South Africa's black electorate seem unperturbed by the never-ending episodes of sleaze, corruption and internal dissention prevalent within the ruling ANC.
Normally, service delivery protests, weekly revelations about corrupt officials and a President whose own personal conduct has been ridiculed by the press and the chattering classes should be enough to at least turn some voters off the party responsible for these transgressions.
Instead, the ANC vote is holding firm in its traditional heartland - and is actually increasing in Kwa Zulu Natal as it sucks in more and more disaffected IFP voters. The latest spate of by-election results over the last few months clearly shows that voters are barely affected by the plethora of negative publicity the ANC is receiving. In Mpumalanga to the North-West (where by-elections have been held in the past few months) the ANC vote is as healthy as ever and has often shown signs of growing even further.
Should we therefore be surprised by this apparent impermeabiloity on the part of the black electorate to translate their dissatisfaction and frustration with the ruling party into a protest vote against it? Indeed, it would seem that the increasingly robust & vigorous internal ANC debates and the existence of a variety of high-profile personalities who often ratchet up their political rhetoric ironically enhances the ruling party's appeal to its core constituency and enables it to continue to service its broad church - albeit in a very unstable and increasingly fractious manner.
It seems as though the ANC enjoys a unique electoral advantage. It lives with and even encourages a degree of protest within its own ranks and in return it continues to receive the support of the voters. A key to this is the very effective method by which ANC officials enter any area beset by ‘service delivery' protests. The first order of business to the ANC task teak will be to shore up support for the movement - and then listen to the people's problems. The ANC has developed an outstanding mechanism for retaining loyal support even in areas most severely affected by poor municipal management, ineffective councillors and corrupt local officials.
The ANC has always suffered from internal dissention. Prior to 1994, this was kept behind closed doors as was much of the party's policy deliberations. Essentially, the key focus was the end of apartheid and nothing was allowed to get in the way of this goal. However, once issues of future economic policy became more important than the now historic and less immediate success of ending apartheid, open and vociferous internal debates were allowed to surface. Add the jockeying for power, privilege and position and mix in the desire to access state resources and contracts (and a very open and free press and electronic media) and you have a recipe for the very public display of internal bickering often used to name and shame individuals for narrow political ends.
However, the very fact that the party shows no visible signs of decline at the polls indicates in a strange way that the dissention in the ranks can also work to its favour. The high profile enjoyed by Zwelenzima Vavi and COSATU since President Zuma came to office affords those who view the Unions as an important watchdog within the Alliance the opportunity to remain largely within the ANC fold. The more Vavi berates the ANC moderates, the more pointed his criticisms become (evident after Pravin Gordhan's budget speech), the more those in the ANC who feel the party sometimes takes a lurch to the right are mollified - and return to the fold.
In the same way, the more Julius Malema challenges the old guard and talks about nationalization, the more the populist elements within the party feel comfortable in remaining. Malema is tolerated within the ANC precisely because of this. He plays the role of the populist vote catcher - and can be relied upon to keep this body of younger more radicalized youth well within the fold. Indeed, Malema's world-view is bigger than that of him alone. There is a substantial body of disaffected youth in the ANC who need and demand expression of more radicalized views.
Similarly, the SACP and their own contribution to policy debates allow their supporters to remain within the alliance. For Blade Ndzimande, Gwede Mantashe and Jeremy Cronin, the SACP has never been so close to power. It too plays its part vigorously and publicly in entering the fray and in so doing increases its profile amongst its supporters.
And, for those pragmatists or centrists, the likes of Gordhan, Manuel and Sexwale help keep the capitalists on-board. In other words, the alliance has changed its modus operandi from quiet backroom feuds to public spats - but the net result to keep the alliance together remains.
By attacking each other, all these elements play government and opposition at the same time. Voters know that if President Zuma gets too cosy with the business elite, COSATU will call it to account. Similarly, Pravin Gordhan can get away with a very pro-business budget which barely addressed the concerns of the Left precisely because the SACP, ANCYL and COSATU will again call him to account (even if secretly they let him get away with it!).
For black voters, the alliance itself provides its most credible opposition - all wrapped up in one post-liberation package. As an ANC supporter, it becomes much more attractive (and credible) to support Vavi's call for lifestyle audits than similar requests from Helen Zille. This is therefore, a very telling method to keep voters within the ANC family.
But this is a game that holds inherent dangers. There is a fine balancing act when one branch of the sane movement watches the other like a hawk - and expresses itself in public. As soon as one pillar of the alliance is seen as being predominant, it needs to be reined in and President Zuma is directly responsible for this. Failure to do so (perhaps as in the case with the Malema) can result in a permanent schism.
Zuma is likely therefore, to spend most of his Presidency fighting the flames of internal fires - the very fires that still keep the ANC flame alive at the ballot box. Ultimately, Zuma has to lay down the rules of engagement. And, this is alliance engagement like we have never seen in public before. It started at Polokwane and is likely to remain with us through the Zuma Presidency which is intent on allowing a fair amount of individual freedom to the component elements of the alliance.
However, a near tipping point of damaging public spats recently necessitated a very pointed intervention from Zuma. The President did lay down the law to the ANC's NEC on March 21 and this will see his leadership and effective management severely tested even further over the next few months. Can he regain control of the very fluid ANC components he so wants to keep in this state of feeling frees to express themselves? That's the real rub for Zuma.
The strange irony is that had the ANC adopted a clear policy (Left or Center) on Labour controls, land ownership, public/private partnerships and all the other vexed issues that often cause rifts in the alliance, it would probably break the mould that holds it together.
The glue of liberation continues to be kept alive by the ANC to create a unique historical precedent for its continued rule. But, the robust internal debates and fractious checks and balances now keep the party together in a very different way. Zuma's relaxed and non-ideological stance is exactly what the party needed. Free to express itself, it sometimes goes beyond the comfort zone - but it certainly plays to its audience. If Zuma stifled this, he might be writing the end of the ANC in government. Managing the likely tipping points in the future (such as the Malema crisis) will be his biggest challenge.
Zuma therefore plays the ultimate balancing act - making sure no one element gains the upper hand. If he can maintain such an exhausting strategy, the ANC will keep its solid majority at the polls. But, should one part of the alliance be seen to be gaining too much policy traction, that can be the real event that precipitates a substantial schism in the ruling party.
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