ANC and DA delusions

William Saunderson-Meyer says LGE 2021 has failed to sober up the parties


ANC in slack water and DA dusts off its slingshot

One would have thought that the train smash that was the recent local government election would have sobered up the politicians. They did after all, without exception, stagger from the wreckage with their clothing shredded and egos dented.

But delusion is a heady drug and more difficult to kick than heroin. They’ve all managed to convince themselves that it was not as bad as the figures show.

Take Fikile Mbalula, who despite his many obvious limitations is influential in the African National Congress leadership.

It’s always difficult to find anything intelligible in the utterances of Mbalula who, despite stiff competition, is consistently the most incoherent and inane person in the Cabinet. But since he is Transport Minister, a staunch ally of the embattled President Cyril Ramaphosa, and was in charge of the party’s election campaign, one must persist.

In what I first assumed to be a comedy skit, but which transpired to be Mbalula’s effort at a post-election analysis of the party’s disastrous plunge in support, Ramaphosa’s chief sycophant was almost psychotically upbeat. “To get what we got,” he told News24’s Qaanitah Hunter, “we should really be smiling.”

Although “we have been in the dark for the longest periods of time, the people love the ANC. They said it in our face”. The great stay away, said Mbalula, is at heart a polite request: “Can you please fix things?”

“Voters will give the ANC a chance. [They are saying] ‘We are not rejecting you. We are withdrawing our vote. We know that you can do better. You are the only ones that can give us what we want.”

This is more than just a politician trying to put a positive spin on things. So strong is the ANC narrative that its position as the country’s government is historically ordained and irreversible, that it seems inconceivable that “our people” — both terminologically and emotionally identical to National Party assumptions half a century ago about “ons mense” —  might have other ideas.

There is a genuine incomprehension in the ranks of the ANC that the worst electoral performance in its history may not be a statistical hiccough. It seeks solace in the mantra that “our people” are merely sulking, not supporting any other party. That is only partly true — at least some appear to have voted for the Economic Freedom Fighters — but it is, in any case, not how political disenchantment usually plays out.

As likely, the ANC is momentarily adrift in slack water — that short period of stillness before the tidal stream reverses its direction — and come the general election of 2024, the flow will be running powerfully against it. And it seems unlikely that a Ramaphosa administration that has been adrift, paddling in futile circles for four years, will suddenly set the kind of bold course necessary to avoid disaster for South Africa and, consequently, its own fortunes.

The Democratic Alliance, too, is talking up a delusional storm. Carried away by unexpected wins in a couple of municipalities and the prospect of small-party coalitions giving it a route to control of some of the metros, it is entertaining all kinds of David and Goliath fantasies.

The results proved, said leader John Steenhuisen, that the DA was the “real kingmaker” and the only alternative to the ANC because of its size and national footprint. Rather than “saving the ANC”, the DA intended to “save South Africa” by bringing the ANC below 50% in 2024. Hence, based on principle and strategy, it would not enter into coalitions with the ANC nor the EFF.

The “principle” part of the DA’s stance is nonsense. Principle did not stand in the way of its disastrous previous Johannesburg and Tshwane coalitions with the EFF, which dealt the DA severe reputational damage.

Explain too, the principle behind wanting to deal with ActionSA, which in turn is pursuing with unbecoming ardour, deals with the EFF? The prospects of working with the ActionSA should send off every ethical alarm bell in the DA. Not only is its leader, Herman Mashaba, a xenophobe of note but his tolerance, while previously mayor of Johannesburg, of EFF corruption is extensively documented

And, of course, principle did not impede one of its most successful coalitions, that with the New National Party — as apartheid’s remnants, the opposite side of the political spectrum to the EFF. That eventual merger in 2000 catapulted the DA to 22% of the local government vote, coincidentally exactly the same percentage it got this time, and set it on a steady growth path for more than a decade.

Nor is this a particularly good strategy on the part of the DA. The best hope for the South Africa that Steenhuisen professes to want to save would be to hasten a split in the ANC.

That would cause a realignment in which the Radical Economic Transformation rump would join up with its natural allies, the EFF. The Ramaphosa wing, likely the bulk of the ANC, could then form a governing coalition with centrist parties like the DA. Contrary to all the posturing by both parties, the ideological differences are not irreconcilable.

Rejecting the ANC as a potential coalition partner, without even sounding it out, is arguably a massive mistake on the part of the DA.

The ANC had signalled, in veiled statements from Mbalula and Ramaphosa, that they were open to such a deal. It’s a measure of ANC panic that they were willing even to consider it, since such a coalition would have outraged the radical RET forces within the party and could very well have caused them to split off.

The DA’s foreswearing of working with the ANC is a change of tack. Initially, one hears from within the party, the ANC was the preferred party for any coalitions, given their experience of ActionSA and the EFF. The challenge would be how such a coalition would handle the corruption and incompetence that is so rife, particularly at a local government level.

But at the past weekend’s national executive meeting, there were warnings of a strong grassroot backlash to any deals with the ANC. Many party members and supporters, the NEC was warned, would leave — as they did in the 2019 general election, in protest against the DA’s “ANC-lite” profile at the time.

What a missed opportunity. The idea of limited DA/ANC coalitions at local levels today triggering a national political realignment tomorrow, may be fanciful. But it’s considerably less fanciful than the DA’s dream of downing the ANC with its slingshot in 2024.

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