The ANC takes a thrashing

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the political earthquake of May 29th


On Wednesday, South Africa’s political firmament shifted. The new landscape, at least at first view, is not particularly promising.

Thirty years since that first democratic election in 1994, the extent to which we have descended into disenchantment and disillusionment is reflected in the worst electoral turnout yet. Only 59% of registered voters cast ballots — a glum number exacerbated by organisational blunders by the Electoral Commission (IEC).

The African National Congress (ANC) has crumbled, delivering — with 97% of the votIng stations, 56% of the vote now tallied— as poor a performance as the worst of the pre-election surveys predicted. With its loss of control of KwaZulu-Natal (down from 65% to 18%) and Gauteng (down from 55% to 36%), it has been relegated to the economic periphery of the nation. The ANC is now strongest in the most rural and poorest fringes of the land.

There is, however, little comfort for those who hoped that an end of ANC dominance — down from 70% in its heyday 20 years ago to 57% in 2019 and now 41% — would usher in an era of greater economic pragmatism, less political radicalism. Instead, the electorate has become more populist, more tribalist and more socialist, shifting its allegiance to the left, not towards the moderate centrists.

Among the likely casualties of the electoral shift are President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Leader of the Opposition, John Steenhuisen. It’s difficult to see either of their political careers surviving their unimpressive performances. So, too, a dozen or so leaders of minor parties, whose outrageously unrealistic estimates of their own performances were fanned by a fawning media and a naive corporate sector that lavished many hundreds of millions of rands to fund these long-shot no-hopers.

At the centre of the political earthquake is the implosion of the 112-year-old ANC as engineered by Ramaphosa’s nemesis, former president Jacob Zuma and his uMKhonto weSizwe Party (MKP) which, at six months since its creation is not yet out of nappies. MKP has succeeded beyond its founder's wildest imaginings and the ANC’s worst nightmares.

Written off initially as just another device to pressure Zuma’s former ANC colleagues and retard his prosecution for state looting, to everyone’s bemusement including its own, MKP now finds itself the third biggest party with 14.8% of the national vote. That’s well ahead of that other ANC spawn, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) stuck at 9.4% after its third general election, but well behind the Democratic Alliance (DA), which retains its spot as the official opposition with 21.7%.

Impressive as its national vote is, it’s in KZN that Zuma sealed Ramaphosa’s fate. In the face of dire ANC warnings against tribalism — despite the ANC’s ready recourse to black nationalism to rally its forces against white, Indian and coloured minorities, it’s terrified of similar ethnic chauvinism within the ranks — and the deployment of its entire top leadership, both present and past, to campaign in the province, it got flattened. MKP got 46% of the vote, more than double the ANC’s pitiful 18%. 

The size of the drubbing is a measure of Ramaphosa’s appalling strategic blunders, which included an own goal with the ostentatiously dramatic signing into legislation of the controversial National Health Insurance Bill, and a massive Free Palestine element to its political rallies.

Ramaphosa’s primary objective, as he repeatedly and unapologetically explained from the first day he was elected leader in 2018, has been to preserve ANC unity. Any efforts to address the devastating effect that the Zuma era had on the country —  the collapse of the major state-owned entities and the rampant spread of criminal mafias with strong ties to the ANC — would be secondary to that mission. 

However, as the election starkly reveals, he failed at both. Ramaphosa has destroyed his party and he has done enormous damage to the country, not only economically but also to our social fabric, by signalling that the ANC elite will never be held accountable for its criminality and corruption.

At several points when he could have despatched Zuma and his Radical Economic Transformation (RET) fellow travellers, Ramaphosa stayed his hand. Despite the government knowing the identities of the dozen RET ringleaders of the 2022 riots, no charges were brought. He also colluded in the granting of a medical parole to Zuma and when the pesky DA got that declared illegal, he kept Zuma out of jail with the stratagem of a general presidential amnesty for prisoners. 

Those within the ANC sharpening their knives against Ramaphosa will point out that the ANC’s decline, which started under Zuma, has accelerated under Ramaphosa. The president may be well-liked by the public, as the surveys repeatedly show, but it’s not translated into votes.  

