Gareth van Onselen writes on the festival of boasting that is the election season
Election season is almost upon us, if it isn’t already. Typically, it’s a period defined by much hyperbole, as political parties try and puff themselves up in an attempt to present themselves as the People’s Champion and thus, simultaneously, the soon-to-be beneficiaries of massive electoral growth. Every opposition party, it would seem, is perpetually on the verge of national or provincial power or if not that, then a significant “watershed” moment. But almost always their goals and ambitions far outweigh any rational assessment of their actual prospects.
The reasons for this posturing are varied. Among them, it is of course necessary to suggest your particular political party is on the point of being an all-conquering winner. Voters like confidence and, besides, no one is going to rush to vote for a party that says to the public: “listen, things aren’t actually going that well, and this election is looking pretty grim for us.”
But it is so easy to overstep the mark. It is one thing to say: “We are looking forward to significant growth”, quite another for an opposition party to say, “We are going to get 56%” or, “We will win a national majority.”
“Significant growth” is really just a subjective claim. Who is to say what is significant and what is not? 56%, however, is a hard number, and “national majority” leaves you no real room to move either. So, language plays an important part in framing your electoral prospects. Get it wrong and, come Election Day, you could end up looking like a real fool.
But there can be more serious consequences. If you pump up the party faithful with grand promises of huge gains, and they aren’t then realized, it will be on your door that they come knocking when it all goes South. The game of managing political expectations is a risky business: you need to give your own members and the voting public a reason to believe, a purpose and a goal; but, at the same time, you shouldn’t set yourself up for failure and disappointment.
Finally, before we look at some of the over-the-top claims made by political parties themselves, a point about hypocrisy. Political parties are themselves the first to stand on a soapbox and bemoan market research and political polls as misleading and generally terrible. However, when it comes to their own wild promises and claims, it seems the sky is very often the limit. It would be nice if political parties practiced a bit more of what they preach on this front.
Here, then, follow four case studies of the occasionally mad, sometimes ignorant and often just plain wrong election predictions made by political parties over the years.
The ID’s 2004 and 2006 campaigns
Fresh on the scene and riding a wave of media-goodwill, Patricia De Lille would state that her new party, the Independent Democrats, was expecting between 10% and 12% of the national vote in March 2004. “I can’t wait for the 14th of April. There are so many people I want to prove wrong, so many scores I want to settle,” she said. And she would up the ante further, when it came to KwaZulu-Natal. On 1 April, she would state that the party would get 5% in the province.
As it turned out the party got 1.73% on the national ballot and 0.49% in KwaZulu-Natal on Election Day, but that didn’t deter the ID from going further still, by the time the 2006 local government elections rolled round.
“We are setting our targets to at least between 300 and 500 councillors. We think it will be a good shot for the first time of participating,” de Lille would say in January 2006. She later went further, with an even more bonkers claim. Of the Cape Town City Council she would say in February, “…I feel very confident and I am willing to bet any journalist R10,000 that we will hold the majority.”
But even that fantastical idea was made to look redundant in the face of what ID Western Cape Provincial Deputy Chairman Louis Dunn would say, later that month: “Looking at how things have gone around the country over the last few weeks, I get the impression that we’ll gather between 40% and 56% of votes”
No luck, however, on any of those. The ID ended up with 157 councillors, 10.75% or 23 seats on the 210 seat Cape Town City Council and 2.21% on the national PR ballot. Someone would have made an easy R10,000 if they had ever taken de Lille up on her bet.
Did the ID learn anything from all this? Not a chance. Come the 2009 election, de Lille would say in February of that year, “Research shows that we are well on our way to doubling our support yet again and that 1 million South Africans will unite behind our vision and approach.”
Total votes cast for the ID in 2009: 162,915.
The DA’s 2014 campaign
The DA actually did very well in 2014. It grew by 4.6 percentage points to 22.2% and breached the four million votes mark. No mean feat. Its problem, however, was that much of the shine was taken off its performance by the fact that the party had gone to town on the claim that it would win 30% of the vote. It was a classic example of overextending yourself, in the name of momentum.
As early as October 2011, Lindiwe Mazibuko stated that, if everything went according to plan, “We should be able to win 30% of the vote nationally and become the biggest party in Gauteng and the Northern Cape". In March 2012, she would state, “The DA aims to win 30% in the 2014 general election”.
