In 2004, the last occasion the country went to the polls in a general election, the ANC dwarfed its opponents by hauling in 69.69% of the votes and netting 266 of the parliamentary seats in the National Assembly. The election also consolidated the Democratic Alliance (DA) which I then led as the dominant opposition force in South Africa with over 1.9 million votes (12.37% of the total and 50 MPs). This was an increase of just under half a million over its performance in 1999.
One of the noteworthy features of the last election was the more than 50 point gap which separated the governing party from its principal opponent. Another, less obvious feature of the last election was that in terms of actual votes cast, the ANC had shed some two million supporters since the first democratic election in 1994, although very few had migrated to the opposition. Most of the dissenters had no doubt stayed at home; but on a reduced overall percentage poll little of the size, detail and electoral arithmetic mattered. The ANC was overwhelmingly dominant; master of all it surveyed.
In the two provinces, KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape which had in 1994 returned opposition governments, the ruling party managed to form coalitions and take over all nine of South Africa’s provinces. Since democracy’s separate centres of power are designed to check and balance each other, these results – plus the ANC’s capture, through its cadre redeployment programme of the constitutional citadels outside the legislatures, suggested that the majority’s power would be virtually untrammelled.
I noted after the 2004 election that racial cleavages endured. According to my party’s analysis, 81.8% of the ANC’s vote was from black people and 74.9% of the DA’s from whites. Racial nationalism had triumphed again in South Africa and appeared to live on in the new nation as emphatically as it held the old country in its thrall.
The ANC, in constructing and maintaining its “Big Tent” ranging from BEE millionaires to rural peasants had found in racial solidarity and the invocation of struggle, a potent and durable tarpaulin to keep its increasingly disparate constituency under one roof. Just how rampant and triumphant the ANC was became clear shortly after the 2004 parliament gathered.
For example Thabo Mbeki’s shrill praise singer, Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi trumpeted: “The voters have seen the wisdom of a single vision for South Africa.” Outside parliament, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba felt emboldened to proclaim: “The electorate has declared loudly and clearly that it does not want a country characterised by opposition politics.”
If Harold Wilson was correct that “a week was a long time in politics”, the intervening passage of five years has turned a number of these arrogant assumptions on their head. One of the most decisive breaks in the hegemony of African national politics, second only to the 1982 split in the National Party, occurred on Tuesday 14 June 2005 when President Thabo Mbeki “discharged” Jacob Zuma from his post as deputy president of South Africa. Mbeki’s action against Zuma created a tidal wave of resentment and recrimination which eventually washed over both his party and the country and which, barely two years later, drowned Mbeki’s own presidency.
The most noteworthy feature and unknown element which prefigures our next poll rendezvous was the formalised break in the ANC which occurred on December 16 2008 with the launch of the Congress of the People (COPE). In 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years imprisonment in South Africa, he noted in his first speech to a waiting world: “I am a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress. I am therefore in full agreement with all of its objectives, strategies and tactics.” This formula and his iconic status helped sustain the ANC over the next decade and a half as it transformed itself from a liberation movement into an electorally unassailable democratic government. The arrival of COPE has unravelled that unity. This dramatic rupture in South Africa’s ruling behemoth creates hope that the somewhat sclerotic political system will be rejuvenated at least as far as head-counting ethnic politics is concerned.
It is an open question, however, whether Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa and other ANC former grandees such as Smuts Ngonyama are the people to lead the charge given the fact that they were in the seats of power when many of the missteps and democratic predations of the Mbeki regime were at their height.
Unlike previous schisms in the ruling party’s nearly 100 year history, the ANC-COPE split is neither purely ideological nor tribal and much of it is of course deeply personal and relates to the politics of resentment and exclusion. But whatever its origins and prospects, it is less susceptible to race-card politics.
Therefore the game-changers in this election will be determined by the following questions:
· How deep will be the cut in the ANC support?
The first fact to watch for is whether COPE’s inroads can result in the ANC’s loss of power in key provinces such as the Free State and the Eastern Cape. This is a tall order. But if the recent by-election results (in late January 2009) are anything of a guide it is clear that COPE in those two provinces at least, can muster somewhere between 20% and 30% of the vote. Combined with opposition support, for example, specifically if the DA holds onto its traditional base, it is conceivable that the ANC will be given a run for its money in those provinces.
