As the main contenders at this stage in South Africa’s 2014 general election have all gone into formal campaigning, an early reading of the mood speaks of a gloves-off, ugly confrontation ahead. The run-up to the election comes at a critical juncture on numerous fronts, domestically and globally.
After more than a decade of post-apartheid political stability, solid economic growth and social cohesion, since about 2007 both the global economic crisis and domestic political and labour turmoil started tipping the scales toward a decline on many fronts. This has become even more prominent since last year:
The African National Congress-led governing alliance has been destabilised by factional power struggles and ideological divisions;
Opposition parties are in an undecided state of flux;
Constitutional certainties are under threat;
The economy is under siege, prospects are poor and confidence is low;
The labour market is in a state of turmoil and unemployment remains high;
Social unrest and protests, especially over poor service delivery, are rising;
Education and state healthcare are in a poor state; and
Crime and corruption levels remain high.
The other side of the coin is that under an ANC government, millions more people now have formal housing, electricity, running water and access to basic healthcare and other services.
And, according to the 2013 Budget Review, 16.1 million South Africans (almost one-third of the population) were receiving social assistance through grants at the end of the 2012/13 fiscal year. Social grants are the main source of income for more than 22% of households.
But will this be enough to keep the ANC’s support at levels above 60% at next year’s election?
In coming months, we will regularly update our Election Watch reports to keep readers fully informed on developing trends, likely outcomes and their possible consequences.
While truth is often, as in war, the first casualty during electioneering, over the next 10 or more months – as competition among parties intensifies – separating fact from fiction will likely prove difficult.
What has been happening, and why?
As we previously reported, there has been a proliferation of new political parties in recent months. This is the norm in the run-up to elections under a proportional vote system, as is the case in South Africa.
There are presently 218 registered political parties in the country and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has the process of removing the non-active parties off its database. Most of these came into existence shortly before previous elections.
It is true, however, that some of the more recently established parties reflect undercurrents of unease, dissatisfaction and a desire for change among many South Africans.
Most prominent among these is Agang, established by respected businesswoman and academic, Dr Mamphela Ramphele. After finally ruling out a coalition with the Democratic Alliance, Agang recently registered as a political party and is likely to compete with the DA for the voters in the liberal centre and possibly attract some voters more left of centre.
The Workers and Socialist Party was born from the labour unrest and strike committees of last year and is likely to appeal to the thousands of mineworkers who abandoned the ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers to mostly join the independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. It may also appeal to impoverished shack dwellers in communities adjoining mines and industrial complexes.
Former members of the UMkhonto Wesizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA) established the South Africa First (SAF) party after being expelled from the MKMVA for bringing legal action against association leaders fingered in a forensic report for allegedly stealing R5.4 million in association funds.
Although it may attract some support from voters fed up with corruption, SAF’s support base is likely to be restricted to Liberation Struggle veterans alienated from, or disillusioned with, the ANC.
Most recently, expelled former leaders of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), who have fashioned themselves as the Economic Freedom Fighters under the leadership of former ANCYL president Julius Malema, have given notice of their intention to form a new radical political party to the left of the ANC, based on an unsustainable, massively populist ticket.
Included among their basic ‘principles’ are: expropriation of white-owned land without compensation; nationalisation of mines and other sectors; abolishment of the state tender system; free education, healthcare, houses and sanitation; “massive” industrial development and job creation; “moving from reconciliation to justice”; and “an open, accountable government and society without fear of victimisation by state police”.
Meanwhile, the contest among the main parties has already started turning ugly, as was witnessed by the throwing of human faeces at Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and on the steps of the Western Cape Legislature, among others.
This was ostensibly a protest by members of communities who have been issued with portable flush toilets as an interim measure while the despised bucket system is being phased out. It soon surfaced, however, that both current and expelled members of the ANCYL were the ringleaders.
Like the Cabinet and the ANC, the ANCYL initially distanced itself from this action, but subsequently called for more such action – probably not wanting to relinquish all the limelight to their former comrades in arms now doing battle under the Malema banner.
And, as the election race starts warming up, there are no sacred cows. Despite worldwide concern over Nelson Mandela’s poor health and hospitalisation, the ANC is laying sole claim to this iconic symbol as part of its election campaign, warning the DA and other parties to back off.
President Jacob Zuma has positioned himself as the ultimate gatekeeper of news about Mandela’s health.
Zuma also recently went on the campaign trail, conducting house-to-house visits in townships. There has already been the usual election-time call for spiritual assistance from above, something that Zuma has almost turned into a trademark in previous elections.
Furthermore, the ANC is trying to steal Malema’s refrain of the youth having to fight for ‘economic freedom in their lifetime’, as is evident from a Youth Day statement released by the ANC.
The DA, on the other hand, has taken to rather unashamedly attempting to rewrite history to try and establish ‘Liberation Struggle credentials’ as it seeks to win a much bigger slice of township support. Its national leader Helen Zille has, like Zuma, taken a shot at playing the religious card.
What could occur next?
Previously, opposition politics mostly contributed to the proliferation of political parties. But this role seems to have shifted largely to the broad ANC alliance. The trend is likely to continue and may seriously challenge the ANC’s chances of maintaining its majority support level above 60%.
Discontent and shifting allegiances among mineworkers and possibly other labour formations, the ongoing and rising discontent over poor service delivery-related problems in many townships, the continuing high levels of crime and corruption, and many other issues could plunge the ANC into a desperate fight to keep its support above 60%.
That will be exacerbated by the factional wars within the alliance, particularly in and around the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The ANC has already made some trade-offs with legislative and policy concessions to Cosatu.
But some Cosatu unions and leaders are not that easily convinced, and have threatened to withhold election support from the ANC.
Another area to watch is whether the Malema legacy with the two constituencies he tried to lead into revolt against President Zuma – the largely unemployed youth and the impoverished and unemployed shack dwellers living close to areas affected by labour unrest – will survive into the election.
If they do abandon the ANC, it remains an open question whether their support will go to a Malema-led party or any one of the other radical leftwing parties.
Judging by the ANC reaction to Malema’s declared intentions, the ANC is running scared.
A Malema party and other centrist and centre-left parties will be focusing on the new generation of ‘born frees’: those young voters born after April 1991, who will be voting for the first time. They have no sentimental allegiance to the former ANC-led liberation movement, which in government fails to live up to expectations.
Meanwhile, the DA remains a political home for minorities – whites, the Western Cape’s coloured community, and the minority group of well-educated, upwardly mobile blacks. Its attempts, for some time now, to capture a bigger slice of the general black vote has managed to secure some pockets, possibly on the back of specific, time-bound issues. Whether its lasting support can be expanded with its current township-focused campaign remains to be seen.
The DA has put its focus firmly on Soweto, the Eastern Cape and other black areas, and is propagating the idea that it can win Gauteng.
Over the next few months, the gloves will come off completely. The rhetoric and attitudes between parties will harden. There will not be much room for concepts such as co-operation, negotiation, compromise, the truth or, sadly, putting South Africa first while the world is watching.