The real threat to the ANC lies within

RW Johnson says the latest Ipsos poll does not show an implosion in the party's support

Polls, parties and proliferation

“Alarm bells for political parties. Support for the ANC could dip below 50% in the 2019 general elections” Thus the City Press of 3 September, followed by Business Day the next day with “ANC's support plunging, poll shows”, this time with a picture of a waving Jacob Zuma and the caption “Falling not flying”.

All of which is fake news worthy of Bell Pottinger. In this case, however, due mainly to poor presentation by the pollster (Ipsos) and, above all, political illiteracy by both newspapers. Start with the fact that the survey on which this “news” depends was carried out in April-May this year. April-May and we are in September, which means that the results are, unpardonably, many months old. All polls are merely a snapshot taken at a fixed point in time so it is already a large ask to imagine these results are still valid now, let alone that they predict what may happen in mid-2019.

Second, look at the results:







All others


Will not vote


No answer


Not registered


Don’t know


This is, of course, misleading. Firstly, we are told that the IFP, FF+, APC, Cope, UDM, Azapo, PAC, ACDP and the usual host of little local parties collectively get three percent. This is bound to be an underestimate.

Secondly, the number of “not registered” is given as only 2% when we know that the real figure is many times that. But thirdly and most importantly, every survey analyst knows that those who refuse to answer, aren't registered or don't know are almost all non-voters so that really what one needs to do is subtract all those voters and then express the main parties' strengths as proportions of that reduced number.

Indeed, the problem with the figures above is that there are far too few non-voters. Here it looks as if only 24% will be non-voters but we know there will be more than that. If we then recalculate the poll, this time expressed as percentages of those likely to vote, we get:-









The EFF has actually found building a party very hard going, particularly since it has almost no money. In a word, a great deal of what one reads about 2019 being the ANC's Waterloo is simply wishful nonsense, far underestimating the knee-jerk loyalty of, especially, the rural masses who are bossed and controlled by ANC-paid chiefs.

It should be noted, too, that on these figures the idea of Gauteng changing hands is still some way off, with the ANC taking 56.41%, the DA 35.9% and the EFF 7.69%. By the same token, the ANC talk about re-taking the Western Cape is also nonsense. On these figures the DA gets 67.14% there, followed by the ANC with 28,57% and the EFF with 4.29%. The only other vaguely marginal province is the Northern Cape but even so, on these figures the ANC gets 61.97% there, the DA 28.17% and the EFF 9.86%.

ANC styles of leadership

As usual, there are caveats. This is actually a mid-term picture of an electorate with a fairly settled sense of party identification but under the surface all manner of complex processes are at work. The great puzzle of the South African political system since 1994 is, of course, the continuation of an effective two party system despite the most extreme form of PR in the world which naturally favours multi-partyism.

This has effectively been caused by the sheer fact of the huge, hegemonic ANC, held together by patronage, racial solidarity, by an authoritarian centralism and, let it be said, by the only implicit model existing in the hearts and minds of most of Africa, viz. the traditional chieftaincy.

That is to say, there were so many things holding the ANC together that its solidarity was, as the French Marxists say, over-determined. This in turn created a dynamic based on the essential need to oppose this behemoth, hence the continuation of a two-party model.

It is worth exploring the notion of the ANC leadership as traditional chieftaincy writ large. The notion should not be surprising: this is the only truly indigenous model of authority in traditional black culture – there were no republics, no elected assemblies. I well remember talking to an old MK cadre in 1995 about Mandela. I suggested that Sisulu ought to be of almost equal importance – after all, he had always been Mandela's mentor. Not at all, I was told: people fear Mandela, they do not fear Sisulu. I had expected him to say that they loved Mandela. That might also be true, I was told, but fear comes first.

It is based on the simple fact that he is now the most powerful man, the big chief, and therefore all the rest of us are at his mercy. This fact guaranteed discipline and solidarity. Mandela also benefited from the authoritarian style of leadership inherited from the exile years. This was part of the Soviet single party culture and it meant only one candidate for the top job, elected by acclamation. This was how Mandela was “chosen”.

In KwaZulu-Natal battle raged on for a while still. I was startled to find that the trigger for violent internecine warfare would be one group of Inkatha supporters insisting that “Mandela is Buthelezi's teaboy” while ANC supporters took the exactly opposite line. This could only be understood as a battle over who was to be the big chief.

