The ANC and the Mugabe option

James Myburgh asks how the ruling party would respond to a serious electoral setback

Over the past week Helen Zille has made the claim that the Democratic Alliance is within striking distance of the African National Congress in three metros: Tshwane, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth (with Cape Town pretty much in the bag).

This claim is partly tactical, an effort to enthuse DA supporters and get them to the polls. What lends it weight is the chatter, from within both the DA and ANC, that internal party polling has detected a surge of support for the DA among black voters.

Whether this will translate into actual votes on May 18, or lead to an ANC defeat in one of these metros, remains an open question. But what was once inconceivable is now a possibility. In other words, while this particular black swan has not yet made its appearance it may be just over the horizon.

Such a breakthrough by the DA into the black electorate would be a game changer for South Africa's democracy.

It would challenge many of the working assumptions of the ANC and many opinion formers. And would, potentially, represent an important stage in the transition of our political system away from single party dominance towards a more pluralistic and responsive form of democracy.

As Nic Borain has noted, "The most positive outcome of any such swing is one in which ANC party reformers use it to attack the drift towards cronyism, corruption and incompetence in their party and government. And, of course, any such increased representivity of the DA will continue to act, in word and deed, as a check and balance on the African National Congress."

The big question is how the ANC will react to any such challenge to its power, particular from a party which draws considerable support, and much of its strength, from the white minority. In Beeld Tim du Plessis has questioned whether it is in the nature of this ANC to gracefully concede defeat at the ballot box.

"Then there are the deployed ANC cadres in key posts," Du Plessis notes, "particularly in the army, the police and the intelligence services, people with their hands literally on the levers of power. Are they going to peacefully sit and watch while power slips away knowing that it will also be the end of their world? Somehow I doubt it."

In the past the ANC has tended to tended to tolerate, rather than accept, the unapologetic assertion by white South Africans of their democratic rights. This has deep roots in the ideology of the national liberation movement, which defines the arrival of whites in South Africa as the source of all the misfortunes of the black majority.

From the early 1960s to the late 1980s the ANC/SACP in exile had intended, after effecting a violent seizure of power, to impose "a vigorous and vigilant dictatorship" against "the former dominating and exploiting classes." As Thabo Mbeki later observed the ANC took a conscious decision, in the early 1990s, not to go for this "Jacobin option" of oppressing and disintegrating "the classes and strata that constituted the white population, including depriving them of their democratic rights and property, and destroying the organisations they had created."

The ANC of Mbeki nonetheless did, from 2000 onwards, support Zanu-PF through a series of stolen elections in Zimbabwe, partly to give it time to effect to its historic mission of dismantling the "legacy of colonialism" by forcing white farmers off their land.

The ANC of Zuma could choose to take a different path. However, early indications are not promising. The ruling Tripartite Alliance has responded to the unexpected challenge of the DA with some pretty vile racial propaganda.

And now ANC Youth League President Julius Malema has put the Mugabe option firmly on the table. He told supporters in Kimberley on Sunday: "We must take the land without paying. They [the whites] took our land without paying. Once we agree they stole our land, we can agree they are criminals and must be treated as such."

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