Ramaphoria finesses the DA

William Saunderson-Meyer says the results were a disaster for the official opposition


Ramaphoria finesses the DA

In bridge, a finesse is the triumph of cheek and desperation. It’s when a trick is won by the canny play of a mediocre card which, in a simple assessment of relative strengths of the two sides, should have been lost.

In South African politics, a finesse is similarly a triumph by dint of nerves and opportunism. It’s when Cyril Ramaphosa, despite a mediocre hand, snaffles the entire game against Mmusi Maimane, who sat down with the strongest cards his team had yet been dealt.

The African National Congress (ANC) went into the election with a disarmingly simple strategy: We know we have in the past 25 years failed South Africa terribly but vote for us again and we will set it all right. It was stunningly effective, with influential former critics like newspaper editor Peter Bruce and The Economist all trilling seductively from the same hymn sheet: Give Cyril a Chance.

Ramaphosa, the man to whom around 58% of voters gave their support this week, is the same man who was deputy-president in the administration that looted and reduced to near rubble virtually every state-owned enterprise and government institution. He is the same man who stood silent while his government rubbished the economy, allowed the unions run riot, and so failed its core constituency of poor black people that rioting — euphemistically called service delivery protests — has reached levels of mayhem last seen during the resistance against apartheid.

This is an ANC government that in 2012 at Marikana mine shot dead 34 miners and wounded 78 more, an event that Ramaphosa was intimately involved in on behalf of Lonmin and as ANC secretary-general, lobbied behind the scenes for a forceful police response. It is the same ANC of which Ramaphosa was deputy-president, when its callousness caused the Esidimeni tragedy, where at least 143 psychiatric patients died of neglect and abuse.

Most puzzling for foreign observers —who have watched with slack-jawed disbelief as we tarnished the burnish of 1994’s democratic dawn — it is not as if there are not examples of how things could be. The Auditor-General’s annual reports speak for themselves. Whatever its manifest shortcomings, the DA has run the Western Cape with competence and honesty, so too the Johannesburg and Tshwane metros and most of the other the local authorities it controls. 

Given the ANC’s record over the past decade especially, one must conclude that South Africans are either endearingly trusting or astonishingly naive. At least, partly, one must attribute the ANC resilience to the enduring strength of liberation politics in Africa, where no matter how poorly it performs, the party credited with achieving freedom cannot be voted out.

It is certainly a reflection, also, of the race-based nature of our politics, something that is getting worse not better. 

The ANC’s recently discovered enthusiasm for expropriation without compensation of white land and, increasingly, its slurs against exploitative white settlers is the very antithesis of the party’s non-racial heritage. The new note struck differs from the tone of Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) abuse of whites and Indians only in volume and pitch and is a tune that menacingly echoes that played by the ANC’s fraternal allies in Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF, of dishing out stolen goodies to supporters when their enthusiasm for the liberation party starts to wane.

That racial template is further evidenced by the growth of the Afrikaner-rights Freedom Front Plus (FF+), the resurgence of the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the progress made by the black nationalist EFF. 

The FF+ has tripled in size, benefiting from the exit of disenchanted white supporters from the DA. Bemused by this unexpected dividend, FF+ is now scrambling to position itself, implausibly, as a non-racial party.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the IFP, led by the nonagenarian, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, received 17%% of the vote, allowing it to wrest official opposition status from the DA. The real popularity of the Jacob Zuma faction of the ANC can be gauged by the fact that it drew less than 54% of the vote in Number One’s heartland, down from 65%.

The EFF will be a disappointed, but most of SA mightily relieved, that it has grown less than the predictions by the pollsters of more than doubling to 14% of the vote. It moved from 6.4% to 10.6%. In the 2014 general elections it drew 1.2m votes and this time around, about 1.8m. 

Given that some of that is a protest vote by former ANC voters, this is worrying but not yet apocalyptic stuff. What flatters the EFF’s public profile is that its supporters turn out to vote, unlike lackadaisical DA and ANC supporters. Nevertheless, it is now the official opposition in three provincial legislatures, those of Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North West.