Indeed, much of the ferocity of this Zulu civil war which raged for ten years and took 20,000 lives must be understood as a classical form of African communal warfare. This is simply how disputes over chieftaincy have often been “solved”. One village or one valley would declare itself for one side or the other. Complete internal conformity to this would be imposed with an iron fist. That village or valley would then become a “no go” area for members of the opposite persuasion and each community would then stage horrifically violent raids upon neighbouring communities of an opposite persuasion. This would quickly meld in with historic rivalries or feuds between one valley and another and would be kept going by the necessity of avenging one's brothers or cousins, slaughtered in raids by the opposition.

Mandela was, of course, victorious and was much feted as the big chief. He was preceded by a praise-singer on all official occasions. Magical qualities were ascribed to him (“Madiba magic”). People competed to tell stories showing all his wonderful qualities. The newspapers were full of all manner of sickly sycophancy, rather like the British tabloids gushing on about the Royal Family. Even Winnie was treated as a sort of queen so that when she did something illegal no judge could be found who was willing to punish her. In the Mandela years there was hardly a single word of public criticism of him.

This changed once Mandela ceased to be President. Now one could hear mutterings, saying he had been too kind to the whites. Criticism was now possible because he was no longer feared, had no more patronage to give. Gradually this criticism has hardened into a fierce accusation that it was under Mandela that the revolution was sold out by some (imaginary) bargain with Capital.

By this time Mbeki was President and thus the big chief. Praise singers proliferated: he was said to be hugely intelligent – indeed, as Steven Friedman would still have it, arguably the most intelligent political leader in the world. People lavished praise on his “I am an African” speech, on his habit of literary quotation, on his charm as a ladies man and even on his deadly skills of manipulation, of putting words in others' mouths, of knifing people from behind the curtain. When he began, quite patently, to support Mugabe, the elaborate pretence that Mbeki was really engaged in a complex and constructive “quiet diplomacy” was maintained for years although it was always obvious nonsense. Then he began his Aids denialism. This caused many whites to peel away but among ANC members there was no breath of criticism. Ministers, militants and simple members all supported the chief even as his policies became madder, killing hundreds of thousands of African women and children.

This continued all the way to Polokwane in 2007. Ministers like Alec Erwin and even churchmen like Frank Chikane continued to support this genocidal leader to the end – and to their undying disgrace. Even Zuma, who by then was obviously campaigning for the presidency, was careful to avoid all public criticism of the big chief – instead he concentrated on the fact that he was a victim, though he was careful never to accuse Mbeki by name. The conventions were observed. Then, of course, Mbeki fell and suddenly it was open season and all and sundry could join in the criticism of the fallen chief so that when Mbeki dared to continue with the prosecution of Zuma he was summarily booted out, a huge public humiliation.

For Zuma was now the big chief and in a way the apotheosis of this tradition, for he openly embraced the chiefly model, built himself a palace, had multiple wives and mistresses and hugely enriched his family. This brought increasing criticism – but the bulk of the ANC membership remained loyal (as did ANC MPs) and would do so until it was clear that he had lost power, after which there would be a deluge of criticism from every quarter.

The fraying of the traditional model

But things are changing. The electoral system is an enormous force for proliferation, a continuous temptation for anyone thinking of breaking away from the established parties. We have now had a number of successful breakaways – the UDM (Holomisa continues to play a significant role), Cope (ditto Lekota), the Independent Democrats (they made De Lille mayor of Cape Town), the NFP in Zululand (a breakaway rewarded with patronage by the ANC) and the EFF, which has frequently paralyzed Parliament and made Malema a decisive factor in the governance of several metropoles. And meanwhile the complete failure of the ANC's economic policies has created record unemployment and poverty. This has created a frantic, dog-eat-dog atmosphere in which the stakes are higher than ever, so assassinations become normal and tribalism stands at only one remove.

