros of Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekhuruleni. 

That is why the ANC’s PR numbers dropped — it was a drop in support, not because the rules are weird.

Three years ago, the President told the National Assembly, “We have more rights here because we are in a majority. You [opposition] have fewer rights because you are in a minority.” 

He raised a few laughs with that. But it’s not so funny now, is it?

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.