Growing old with the ANC

William Saunderson-Meyer on how politics is lining up as we reach 25 years of ANC rule


“2019? That’s such an ugly number. It doesn’t inspire much hope in me,” shuddered one woman at the New Year’s bash.

“No, nonsense!”, insisted the inevitable contrarian. “It’s a prime number, strong, and 19 at least it marks the end of the turbulent teen years of this century.”

It’s a commonplace kind of exchange. At the beginning of every year, we embark upon our new chronology with both hope and trepidation. The proportions of those two factors depends not so much on knowledge and analysis — we should know by now that Fate excels at bowling us googlies — but on our personal cocktail’s blend of optimism and pessimism.

In contrast to this futile seeking of omens for our own future, the numerology is clear for South Africa as an entity. This is the 25th year of our democracy. January 8 is also the 106th anniversary of the African National Congress and marks the campaign launch of the party’s sixth general election, which in turn will determine the tenor of the next five years.

Most grown-up political organisations celebrate only the big dates: the anniversary of the 191-year-old existence of the Democratic Party in the United States will go unheralded; the 185th anniversary of Britain’s governing Conservative Party will, given the chaos of Brexit, at best elicit an ironic cheer. 

But the ANC makes as much of its “birthday” every year as does the average self-involved toddler. It wants balloons, cake and lots of adulation. 

This year its celebrations will kick off at the 16,000-seat Absa Stadium in East London, where President Cyril Ramaphosa will outline the roadmap to the 2019 polls in May. There will be messages of support from its alliance partners and an eclectic collection of what it describes as its “fraternal allies” — including Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, Sinn Fein in Ireland, the Communist Party of Cuba, and the Polisario Front of Western Sahara — as well as the dubious drawcard of an appearance by fired president Jacob Zuma.

At this stage, it would seem that the ANC will be going into the election in a far better state than it deserves on a sober assessment of the facts. The Zuma years, especially, have left the economy ravaged, with state institutions eviscerated of capacity and teetering on bankruptcy. 

Despite Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” unfolding to reveal a landscape littered with the same old populist ploys that characterised the dark Zuma night — an enthusiasm for expropriation without compensation and a readiness to fan racial antipathies, with “lackadaisical” whites being blamed for supposedly withholding employment from young black professionals — he remains remarkably popular among many who would traditionally have been sure opposition votes.

There has been no shortage of commentators, including influential former Business Day editor Peter Bruce, calling on Democratic Alliance voters to rally to the ANC’s side, in order to give him a personal vote of confidence and in so doing, supposedly strengthening within the viper pit of the ANC the Ramaphosa revivalists against the Zuma zombies.

The sentiments are understandable. Undoubtedly, it would be better for SA if Ramaphosa’s somewhat precarious factional victory was rewarded at the polls, given that ANC fortunes have been waning steadily for more a decade. 

But it’s a specious argument. There is no such thing as “splitting the vote” or tactical voting in a pure proportional representation system, such as ours.

Voters don’t get to choose between Ramaphosa-supporting candidates or Zuma-supporting candidates. They simply put their trust in the party as a single entity and it would seem from rumours regarding the ANC's provisional electoral lists that the party remains closely divided between the two factions. 

In any case, Ramaphosa doesn’t need opposition votes to reverse the ANC decline at the polls. In absolute numbers of votes cast, the opposition tally hasn’t improved much over 25 years. 

The fluctuation in ANC fortunes, such that it has been, can be attributed mainly to ANC voters failing to turn out. Ramaphosa merely has to convince the many existing ANC voters who have become disenchanted with the Zuma era’s shenanigans, to end their electoral boycott.

An additional factor in Ramaphosa's favour is the weakness of the oppositional forces. 

Despite its proven track record in the areas that it governs, the DA is poorly led and in some disarray in the Western Cape with the exit of Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille to form a splinter party. The Economic Freedom Fighters, famed for its #PayBackTheMoney taunts of Zuma, has been exposed as being similarly venal and corrupt.

Whether 2019 is a good year or a bad year, to some extent, depends on ourselves. At least we have in May, with a quarter of a century of ANC government behind us, another opportunity to influence the course of events.

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