SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 201 September 2016

A shattering electoral rebuke for the ANC

For the first election since the end of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has polled less than 60%, winning just under 54% of the total votes cast in August’s local government elections, down over 8% since the 2014 general election. The ANC lost its majority in five of the eight metropolitan municipalities. There are now 27 councils where no party has a clear majority – an unprecedented development.

The ANC beat the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) 27%. But this resembled less a victory and more a severe battering of the ANC’s arrogant belief that it was preordained to rule, in the infamous words of South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, "until Jesus comes". Its aura of electoral invincibility lies shattered and the prospect of the ANC losing its majority in the 2019 general election has moved into the realm of political possibility.

Capturing one aspect of the process, Wits University professor Susan Booysen says that "two tectonic plates of political change are moving past each other, causing electoral tremors. The one plate represents the strong link between the ANC, the struggle and liberation consciousness. The other reflects the eroded trust in the ANC and its government and the recognition that, despite its liberation roots, the ANC is facing post-liberation demands for accountability". (Business Day, 4 August) What is moving the plates, however, is the collision between the irreconcilable class interests of the pro-capitalist ANC and the black working class from which it has increasingly become alienated, arrogantly believing that black working-class votes were the ANC’s by historical right.

To rub salt into the ANC’s wounds, where it was knocked into second place, it was by the hated Democratic Alliance (DA), a right-wing party whose origins stretch deep into South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past. In its first post-apartheid incarnation (the Democratic Party), it obtained no more than 1.7% in 1994. Zuma tried desperately to exploit the DA’s past with strident denunciations of any black person who could possibly contemplate voting for such a party.

Repetitions of Nelson Mandela’s description of the DA as a party of white privilege whose black members are stooges of its white leadership wafted across the political atmosphere like the odour of fear of impending defeat. This reflects the exhaustion of the ANC’s ability to rely on its liberation credentials to retain voter support. Despite the rhetoric, however, it is not ruled out that the ANC could try and form coalitions with the DA in local councils in a desperate attempt to retain power.

Some on the left have fallen into despair, in effect condemning black voters for supporting ‘their own oppressors’. Some have even put forward the absurd perspective that the DA could return the country to apartheid. But, rather than a surge in DA support, this result came about much more from a massive rejection of the ANC as millions stayed away. There has been a dramatic decline in voter participation over general elections stretching back to 2004. In 2014, the ANC’s 62% parliamentary majority concealed the reality that it was based on only 35% of eligible voters, just under two-thirds of it from rural areas. Of the 26 million registered to vote this time, only 15 million did so. The ANC’s vote fell from 11.4 million in 2014 to 8.1 million in 2016. Its share of the eligible voting population has now fallen to 31%.

This time, the ANC was punished in both urban and rural provinces. The swing away from the ANC in Gauteng since the 2011 local government election was 14%. More rural provinces showed a similar decline: dropping 13% in Limpopo, 16% in North West, 9% in the Free State, 8% in Mpumalanga. It grew only in KwaZulu-Natal – by a meagre 1%. The ANC held onto its majorities in the rural provinces because the DA is mainly an urban middle-class phenomenon whose inroads into the black townships are mostly in the single digits.

More importantly, the DA’s victories merely mean that it obtained the biggest share of the vote in the Tshwane metro (including Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay. Only in Cape Town, which it has held since 2006, did it convincingly defeat the ANC. In fact, the DA’s 4.03 million vote total failed to beat its achievement in the 2014 general elections – 4.09 million.

As former DA staffer and now Business Day columnist, Gareth van Onselen, points out, in 2014 the DA "by its own calculations, managed 760,000 black voters (less than 20%). Not all of those will have voted in 2016, so the party has captured some new black votes but, as the pool of DA voters was practically the same in 2016 (4m votes), the proportion is unlikely to be significantly higher. Basically, in some areas the DA will have grown but high turnout (more DA votes across the demographic board) is likely to explain that, as opposed to growth among new black voters in particular. As suburban, traditionally DA, voters turned out in large numbers, the big turnout differential between suburb and townships (as much as 18%) tipped the balance away from the ANC". (Business Day, 8 August)

Like the ANC in Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg, the DA has to rely on horse-trading with smaller parties to try to form coalitions in order to govern in Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane. In Tshwane it would need a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). This would be possible only if the EFF – set up in 2013 by former ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, after his expulsion from the ANC – wants to commit political suicide. The EFF has built its support on a message of radical black nationalism and left populism, denouncing the DA as a racist party of white monopoly capital.

The EFF obtained 8.2%, retaining the position of the third biggest party it established in 2014, and becoming the second biggest party by votes in Limpopo. Malema, feigning modesty, has admitted ‘defeat’. The EFF leadership had set itself the target of trebling its vote and winning an unspecified number of councils. It did not win one. Such success as the EFF has had in capitalising on disillusionment with the ANC has fallen well short of the level of support it had hoped to use to bargain with the ANC.

The EFF is likely to come under tremendous pressure from the ANC’s anti-Zuma faction and even from the capitalist class. Bourgeois strategists have been encouraged by Malema’s growing ‘political maturity’. While reiterating its uncompromising demand for expropriation of land without compensation, Malema is steering his party more and more to the centre. On key questions such as nationalisation the EFF has signalled its willingness to dilute its position and is increasingly portraying itself as a party of ‘democrats’ and staunch defenders of the country’s bourgeois constitution.

The temptation to make deals will increase as the crisis within the ANC intensifies, an inevitable consequence of this disastrous result. Already the volume of the whispered pre-election recriminations is being turned upwards. Calls grow louder that Zuma be recalled following the constitutional court judgment that he had violated the constitution in using public money on his Nkandla homestead. However, the anti-Zuma faction has no alternative vision as it is just as committed to neoliberal capitalist policies as Zuma’s grouping. It is incapable of inspiring confidence that the party could be saved from implosion.

Whatever the outcome of the ANC’s internal struggle, it is collectively responsible for the Marikana massacre in 2012, the accelerated widening of the gap between rich and poor, mass unemployment and deepening poverty that occurred on Zuma’s watch. The conditions facing the masses are set to worsen as the economy, likely to grow by a paltry 0.1% this year, faces a ratings agency downgrade and the world economy faces new crises. Zuma’s legacy is likely to be not only a divided, if not a completely fractured, ANC but a disastrous economic landscape.

Weizmann Hamilton

Workers and Socialist Party (CWI in South Africa)

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