The forces of disintegration are particularly visible within the ruling Triple Alliance. Cosatu has been falling to pieces for some time. First AMCU took over much of the NUM's territory and reduce that once-dominant union to a shadow of its former self. Then came Marikana in which ANC-directed police conducted a massacre of AMCU supporters. The ANC has never got over this: for a while it tried to insist that the media should avoid the word “massacre” - it was “the Marikana tragedy”, a paper-thin device. But the fact could not be ignored that the ANC had carried out its own little Sharpeville. As more and more townships and squatter settlements descended into violence, the ANC found itself facing much the same challenges of township discontent that the Nats had. And then other rebel unions proliferated within Cosatu and Numsa, now its biggest union, walked out and formed a rival federation.

At the end of this Cosatu was left with only a million members – and that was on paper: the true number was many fewer and they were almost all white collar public sector workers. The blue collar working class had simply disappeared.

Meanwhile, the SACP, having supported Zuma through thick and thin and even demonstrated in his favour over Nkandla (which it termed an example of “rural development”), was having second thoughts. The key fact, of course, was that Blade Nzimande was a younger Zulu benefiting from patronage from the Zulu big chief, so he had to stay loyal. But others within the party became increasingly restive: how could they end up on the side of such blatant corruption and self-enrichment while poverty and inequality increased and the poor went to hell? In the end they won and both the SACP and Cosatu became anti-Zuma and the SACP said it would put up its own candidates against the ANC. Thus the Triple Alliance fell apart. But by now both the SACP and Cosatu were mere shadows, hardly enough to deter Zuma from his determined end-run.

The new open campaign: the path to fragmentation

This fragmentation has been visible, too, in the presidential race. Back in the day we were told that the ANC way was to have just one settled candidate per post and to avoid open elections. Thus Mbeki was the sole candidate for the presidency in 1999. Then came Zuma's non-campaign in 2005-2007 in which he campaigned only against his own “victimization” and avoided challenging the big chief openly until Polokwane. Nonetheless, it set ANC tradition aside for it was, patently, a public challenge.

Contrast that with now. We have seven open candidates – Ramaphosa, Dlamini-Zuma, Jeff Radebe, Mathews Phosa, Zweli Mkhize, Lindiwe Sisulu and Baleka Mbete. This means – in case you hadn't noticed it – that no less than four of the seven are Zulus, a clear suggestion of tribal preponderance. But in any case, tribal factors are in play. When Gwede Mantashe said that it was impossible to push Zuma out without the ANC facing an even bigger breakaway than it had faced when Mbeki was forced out, he merely alluded to the implicit threat of a split which might see many Zulu voters react with fury to the demotion of the first Zulu ANC leader since Luthuli. This would indeed be a major crisis for the ANC which is now hinged around the dominance of the KZN bloc.

There is, however, a threat of a split from the opposite direction. All seven of our candidates are openly campaigning as if they were American presidential candidates preparing for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But already one can see that any expectation of a free and fair election is doomed. Branches are being bullied and bought. Branches or sections which fail to support Dlamini-Zuma are being dissolved or suspended. Patronage is being wielded like a club. Death threats are common. Outright rigging is a real possibility. Dirty tricks, perpetrated by Zuma's security services, are already a fact. In other words, Zuma is using all the resources of an authoritarian party boss to try to force the result he wants. If he were to conclude that Dlamini-Zuma was likely to lose, he would doubtless collapse the conference. After all, he watched his predecessor, Mbeki use many of the same methods against him – and still lose, due to over-confidence. Zuma will not repeat that mistake.

All of which means that there is likely to be a major explosion (or implosion) when six of the seven candidates realise that their campaigns were simply a waste of time and that the conference was stolen from the first. Amidst the anger and indignation that this will be bound to create, one cannot rule out the possibility of other splits – doubtless preceded by a furious storm of legal challenges to the legitimacy of the conference. Already Jeremy Cronin has said quite openly that a victory for Dlamini-Zuma would be a victory for “the gangster leadership”, with the clear implication that the SACP and Cosatu would refuse to accept the legitimacy of such a result. Their lead is likely to be followed by others.

But in any case the rise of open multi-candidate competition for the ANC leadership shows that the authoritarian model of the exile years has decayed beyond repair. More than twenty years' exposure to liberal-democratic norms has had its effect. There can be no going back. From now on the ANC will live in a state of open factional conflict and it is only a small step from there to separate representation of these factions in Parliament which would thus bring about the political fragmentation which the electoral system has always invited.