That would be confirmed by then DA spokesperson Mmusi Maimane, who would tell the Mail & Guardian in April 2013 that the party was “aiming for 30% of the vote in the 2014 elections.” In fundraising letters, the DA would tell potential donors one of its three strategic goals was to “Increase our National support to 30%”.
In September 2013,Mazibuko would take to national television to state, “We want to win 30% of the vote nationally, 30% of the vote!”
The number was replicated across the country, inside and outside the DA. In the Free State, DA leader Roy Roy Jankielsohn was reported as saying the party was “targeting to go beyond the set 30% target.” And the optimism extended towards Gauteng too. Helen Zille would claim in June 2013, “The DA is marching towards victory in Gauteng next year”.
But things were getting out of hand on this front, and years of fantastical rhetoric was quickly becoming a very real public expectation. Internally Zille would tell the party’s Federal Council in October 2013 to stop talking publicly about the 30% target. But it was a bit late. In February 2014, in response to a Peter Bruce tweet about the 30% target, Zille would state, “Just to make it very clear: our target is NOT 30% of the vote”.
The pressure was now so big that in April 2014 Zille would find herself saying the following in an April 2014 interview with News24:
Interviewer: Last year we heard a lot about the DA wanting to get 30% in this election, in this election, do you think that’s still realistic?
Zille: Where did you hear that from?
Interviewer: There were various media reports that said that… DA…
Zille: Yeah, there were various media reports but we’ve never said that as, publically, as an external aim of the party.
The ANC’s 2016 campaign
All things being relative, the ANC got mauled in the 2016 elections. Its national percentage of the vote dropped to 53.9% and, perhaps most importantly, it lost control of three big metros – Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay – to opposition coalition governments.
You can be sure that came as a shock to the ANC. The party believes it governs by divine right (literally, that it is God’s chosen vehicle in South Africa) and, accompanying that, it the arrogant idea that the country’s various governments “belong” to the ANC.
It has no appreciation for free choice and, as a result, operates in a universe where, no matter how it treats voters, it expects to win. Because it is the ANC, the living embodiment of the will of the people. Thus, it is consumed by an almost permanent state of denial.
So the loss as those three metros came as a shock. A big one. And to get a measure of just how big a shock, you need only look at some of nonsense sprouted by its various members about Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela. Consider the following (and here I am going to borrow liberally from @quotesanc):
“In memory of Comrade OR Tambo, let us unite our movement and our communities. We must win this municipality, Nelson Mandela Metro, because it belongs to the ANC, as are all others.” Blade Nzimande, 16 April 2016
“Pretoria is safe in the hands of the ANC, no doubt about that. I’m going away with an understanding of what Tshwane is about. Don’t worry, this place belongs to the African National Congress.” Jacob Zuma, 6 July 2016
“The City of Cape Town belongs to the ANC, and the Youth League will get it back to the ANC.” Collen Maine, 7 February 2016
“We go from house to house, street to street, person to person, handshake to handshake, eyeball to eyeball, that’s where we are able to gauge the ANC’s positioning when it comes to these elections, and we are absolutely certain, that, even those metros that are dubbed as being marginal, we are going to emerge enormously victorious.” Cyril Ramaphosa, 24 July 2016
“The opposition claim that they are set to take Tshwane and Johannesburg, but let us show them there will be no such take-over. The ANC will be keeping all the municipalities without a doubt. Victory is certain.” Collen Maine, 8 February 2016
“Tshwane belongs to the ANC. We will never allow Tshwane to be in the hands of the DA.” Cyril Ramaphosa, 14 July 2016
“We are winning this metro [NMB]. We won't have to go around begging for parties to work with us. Not here." Oscar Mabuyane, 29 July 2016
“Even if tomorrow we can be told it will be elections, we would win the metro. The president will be happy to see that the Nelson Mandela Bay remains a stronghold of the ANC." Beza Ntshona, 22 July 2016
“We are going to win in Nelson Mandela [Bay]. We are quite confident. In fact, on the contrary, we are seeing pockets imploding, within the DA itself, in Nelson Mandela, but we are fairly confident we are going to win there.” Phumulo Masualle, 31 July 2016
“We always had a massive turnout at all of our gatherings and people are telling us that they are going to vote for the ANC.” Danny Jordaan, 3 August 2016 [In justifying his Election Day prediction the ANC will win 55% in Nelson Mandela Bay]
“We can assure you that we will emerge victorious in Tshwane. We can assure you that we will emerge victorious in Johannesburg. Because, indeed, Johannesburg is a city of the African National Congress.” Jackson Mthembu, 4 August 2016
“This place [NMB metro] has Nelson Mandela’s name. And we will never give it to anyone else while we are still alive. The ANC shall rule, forever.” Lindiwe Sisulu, 18 July 2016
“Are we certain of victory in this metro [NMB]? I am more than convinced that we are certain of victory. The people are solidly behind the ANC. I have not heard a single disgruntlement. I think where there is disgruntlement, is maybe in the offices of the DA, but not among the people." Cyril Ramaphosa, 15 April 2016
This was a party fundamentally and wholly in a deep state of denial. And arrogant denial at that. Convinced there was no threat, and believing governance “belonged” to it.
