Polls point to political drama

Daniel Silke says the real effects of a rising EFF will be felt within the governing ANC

Polls Point to Political Drama

24 April 2019

While opinion polls in South Africa have often produced inaccurate results, the ENCA/MarkData poll released this past weekend is – despite its possible inaccuracies – sobering and disturbing. It presents one possible scenario outcome of the May 8th poll and a resulting set of potential consequences.

The headline figures of the poll conducted with over 3058 respondents nation-wide puts the ANC at 59%, the DA at 21.3% and the EFF at 12.1%. This is close to, but different enough from the South African Institute of Race Relations last poll which put the ANC closer to 55%, the DA around 23% and the EFF at 11%. Given a margin-of-error at around 3%, these two polls do confirm clear trend-lines now apparent in the election outcomes.

For the purposes of this article only, let’s take the ENCA/MarkData numbers as the final result, South Africa will wake up on May 9th to a new political dynamic. At 59%, the ANC will have reversed its recent downward spiral in terms of electoral support and will be back in the driving seat. With 21%, the DA will suffer its first decline in support since 1994 and at 12%, the EFF will be able to claim a virtual 100% increase in its support levels since 2014.

But the figures tell another story too. A weakening of the liberal opposition and a strengthening of populists with a radical platform will alter the debate and steer a new discourse back to radical economic transformation.

With the EFF already able to lead the debate on land expropriation, a double-in-size growth for the party will ratify that stand and strategy and put immense pressure on the ANC for a constitutional change that might well be more uncomfortable than originally envisaged.

With the momentum then clearly with the EFF, it will build on its ‘pressure-point’ style of lobbying and will be emboldened that its own re-racializing of South African politics can be further expanded.

At 21%, the result for the DA would be disastrous. Although not a wipe-out as was the case when the party won 1.7% in 1994, it would signify a backwards step, a failure of leadership and a rejection by the very constituency it has so courted in recent years.

Psychologically, a growing EFF and declining DA will have its own set of dynamics on party moral, participation and fundraising. The old cliché of ‘nothing succeeds like success’ is very relevant for political parties. Voters want a winning team and they want strength to influence events. A depressed DA will therefore face a herculean task of recovery.

But for all the nuances within the Opposition, the real effects of a rising EFF will be felt within the governing ANC. Although it may receive a pretty resounding 59%, the substantial growth of the populists (EFF) at the expense of the centrists (DA), sends a clear message into Luthuli House.

The electorate will have shifted to a more radical base. And, those within the ANC still sympathetic – and empathetic – to the message of Mr Malema will call for greater synergies between the two parties.

Gains by the EFF therefore run the risk of destabilising the ANC from within. Its policy platform on State Owned Enterprises conflict directly with the Ramaphosa/Mboweni axis of power. Given that Eskom’s unbundling process (and larger restructuring) will be key to its (and South Africa’s) economic security, the Ramaphosa faction will find it tougher-going to convince his own party of the important (and more market-oriented) structural shifts that need to be made.

A strong EFF will therefore make Ramaphosa’s policy shifts even more complex. And with ANC caucus members increasingly uneasy about further electoral erosion at local government level in just 24 months, the ANC might descend into yet another debilitating internal struggle.

It was always going to be tough for Ramaphosa to convince his own decision-making bodies of the need for economic policy change but with an EFF surge, it will become tougher.

Significantly the weekend, other than the MarkData poll, Deputy President David Mabuza very deliberately tweeted out a very comradely picture of himself and Julius Malema. The sentiments of the tweet suggested a commonality of purpose despite being in different political parties.

By choosing to tweet this image, Mr Mabuza is indicating a preference amongst the major opposition groups – perhaps paving the way for a future alliance over the expropriation amendment, provincial pacts where coalitions are needed or even something more akin to an eventual re-integration of the EFF into the ANC.

Of course, Mr Mabuza’s apparent affection for Mr Malema is less apparent amongst the Ramaphosa faction. Trevor Manuel is suing the EFF leader. Pravin Gordhan is locked in a war of words with the Red Berets and moderates at Treasury will shiver-in-their-boots at the thought of greater EFF influence.

Conversely to this scenario is a decline of the DA - less able to extend its influence into new markets and usurped by a growing populist drift. Its more market-friendly policies will be on the back-foot as statist economics from the EFF becomes more pronounced in the public domain. And, it runs the risk of a debilitating leadership battle should its support decline.

But the real rub will be within the ANC. It will pit the reformers with an understanding of confidence-building market dynamics and global finance against the populists and those keen to foster patronage-based crony-capitalism.

A stronger EFF will pry open the fissures already apparent within the ANC and can lead to a destabilisation of the Ramaphosa Presidency in the process. Ironically for Mr Ramaphosa, his own reform agenda would be better supported if the DA did well and not the EFF.

Ramaphosa will either have to buckle under intense pressure or precipitate a more serious internal schism within his own party to avoid a combustible policy melt-down. It’s the stuff of serious political theatre that could play out.

Of course, it’s but one scenario which may not occur. The DA could do 25% plus, the EFF can get below 10% and the ANC may struggle at 55%, But, the confluence of polls do present us with clear polling trends.

Ironically for South Africa, whilst the DA might’ve not covered itself in glory these past two years, a South Africa with a diminished liberal participant in parliament can shift the debate to a dangerous terrain – one seen all too often in the Venezuela’s or Zimbabwe’s of this world. A political drama awaits.

*Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own.

Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

This article first appeared on News24.com