· Will the DA win the Western Cape?
It is clear that the DA has consolidated its position in the Western Cape with electoral support of probably 40% and rising. (This too can be extrapolated from the December by-election results which indicated a collapse of ANC support among the majority coloured voting group in the province and a migration of former Independent Democrat supporters to the official opposition). Clearly the DA will be the largest opposition party in the Western Cape and could quite conceivably form a governing coalition in that province.
· Who will be the official opposition?
The third factor is going to be the battle to be official opposition in parliament. Here it will depend on the quality and depth of the election campaign. The Democratic Alliance has a clear edge in terms of organization, financing and grass roots branch structures. COPE has none of those advantages, but has the potential edge in recruiting black voters.
· What about the rest of the opposition forces?
A fourth outcome will be the rout of other opposition parties. The Inkatha Freedom Party (again based on recent by-election results) is being pushed back very hard in its traditional areas in KwaZulu Natal. The fact that the ANC managed to snatch an IFP seat in late January in a municipal by-election in Dannhauser, a traditional IFP bellwether seat, is perhaps an early indication of the fact that under Jacob Zuma the ANC will manage to further strengthen its hold in the province of KwaZulu Natal, the only electoral area where the IFP has any significant following. A similar fate is likely to await the UDM which has drawn previous support in the Eastern Cape but where the COPE/ANC fight is most intense. The portent for Bantu Holomisa must be grim.
So much for the election arithmetic, fascinating though it is; the more consequential issue is where will South Africa be after the election? Three areas of concern are key.
First, it appears that the ANC will continue to govern South Africa, nationally at least, but from a somewhat reduced position. It is likely that the huge gap which separates the government from the opposition, in whatever configuration it emerges in the national assembly, will be less than it was after 2004 and preceding elections. This can only be a very good thing for our democracy.
Going forward we can at least say that a template for future democratic competitiveness and an uptick of parliamentary accountability is very likely.
Second, South Africa faces a potentially dismal economic prospectus. Although our financial architecture is in reasonable shape, certainly compared to much of the developing world, we cannot ignore the fact that the looming global recession is going to have a very constraining and crimping effect on “the macro populism of the left”.
Whatever economic posture the next government adopts, the financial terms of trade have worsened. We have plunging commodity prices, a ballooning current account deficit and a shrinking revenue base. This will make the current equation of 10% of the population (the total individual tax base) supporting 25% of the country on welfare grants difficult to sustain, let alone expand.
The economic outlook is mixed at best: on the negative side of the ledger, the bad news is that South Africa is heading towards a recession of two consecutive quarters of declining growth. The good news is that this slow down has reduced inflationary pressures that were mounting, especially in respect of energy and food prices, suggesting future monetary easing. But it is going to be a very tight fiscal space which government has to manoeuvre.
Changes in legislative majorities are what elections are all about. But it is the judicial branch which the constitution designed as the most crucial barrier to prevent political overreach and empower citizens’ rights. This is the third, arguably, most important test for our democracy.
Although the judiciary has in key and controversial cases held the ring against the government, it has, over the past decade, been subject to all manner of attacks when its judgments went against the grain of the majority party interest. However, various attacks by the ANC and specific legislative proposals which encroached on judicial independence were rebuffed by Thabo Mbeki. But there has been a step change in both the vehemence and seriousness of these attacks since Jacob Zuma became the president of the ANC. For example, early last year, the Secretary General of the ruling party, Gwede Mantashe, attacked the constitutional court in a bare-knuckled fashion as “counter revolutionary”. This salvo against the judicial branch was intended to soften it up in view of the forthcoming possible trial of Jacob Zuma on corruption charges. The case itself is currently in a state of legal suspension due to various rulings and appeals which the courts are resolving. The acid test of this branch is, therefore, whether or not charges against South Africa’s most powerful politician can be processed without let or hindrance.
The government-sponsored attack on the judicial branch has mirrored incendiary rhetoric by key figures in the ruling party, such as the President of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi, Secretary General of the Trade Union federation Cosatu, that they were “prepared to kill” in their efforts to support Jacob Zuma.
After the election, South Africa’s much admired constitution, and the spirit of inclusivity which informed it, will be subject to its severest test. How it survives and responds will tell us more about the durability of our democracy, than the contest, and outcome, of the 2009 election.
* This artice was written for Leadership Magazine, 3 February 2009