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Op-eds

Where to now in SA politics?

  • IvorSarakinsky
The expression “in the blink of an eye” describes how a situation changes from one moment to the next. In South Africa, a day is a long time in politics. The pace of political developments is so rapid at the moment that what seemed certain yesterday is irrelevant today.
by DR IVOR SARAKINSKY | Feb 15, 2018

Six months ago, the ANC was in decline, with disagreements on policy and a highly fractured leadership core. On the other side, the two major opposition parties, the DA and EFF, were pumping testosterone after their respective successes and collaborations following the municipal elections in 2016. It appeared there was a real prospect of the ANC not receiving a simple majority in Parliament after the 2019 national election.

Since the ANC elective conference, held at Nasrec in Johannesburg in December 2017, the political landscape has changed dramatically. The old fault lines have been partially repaired, with new ones created. It was a tight and less-than-transparent process, but the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president has changed everything. Since assuming office, he has engaged in a charm campaign locally and internationally that has shifted perceptions and attitudes. If he can bring back into the ANC fold a meaningful percentage of those who stayed away in 2016, the ANC is guaranteed an election victory in 2019.

The key to Ramaphosa’s popularity and credibility, as well as the opposition parties’ decline, is simply one factor: President Jacob Zuma. By replacing him as ANC president and, shortly, as state president, Ramaphosa has removed the public symbol of all that has gone wrong in South Africa over at least the past seven years.

In contrast, the opposition spent so much time attacking the ANC through persistent and personal tirades against Zuma that without him these parties appear to have no message to the electorate. In a real sense, the carpet has been pulled out from under their feet. Instead of developing a sustained and credible alternative policy agenda, the opposition played the person, and in politics persons change.

The opposition is floundering for other reasons as well. As the DA grew after the 2016 municipal elections, marked by its coalition takeover of the Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay municipalities, so too did opportunities for career advancement within the DA ambit.

This has led to intense competition for leadership and other positions at local, provincial and national level. In Cape Town, the fight involving Mayor Patricia de Lille is not about water, but rather, about position. The older leaders now have to contend with a confident younger generation who believe they are ready for higher office.

These fights are played out in public, but mostly in the inner sanctum of the DA’s Federal Executive Council, where the real power brokers hang out. Premier Helen Zille ignores an instruction to stop tweeting about colonialism without a hint of sanction. De Lille faces ongoing and new allegations even after showing the inaccuracy of investigative reports accusing her of malfeasance.

The jockeying goes on and the factions flex their muscles for power, with leadership being either weak or involved in the factional battles, or both. The DA appears like an ANC déjà vu.

The EFF, on the other hand, is marked by a high turnover of representatives in the bodies for which it has won support. Its challenge is to break double figures in the 2019 election. But will trashing shops, interrunpting public institutions and making populist appeals lead to an increase in support?

Will the controversy over the EFF leader’s tax affairs and alleged misconduct in Limpopo undermine support? These are unknowns, but the images of vandalism and parliamentary spectacle may not appeal to enough voters for the party to break through. The EFF’s co-operative arrangement with the DA also enables the rejuvenated ANC to tar both parties with the same brush.

Instead of attempting to win over previous, disaffected and loyal ANC voters through policy, the personalisation of the opposition’s agenda over the past five years has left them vulnerable to a clear ANC election manifesto and a concerted campaign.

As Zuma is about to leave public office, all the opposition parties can do is call for the dissolution of Parliament and an early election. Of course, they will not succeed in this as the ANC has a 62% majority. But such a call just shows how the opposition has become trapped in its own rhetoric and personalisation of politics.

The ANC escaped a major crisis by the skin of its teeth in December with Ramaphosa’s narrow victory. This has led to a rapid realignment within the ANC, while the opposition is still stuck in the rut of anti-Zuma politics.

Ramaphosa still has a lot to do to clean up the carbuncles left behind by Zuma. The EFF has declared that it intends to keep the heat on Ramaphosa by focusing on his business interests and his alleged role in Marikana. What will the DA do? Ramaphosa’s appeal, as a seasoned and popular trade union, business and ANC leader, has the potential to eat into the traditional middle- and upper-class DA constituency.

  • Sarakinsky is the academic director of the Wits School of Governance

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