Happy days for sunny Cyril

William Saunderson-Meyer on a week of good news for the ANC, bar one blot on the horizon


How quickly fortunes can shift in politics. 

The perpetually dithering President Cyril Ramaphosa was unable or unwilling for more than five years to make the most quotidian of decisions. Now he’s sailing towards Election 2024 with a stiff breeze at his back. 

In most other functional democracies, the dismal state of the country and its government are such that the African National Congress should be expecting to be slaughtered at the polls. Instead, it is today, on the face of it, in considerably better shape for the as-yet ungazetted general election than it was just a couple of months back. 

Consequently, there has been something of a scramble among commentators to walk back confident earlier predictions of an ANC defeat. There’s been a sudden lull, too, in all the cocky talk from opposition leaders of the government being in “deep trouble” and on its “last legs”. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Partly this is because of the often-underestimated power of incumbency. Any ruling party has enormous power to set the political agenda, simply because it has the powerful machinery of government at its bidding.

At the lower end of the governance ladder, the ANC can dole out new bakkies to traditional leaders, as the Limpopo government has done. In a province with a shortfall of 430 ambulances and 66,000 school-kids having to use pit lavatories, the ANC announced late last year that it was going to spend R55m on bakkies for “deserving” traditional leaders, as well as R30m on upgrading their offices.

The ANC expects the chieftains to reciprocate in turn. These unelected leaders will dutifully execute their most important traditional role, that of herding the local voting fodder to the polling stations on election day. That is, after first falsely impressing upon them that the social grants’ teat that sustains 28 million people — almost half the population — is entirely dependent on the ANC winning.  

At the top end of the ladder, the ANC can renege on its earnest promises to curb the public service wage bill. Last October’s salary increase, at an over-budget cost of almost R24 billion, makes our civil servants among the best paid in the world, rivalling those of Denmark and Iceland. More than 55,000 of them earn more than R1 million a year, with the median government employee’s salary almost double that of their private sector counterparts.

The quid pro quo has not been long in coming. In 2022, responding to grassroot anger over corruption and poor service delivery, Cosatu’s largest affiliates were calling upon it to dump the ANC. 

Last month, the health and education workers’ union, Cosatu’s largest affiliate, did a U-turn and announced that it would campaign for an “outright majority victory” for the ANC. This week, Cosatu President Zingiswa Losi warned workers against “turning their back” on the ANC, saying that the socio-economic gains made since 1994 would be reversed if it were voted out of power.

Of course, these kinds of electoral inducements are employed in many democracies at election time, although normally not as extensively or blatantly. Or with such likelihood of success. 

But it is on the glitzy spotlit international stage — not the sagging, termite-ridden local stage — that Ramaphosa has best displayed his strategic mastery. That the genocide charge brought by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice is unlikely to succeed doesn’t much matter. 

Any kind of interim intervention by the ICJ, no matter how minor, will be hailed by the government and Palestinian-supporting nations as a major victory. It will also add lustre to the ANC’s conceit that it is the moral standard-bearer of a new, post-Western order. 

And, just coincidentally, it will also play very well with the Muslim vote locally. Although Muslims comprise only 2% of our population, that’s still 20 times the size of the Jewish population. And it’s a vocal and disproportionately influential segment of our society. 

Cricket SA, which is hosting the Under-19 Cricket World Cup, was swift to fold in the face of Muslim anger over the Jewish captain of the SA team voicing support for Israel. Citing the security risk of possible demonstrations against David Teeger, the CSA stripped him of the captaincy, although it magnanimously said that he would still be allowed to play.

Already the Democratic Alliance is feeling the heat. In December, the DA sacked Ghaleb Cachalia, its Shadow Minister of Public Enterprises, for publicly contradicting the DA’s position on Gaza by accusing Israel of genocide. On Thursday, Cachalia resigned both from the party and as an MP.

Also coincidentally, no doubt, South Africa’s application to the ICJ coincided with an end to the ANC's previously desperate financial situation. In December, the party was facing bankruptcy over its inability to settle a R120 million debt and wanted to seek Constitutional Court intervention to stave off the liquidation application. 

Now the party’s suddenly flush with cash. It says that all debtors have been paid and it’s gearing up for its usual no-expenses-spared election campaign; the 2019 one cost well over a R1 billion. Not surprisingly, there has been much speculation that the ANC’s apparent financial windfall may be a little thank-you gift from Iran or Qatar, channelled through blind trusts.

At the same time as bestriding the world as a diplomatic colossus — the promised brokered peace between Ukraine and Russia may yet happen — Ramaphosa continues to enjoy greater public trust than any of his opposition rivals. Although a Brenthurst Foundation analysis last year pegs his favourability rating at 42%, down from 48%, that’s still double the public support commanded by any opposition leader. 

Almost a month into the new year, the Multi-Party Coalition, an admirable attempt to unite the bickering small parties against a common foe, seems adrift and slack-sailed. It has yet to appoint a leader, a prerequisite to drawing new voters. It has also failed to pull under its banner the plethora of one-man band parties set up by the likes of former DA leader Mmusi Maimane and former Business Day editor Songezo Zibi.

In similar disarray is the Change Starts Now party, heavily punted by some journalists to bridge the gap between the ANC and the DA-dominated MPC. Led by former First Rand chairperson Roger Jardine, a former ANC activist who was deployed into a series of top jobs when it gained power, CSN is counting on mobilising the support of disillusioned former ANC voters who have not found any of the established opposition parties to their taste. 

Despite the reputedly enormous war chest that corporate South Africa has gifted CSN, it doesn’t seem to be making much headway. There’s been no rush of former ANC heavyweights to join; Jardine hasn’t been snapped up to lead the MPC, as was expected to happen; and very few people as yet seem to have even registered CSN existence. 

Admittedly, it’s early days. But, the signs aren’t inspiring. CSN’s 10 December national launch drew a crowd of only a couple of hundred people. Its election launch, held on Thursday, was similarly lacklustre. 

This all adds up to great news for the ANC and should have Ramaphosa salivating with anticipation. With the always formidable ANC election machine freshly lubed up financially, the president must surely be calculating that an early election date could be fatal to an opposition that looks disorganised and uncertain.

But there is one very threatening cloud on sunny Cyril’s horizon. That’s Jacob Zuma. 

The ANC has been caught flatfooted by the disgraced former president endorsing a new party — cheekily named uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) after the ANC’s now disbanded military wing — while refusing to resign from the ANC. 

Because Zuma has a criminal record, he cannot stand for election. But those who scoff at Zuma are making a grave mistake. 

Zuma remains popular. He has drawn large crowds to MK meetings. There should be no doubt that could damage the ANC, especially in KwaZulu-Natal.  

Given the ANC’s vulnerability — it's bobbing just below 50% in the polls — it may not take much. Just a couple of percentage points of support lost to MK could make all the difference.

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