In Zuma’s second election, in 2014, the ANC got over 62% of the vote, albeit down from 66% in 2009. Under Ramaphosa, in 2019, this dropped to 57%. Now, in 2024, at 41%, it means that under Ramaphosa the ANC has, in percentage terms, lost about a third of its vote. 

This is particularly telling when measured in actual votes. In 2014, Zuma’s ANC drew almost 11.5 million votes. This week Ramaphosa’s ANC got 6.1 million, while MKP drew 2.3 million votes.

The DA’s Steenhuisen faces the same harsh judgment of the numbers. In its heyday, under Helen Zille in 2014, the DA got more than four million votes, equating to 22.23% of the vote. 

Mmusi Maimane was forced to resign as leader when the DA in 2019 shed 470,000 votes to drop to 21.8%. To keep the job, Steenhuisen needed to show he could do better. He clearly didn’t.

Steenhuisen's 2024 DA vote at 21.7% is marginally better than Maimane’s 20.8% in 2019. In actual numbers, however, as opposed to percentages, it’s worse. In 2019, the DA got 3.6 million votes. This week, it got 3.3 million. It would require a pretty thick hide on the part of Steenhuisen not to resign.

The DA can’t even claim to have had its vote cannibalised by the independents and the new parties. The performance of these minnows, as was predicted by the polling surveys that their leaders and the media poured scorn on, was abysmal. 

Rise Mzansi predicted 7.5% of the vote and 30 seats. In reality, it registered 0.4%. Since it takes 0.25% of the vote for a seat, it’s only Rise leader Songezo Zibi and one colleague who will see the inside of Parliament.

Build One SA, Maimane’s ego vehicle, predicted two million votes. On the day, his performance is on par with Zibi at 0.4%.

Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA predicted 10% of the national vote. It’s managed just over a tenth of that, at 1.2%. 

Of course, all political parties and their leaders massage the figures to put a gloss on their performance. However, we should be less gullible. As I’ve reiterated ad nauseam in these columns, the truest reading of South Africa’s political blood pressure comes from a single ratio: the centrist-right vote juxtaposed against the vote for the left. That ratio has been constant at 1:2 since 1994.

Add up the vote for the centrist DA and its Multi-Party Charter allies; set it against the cumulative vote of the left, with its gradations of mild (ANC) to froth-at-mouth (EFF and MKP). In 2024, that ratio looks to be again roughly 1:2 — in other words, one-third of voters support market solutions and two-thirds support various incarnations of socialism. 

It’s an apparent state of stasis but what is clear from this election, is that what political foment and change there is, it is on the left side of the political equation, not the stagnant centre-right. That means whatever deal a wounded but still powerful ANC reaches, it’s likely to be on the left.

On a lighter note, the only sign of new political life other than MKP was from former gangster Gayton Mckenzie’s Patriotic Alliance (PA), which got over 310,000 nationally, equivalent to 2%. That’s a reasonable brace of 8 MPs but McKenzie’s real contribution so far has been to expose another great Ramaphosa strategic blunder — embracing the terror organisation Hamas and making Palestine a strong electoral plank in the ANC campaign.

The relentlessly woke commentariat consensus was that this would cost the DA dearly in the Western Cape. As it turned out, the DA was only a couple of points down at 53.2% and the PA — which is unabashedly pro-Israel — got a solid 7.5%. The ANC dropped eight points to 21.2%. Another old political adage — elections are decided on domestic matters, not foreign policy — again proved true. 

For the moment, with all the glib assumptions and brash assertions of the ANC turned to dust, the political tumult has subsided to a strange stunned silence. But the clock is ticking and once the final result is announced on Sunday, 2 June, the parties have only two weeks to finagle the best deals that they can to get a slice of power, be it national or provincial.

Ramaphosa has not been seen and is presumably licking his wounds away from the public gaze, although he is apparently “jovial and fine”, according to an ANC spokesperson. He will need to gather his wits about himself. It’s going to be a frenzy.

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