There was not much the ANC had to say about all that arrogance after the election result. But there was one comment, from the big man himself. Let us leave the final word, then, to him:
“Of all the metros, I won’t talk about the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, because you know all about it. We ruined it for years, bit by bit. Now the opposition is in charge. We cannot say we are surprised by that." Jacob Zuma, 13 March 2017
The 2019 election campaign
All of which brings us nicely to the 2019 election campaign. The ANC, for once (and at least to date) still seems to be smarting from 2016, and so has kept the rhetoric to a minimum to date, but both the DA and the EFF are already going great guns.
Straight after the 2016 election result, DA leader Mmusi Maimane said, “The DA has emerged from this election as a national government-in-waiting.”
In February this year, DA KwaZulu-Natal premier candidate Zwakele Mncwango said, “It is by now no secret that the DA in KZN has set its sights on bringing the ANC in KZN below 50% in 2019.”
In October this year, The DA’s Limpopo premier candidate Jacques Smalle said, “It’s not to say that the DA will win but I think there is a good opportunity for the province to get the ANC below 50% next year which means that there will be some sort of a coalition government that needs to be formed.”
DA Gauteng leader John Moodey has said of that province, "We are going to take Gauteng, we are going to get the 2.5 million votes come hell or high water and it is the momentum of the Gauteng campaign that will raise all ships to ensure we capture the Union Buildings in 2019.”
DA Eastern Cape Premier candidate Nqaba Bhanga said in September, “In order for us to form a government in the Eastern Cape, the ANC cannot get anything above 50%, and we think we can do it.”
DA Northern Cape Premier Candidate Andrew Louw has said of his province, “We are aware of the fact that we might not do it on our own, but there’s a strong chance that we will win this province through coalition and the DA would like to become the anchor in the coalition.”
So some huge claims from the DA already. Counting the Western Cape, in which the DA already has a majority, it is aiming to bring the ANC below 50% in at least six provinces.
Here are the ANC and DA 2014 results in those provinces:
- KwaZulu-Natal: ANC 64.5% [2.5m votes]; DA: 12.7% [489,000 votes]
But the EFF is giving the DA a run for its money. Floyd Shivambu said of KwaZulu-Natal in October, "Our intention should be if we are not number one after the general elections, at least we must be number two. If we don’t win outrightly the provincial government we must be the official opposition here in KwaZulu-Natal.”
In Gauteng, News24 reported that EFF chairperson Mandisa Mashego said the party was “looking to treble or quadruple its support, which would take it from eight seats in the provincial legislature to 24 or 32 out of a total of 73 seats.” North West EFF spokesperson Jerry Matebesi is reported as saying, “the party wanted to govern the province with an outright majority after the elections next year.”
But it is the EFF’s ultimate, national target that seems the most extreme. It is reportedly looking to secure a staggering 9m national votes (remember it got 1.1m votes in 2014). News24 states, “At the very least, the party was looking at gaining 3.5 million voters, described as the sweet spot to ensure a coalition government at national level.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same, it would seem. South African political parties aren’t very good at managing public expectations. It says something about the public too that this sort of bluster seems to appeal on some level. We love the idea of power and size in South Africa. The ANC has been all over that idea for decades now. It has been saying things like it expects a “three-thirds” majority on Election Day for ages now. But even the ANC often struggles to meet the standards it sets for itself and, historically, it has enjoyed some massive majorities, so it hardly needs to exaggerate.
But the opposition seems to have taken up the baton. Going by the EFF and DA predictions for 2019 alone, the ANC is going to end up with about 15% and no majority nationally or in at least six or seven provinces.
We shall see, as the saying goes. In the meantime, if you want a good idea of where political parties stand, what their prospects are and what a reasonable target is for success, please, whatever you do, do not listen to a word parties themselves say. Their motivation is the pretence of power and influence. And it tends to exaggerate everything they say by about a factor of ten.
Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance for the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.