While the ANC will be relieved to have dropped only four percentage points and hung onto Gauteng, its position is more tenuous than it seems. To start with, it governs with a much smaller mandate than it appears at first glance. Some 36m South Africans were eligible to vote, only 26.7m of whom registered. Of the 17m — around two-thirds, down from 73% — who actually turned out to vote, the ANC has drawn around 9.6m votes, a quarter of the potential electorate.

For the Democratic Alliance, the results are unambiguously disastrous. The DA vote at 20.7% is only about 1.3% down on what it got in the 2014 general election. It is, however, considerably less than the 27% it achieved in the 2016 municipal elections, where the EFF was at 8% and the ANC at 53%.

In actual numbers rather than percentages, the DA stall is more obvious. In 1999 to 2014, the ANC vote rose from 10.6m to 11.6m. Part of the reason for this uninspiring growth was that the EFF took 1.1m votes from it in 2014, but nevertheless, given that the national population was growing, it indicates disillusionment in ANC’s natural voting base, which in turn expresses itself in low voter registration, as well as the failure of its nominal voters to turn out on election days.

In comparison, during the same period, the DA vote grew from 1.5m to 4.1m. That is despite white emigration, that its historical support comes from low-population growth minorities, and that it had successive leaders — Tony Leon and Helen Zille — who were infamously indifferent to the racial elisions and euphemisms that increasingly dominate SA politics and are theoretically necessary for a party to grow.

Maimane was catapulted to the leadership of the DA, despite his relative youth and inexperience, in a calculated attempt to make the party more palatable to black people. He did so by surrounding himself with an inner-circle of equally inexperienced people who chose to seek the black vote with an “ANC-lite” brand of politics that echoed the governing party’s demographic fixations.

It’s a strategy that has failed dismally. Forget for a moment the percentages, which dire though they are, camouflage the true extent of the DA failure. This time around, the DA vote will be about 3.5m, around 600,000 short of what it was in 2014. It means that that one in seven DA voters changed allegiance or did not vote.

Some will argue that since it has lost votes to the FF+ on the right and to Ramaphoria on the left, the fact that it’s share is only a couple of points down means that it has been successful in replacing them with black voters. By this argument, a DA victory means having demographically correct proportions of the vote, albeit never drawing enough actual votes to win power.

One thing that is clear is that after a quarter century of democracy, the political terrain is becoming more firmly defined: a single hard-left party (EFF), a left-of-centre ruling party (ANC), a centre-right opposition (DA), and the far-right nationalists (FF+), as well as the rats and mice, that are of little consequence nationally. And ironically, pushed by their own lack of delivery and by the EFF, the ANC now seeks a more populist, interventionist future.

If the top parties, with the exception of FF+ and the IFP, got far less than they had hoped for, the elections were a wipe-out for the smaller players. Patricia de Lille’s Good Movement scored a “must try harder”, with her being its sole representative in Parliament. The newly founded Capitalist Party discovered that enormous social media cachet does not necessarily translate into votes.

The Congress of the People, which in 2009 drew 1.3m votes when it broke away from the ANC, is down to 46,000. This leaves its charismatic Struggle-era leader, Mosiuoa Lekota, clinging, at best, to a single-seater canoe in Parliament. Since Lekota is now a captain with no ship and the DA is a increasingly a ship with no captain, perhaps they should talk?

The one entity that should be licking its wounds and showing some humility is the Independent Electoral Commission. Despite evidence of double-voting, complaints about voting stations that didn’t open or didn’t have sufficient ballots, ballots issued to voters that were unstamped and therefore were discarded as spoilt votes, and “indelible” marking ink that wiped off, the IEC remained ineffably smug.

Whenever a senior IEC official appeared on television any useful information imparted was bookended with a self-congratulatory little homily on how well the IEC had performed. It didn’t — this was the worst organised election since the understandable barely-controlled chaos of 1994 and while the IEC failures probably made no significant difference to the result, next time we might not be so fortunate.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye