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South Africa: Will the loyalty factor decide elections?

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South Africa: Will the loyalty factor decide elections?

On Wednesday May 8, South Africa goes to the polls to elect members of parliament and other state officials. The polls this time around have added spice given the dramas involving the ruling ANC, a struggling economy and a more polarised nation. Rafiq Raji assesses the front runners.

While the national and provincial elections are typically of great interest, they are even more so this year. This is because they would be taking place against the backdrop of corruption scandals in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and power cuts by Eskom, the state power utility.  

There are 48 political parties participating in the 2019 elections. But the ANC is expected to keep its majority in the National Assembly, and thus determine who emerges as President of the Republic.

The main issues in the 2019 elections relate to jobs, land, corruption, and the provision of basic public services.

According to the amended 1996 constitution, the President of the Republic must be elected in the first sitting of the National Assembly after the elections, on a date set by the Chief Justice – who would also preside over the election – which must not be more than 30 days after the expiration of the tenure of the incumbent president. This is usually the head of the winning party – in the ANC’s case, this would be Cyril Ramaphosa, the incumbent.

The main issues in the 2019 elections relate to jobs, land, corruption, and the provision of basic public services.

Roger Southall, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johanesburg, says “it is the rising cost of living, keeping the lights on (referring to frequent power cuts) and as ever jobs, jobs, jobs” that are uppermost on voters’ minds.

Oxford-based Jason Robinson, senior Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica, a consultancy, echoes similar thoughts: “jobs, the economy, quality of service delivery, crime and education”

“With the economy stagnating, unemployment still rampant and only a partial recovery in sight, exacerbated by the ongoing operational and management woes at the power utilityEskom, voters want a compelling option come May 8”, Robinson adds.

Recent power outages or load-shedding are likely be uppermost in the minds of all voters. At its peak, water taps stopped running as pumps could not work and even traffic lights went dark.

Is the lack of what is becoming chronic lack of service delivery sufficient to sway voter loyalty away from the ruling ANC party, though?

“You bet it would!” exclaims Prof. Southall of Wits. Oxford Analytica’s Robinson thinks so too, but does not see it moving “substantial numbers of ANC voters to other parties.” It could affect voter turnout, though.

In any case, which of the three leading political parties has the best plan to tackle these issues? “They all claim to be addressing them”, says Wits’ Southall, noting specifically the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) 170-page manifesto. The ANC’s manifesto is about 70 pages long and the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) is just a little above 80 pages long.

The ANC’s aura as the party of liberation and Nelson Mandela has been severely dented by a cascade of corruption scandals

While Prof. Southall finds the EFF’s lengthy manifesto impressive, he also thinks that “it is highly inconsistent and doesn’t specify where the money [to fund its programmes] would come from.”

ANC still leading the pack

Still, while the ruling ANC has demonstrably performed below expectations in regard of these issues, its strong revolutionary credentials continue to make it the party to beat. That is, even as its cadres face numerous allegations of corruption.

It is thought, however, that the leading opposition parties might make greater gains this time around. For instance, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is expected to remain the main opposition party but may not make significant gains relative to the status quo.

On the other hand, the radical EFF which is increasingly regarded as the party genuinely promoting the ideals of the original anti-apartheid struggle for economic emancipation, the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) could turn out to be the real winner in the upcoming elections by coming second to the ANC.

Observers believe that the hold of the ANC on the minds of the majority of voters, certainly Black voters, is sufficiently powerful to give the venerable party victory in these elections.

But the ANC’s aura as the party of liberation and Nelson Mandela has been severely dented by a cascade of corruption scandals going all the way up to former President Jacob Zuma  who was eventually ousted by the party – a situation unthinkable during the early heady days of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

The corruption was compounded by a climate of impunity and irresponsibility which saw some of the country’s best office holders sidelined and replaced by acolytes and the whole nation virtually held to ransom by foreign born tycoons such as the Guptas.

The Zuma administration also oversaw a steep and sharp decline in the country’s economic performance, a precipitous drop in the value of the rand, a rise in crime, record unemployment, a crisis in its education and health delivery systems and a calamitous drop in its standards of public services.

Despite this, observers believe that the hold of the ANC on the minds of the majority of voters, certainly Black voters, is sufficiently powerful to give the venerable party victory in these elections.

With the change of leadership from Zuma to Ramaphosa and a more pragmatic cabinet, voters might be more inclined to go with the emotions they have invested in the party for generations and place their trust in it rather than take a change on the other front runners.   

But the patience of voters is running thin. Should the ANC not reform and a viable alternative emerge from the two main opposition DA and EFF parties, it might only be a matter of time before some of the ANC’s core supporters decide they have had enough.

But even if it is taken for granted that the ANC will again win this time around, how big will their support be?  “I’m guessing the ANC will get 50-60%; the other two (DA and EFF]) 10-20%”, says Charles Robertson, group chief economist at Renaissance Capital, a bank focused on emerging markets.

Prof. Southall of Wits puts the ANC’s odds at 55-60%, for the DA at 20-24% and 8-12% for the EFF.

In the 2014 elections, the ANC garnered 62% of the vote, the DA got 22% and the EFF secured 6%. If the predictions bear out, the results will show a small swing against the ANC, the same level of support for the DA but a large swing in favour of the EFF.

However, as we have seen elsewhere, elections are becoming more and more difficult to predict with any degree of certainty. What outcomes would be tantamount to an upset in the 2019 polls?

Robinson of Oxford Analytica, says “an upset at this stage would likely be a sizeable increase in DA support given its travails over the past year or so, coupled with the ANC dropping below 54-55%.”

Conversely, an upset would also involve “the ANC, somehow against the odds, garnering 62% t, and ostensibly showing the party resurgent under Ramaphosa”, Robinson adds.

Another upset, says Robinson, would be a “a substantial boost in support for the EFF. Should the EFF take more than 10% of the national vote, it would be evidence it is making major inroads alongside its position as a potential ‘kingmaker’ in several provinces.”  

Ramaphosa factor

A giant flag from the South African ruling Party African National Congress (ANC) displaying a picture of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and urging people to register to vote for the May 8 elections.. (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP)

The ANC is making a show of dealing with its image problem. Various corruption inquiries are ongoing and are being conducted in the public eye.

The ANC leadership has also made a deliberate effort of personally reaching out to voters, embarking on door-to-door campaigning among other outreach measurers. Much of the credit is due to the party’s still relatively new leader.

For instance, President Ramaphosa took a trip on the public train from Mabopane station in Gauteng province to Bosman in Pretoria in mid-March. The train arrived two hours late and broke down on the way. What should have been a 45-minute trip took four hours in total.

Many saw this as an unexpected blessing. That the train broke down midway, with the President on it, provided him with a

perfect example of the daily hardships faced by ordinary South Africans. And the failure of the ruling party to attend to their needs.

But the mishap also showed that Ramaphosa’s intentions in going walkabout among the people were probably genuine. After all, the whole event could have been carefully stage-managed to be hitch-free, and thus present a different, but not entirely honest, view of the country’s public servies.

As Prof. Southall of Wits asserts, “Ramaphosa is vital to the ANC and has support well beyond the party.”

Robinson agrees. “Many voters are seemingly willing to take a chance on him despite concerns over persistent ANC factionalism,” he says.

In any case, the EFF is grappling with scandals of its own. There are allegations that the party’s top officials corruptly enriched themselves with monies from the defunct VBS Mutual Bank, which failed owing to mismanagement and corruption.

EFF party leader Julius Malema and his lieutenants deny any misconduct on their part in respect of VBS. In any case, the bad press from the allegations are not expected to hurt the party’s chances in the 2019 polls.

 “Because,” says Southall, “the people who read about this stuff in the media are middle-class and not really the people who would be ready to vote for the EFF anyway”.

Besides “many will see it as mere ‘fake news’ and a white-dominated media out to get the party and its leaders”, adds Robinson of Oxford Analytica.  

Were the president to be elected directly by the people, would the electoral math be so static? “Yes, we all want to see candidates being made accountable to voters. But electoral reform is a much debated topic that never gets anywhere”, says Wits’ Prof. Southall.

At this point it seems the South African elections will run very much true to form and despite what can only be termed a horrible period in its long and mostly lustrous history, the ANC will come away with the spoils.

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