ANC and the era of ‘politics of the stomach’

Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma

Pusch Commey Correspondent

It was never in doubt that the ANC, the liberation party, would win the May general elections. The only issue was the percentage of support they were going to lose. But reports from Johannesburg, after 20 years and four elections the euphoria of political freedom and black majority rule has waned and the debate in the country has shifted progressively towards material benefits, in effect “what is in it for us”, economically speaking.

PRAGMATIC consensus and the general question leading to the May elections centred on: Has the African National Congress delivered on its promise of a better life for all in its 20 years at the helm of Africa’s second-largest economy?

After the 20 years of what many have termed as the era of  “stomach politics”, May 10, 2014, the day that the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), announced the final election results in seamless, exemplary real time, was also a poignantly symbolic day: May 10 was the day Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of the country in 1994.

The main results showed that the ANC brand was still a powerful force. But provincial elections were not all that rosy. Worryingly for the ANC, the fact was that in the more sophisticated province of Gauteng, the fourth largest economy on the continent, which houses the richest city in Africa, Johannesburg, the ANC lost as much as 10 percentage points of the popular vote, a major climbdown from 64 percent in 2009, to 53,6 percent.

Despite some gains by the ANC’s arch-rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has vowed to stamp out corruption, grow the economy and create six million real jobs, it is  the new kid on the block, the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), led by Julius Malema, the expelled fiery former president of the ANC youth league, which put the election result in a different light.

The party that was formed barely eight months before the election managed to secure 1 169 259 votes – 6,35 percent of the popular vote. It was a clear message to the ANC that the EFF economic freedom message was resonating with the electorate, and given time, the EFF will become a big force to reckon with. Municipal elections are up for grabs in 2016, and the next national elections in 2019.

Proportional representation
In South Africa’s proportional representation system, the people vote for the party. The percentage of votes obtained by the party translates into the number of seats in the 400-seat parliament, which elects the president with a simple majority. This formula is replicated in nine provinces, which have provincial legislatures.

The decline of ANC support is reflected  in the allocation of seats – from 264 seats in 2009, the ANC now has 249 seats. The DA increased from 67 to 89, while the EFF opened with 25. With the vocal and irrepressible Julius Malema and the EFF in the house, no doubt there will be fireworks in the new parliament.

The ANC’s 102-year-old liberation credentials and its illustrious history anchored in icons like Nelson Mandela, meant that it was not going to be easily toppled, irrespective of allegations of corruption, maladministration and incompetence levelled against the president and his functionaries.

As a result the opposition strategy, which focused on the president’s personal indiscretions, failed to yield a big harvest of votes. However, it sent out warning signals of what is yet to come if the ANC brand continues to be tarnished. And once there is a psychological shift from the brand loyalty, it is going to be extremely difficult for the party to claw it back.

For example, once the populace crosses the huge psychological barrier that it is okay to vote for a white-led party like the Democratic Alliance, then the ANC will have a lot to worry about. It is the population’s attachment to this marriage and the deep apartheid wounds that has returned the party to power every time, irrespective of its difficulties. But now those who have divorced the party are unlikely to return to the household.

If they still find it difficult to vote white, they will defect in droves to the EFF. And that is if the EFF are able to keep their shape, passion and hunger going into subsequent elections.

ANC anxieties
Was the ANC worried about the decline in support? Not publicly, but privately. Even though they came out massively to celebrate their big victory, it was more in relief than in celebration. They admitted that this had been their toughest election campaign.

In the run-up to the elections, several prominent ANC stalwarts had expressed their disgust with the state of affairs within the party. This included eminent people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and struggle stalwart Ronnie Kasrils, who with others set up a campaign prior to the elections, to encourage voters to spoil their ballots in protest, rather than vote for the ANC.

The secretary-general of the party Gwede Mantashe has called for introspection, especially with the 10 percent seismic shift of support in the Gauteng Province.
In an interview aired just before the elections President Zuma openly said that it was only “clever blacks” (middle class voters) who were worried about allegations of corruption and other charges against the government. And by inference the “great unwashed” – the rural poor and the marginalised – could not care less. Zuma was right to some extent.

The great electorate, one third of the population, relies on government handouts by way of social grants, and would not, out of fear, vote against the ruling party. The more intellectual Mantashe was not buying that argument of clever blacks.

To add insult to injury, the premier of Gauteng Province, Nomvula Mokonyane, was widely quoted as having told residents of an area called Bekkersdal during a violent service delivery protest before the elections that the ANC did not want their “dirty votes”.

A widely despised e-toll government project on Gauteng roads has also elicited strong reactions from residents. This highly unpopular project is also cited as one of the reasons for the ANC’s loss of support in the province, leading a political commentator to say that the ANC loses one vote every time a motorist passes through an e-toll gantry.

Meanwhile, the EFF has quickly moved to occupy the African nationalism and pan-African space, evoking images and heroes of the pan-African struggle and economic injustices inflicted on Africans, while expressing solidarity with other African and developing countries.

It has filled the space previously occupied by old illustrious organisations like the Pan African Congress and Azanian People’s Organisation. The EFF, which openly backs Zimbabwe’s Preident Robert Mugabe, has become the champion of the restoration of land to blacks, and economic justice.

With time, and in the absence of a resolution of historical economic wrongs, the EFF will chip away at the ANC. The EFF even boasted of having secured four votes from Orania, a separatist arch-conservative enclave established by Afrikaners, and where the widow of the father of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd lived.

Severe beatings
Most of the smaller parties took a severe beating.
The illustrious Pan African Congress (PAC) ended up with only one seat in parliament. Congress of the People (Cope), which broke away in 2009 from the ANC amidst much fanfare fought amongst one another and ended up with three seats in parliament as opposed to 30 in 2009.

Mamphela Ramphele’s much hyped Agang SA witnessed a brand collapse and scored two seats. Octogenarian Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party dropped from 18 to 10 seats. The Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) got nothing. Other smaller regional parties picked up one or two seats.

The biggest winner, however, was a virtually  unknown town-based party which goes by the name of the African Independent Congress (AIC). With no national or provincial presence it magically secured 97 000 votes and three seats in parliament, on a par with established parties like Cope.

How did it do that? As a breakaway party from the ANC over a municipal demarcation dispute in 2005 in a small town called Matatiele, it strategically chose colours not too far removed from those of the ANC, with a generous sprinkling of the ANC’s black, green and gold.

The choice of name also ensured that alphabetically it would be placed just above the ANC on the ballot paper.
The vast majority of the ANC’s supporters are illiterate or semi-literate, minus the clever blacks.

The ANC has complained that the AIC stole its votes, in that its confused supporters mistakenly voted for the AIC.
But its President Mandla Gala is having none of it.

He says he got his votes fair and square. He has happily packed his bag for parliament in Cape Town with his deputy and spokesperson.
He will get a comfortable seat in parliament, a salary of almost a million rand a year (US$100000), free perks including housing, free flights and a pension for the next five years.

Not bad for a party that poured few resources into campaigning, and largely cooled off at home watching the political landscape on TV. It was the jackpot. As Shakespeare opined, with all things bold and beautiful, fair is foul and foul is fair.

Pusch Commey is a barrister of the High Court of South Africa, award-winning writer and associate editor of New African Magazine since 1999. He is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. This article is reproduced from New African magazine.