It has been argued by many that the 2019 general election is going to be a watershed election. In other words, it is going to be the most competitive election since the advent of democracy in 1994.
While this assumption may have been closer to reality before the resignation of Jacob Zuma as president of the Republic of South Africa in February 2018, I would not be surprised if the performance of the African National Congress (ANC) defied these expectations.
For me, the irony is that it is Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the weakest leaders in the history of the ANC, who may pull the ruling party away from the electoral calamity Zuma’s ignominious presidency would have inflicted on the ANC, had it survived beyond 2018.
A further irony lies in the fact that Ramaphosa is not only a lame-duck ANC leader who cannot govern without the consent of his opponents in the ruling party, but is also the head of a ‘new dawn’ project that has, to a large degree, become the ‘new yawn.’
Contrary to expectations, the election of Ramaphosa as president of both party and country has not alleviated the image crisis of the ANC. In some ways, the gap between the ideals of the ANC and what the party has become is wider despite the (sometimes bellicose) calls and promises of unity and self-correction by many a party leader.
At leadership level, the ANC remains divided and factionalized. Evidence that is being led in the different commissions of inquiry paints a picture of a former liberation movement whose members and leaders have become quite adept at things venal and corrupt.
The ANC has become a metaphor for rent-seeking, state capture and the poor service delivery of the local state.
In short, because of the state of the ruling party, the ANC should be trounced in these elections. Given the hollowness and shallowness of the alternatives, the ANC will suffer contractions in electoral support but will not lose power at national level.
Put differently, notwithstanding the gap between the procedural and substantive aspects of our democracy, the levels of substantive uncertainty in our electoral politics will improve but will remain relatively low.
In other words, despite the gap between what our constitution’s promises, on the one hand, and what our democracy actually delivers, on the other, the contractions the ANC will suffer in the May 8 elections will probably be felt more at provincial level than at national level. Why?
First, according to recent polls, Ramaphosa’s approval rating, which is at about 55%, is not only higher than that of the ruling party but is also higher than that of the leaders of the main opposition parties.
This means that, despite the dismal state of qualitative decline of the ruling party at a leadership, intellectual, moral and strategic level, and despite Ramaphosa’s own subjective weaknesses as a leader, his approval rating will pull the ANC up.
What will save the ANC, therefore, is the fact that its internal crisis is a subset of the broader crisis in our politics.
Therefore, in addition to the Ramaphosa factor, the ANC will be saved from significant shifts in electoral support by the generalized crisis in our politics as well as the credibility deficit that has become one of the defining features of the political class of our country. In this regard, the state of opposition politics is instructive.
A cursory look at the state of the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), tells the story of a party that is at sixes and sevens. The sociology and political economy of race in South Africa remains an unshakable albatross around the necks of the DA and its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane.
Many, if not most, black voters still regard the DA as a racist party of whiteness, white capital and white interests. Objectively, it may not be true that the DA is a party of white minority interests.
What matters, though, in electoral politics are the subjective perceptions of voters. As long as black voters continue to see the DA as a white party, the inroads the party makes into the traditional support base of the ANC will not be enough to dislodge the ANC as the ruling party.
In my view, the DA is not a white party. It is a majority black party of white minority interests.
Despite the fact that, under the tutelage of its former leader, Helen Zille, it succeeded in increasing its black membership and support, I still maintain that racism is not a dynamic that is completely external to the party.
Also, I still contend that its ambivalence towards policy measures such as Black Economic Empowerment, affirmative action, land reform and employment equity despite the fact that, rhetorically, it now accepts that race remains a key indicator and predictor of disadvantage in South Africa, is a function of its colonial and paternalistic mindset.
In addition, the DA will continue to perform below the levels desired by its leaders as long as black voters continue to regard Maimane as a puppet of white interests.
I don’t share the view that Maimane is a puppet but do believe that there are too many in the party who see themselves as ventriloquists because of the colonial and paternalistic mindset of their whiteness, which I allude to above.
My expectation, therefore, is that the DA is not going to breach the 30% threshold of which it has been desirous for some time. In fact, it will probably improve on its 2014 performance but may not reach 25%.
If this happens, Maimane will be removed as party leader before or at the next Federal Congress of the party because of his failure to preside effectively over the DA’s internal racial policy and ideological tensions. If the black caucus of the party remains strong, Maimane will be succeeded by a black leader.
Otherwise, his successor will be a white man. On the other hand, if the turnout of ANC voters is critically low and a sizable number of those who turn up vote for the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), this scenario may not eventuate.
Will the EFF benefit from the DA’s divisions at a racial, ideological and policy level?
The tragedy of South African politics is that it still does not have a political culture of strong opposition and the alternation of power between political parties despite the plurality of choices available to voters.
By so saying, I am not aligning myself with the narrow and conservative conceptions of democratic consolidation which liberal democratic theorists always try to impose on the intended beneficiaries or victims of western modernity outside Europe and America.
All I am saying is that single party dominance has been part of South African politics since 1948. The National Party was the ruling party from 1948 until 1994, and the ANC has been in power since 1994. The ANC will be in power, probably with a reduced majority, after the May 8 general election.
The EFF will probably do better at provincial than at national level. We must not rule out the possibility that the ANC may lose power in Gauteng. Its own internal research suggests that it will fall below 50% in this province if it does not mount a serious effort.
In the scenario, the EFF will be part of a coalition government in Gauteng because no party is likely to win an outright majority. Whether the ANC will be part of such a coalition government, in this scenario, will depend on the size of its relative majority if it does win such a majority.
The EFF will put up a strong challenge in the North West province where it has strong support, and ANC support is dwindling.
Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that the EFF, on its own, or together with other parties, will dislodge the ANC in this province.
In the Limpopo Province, where, as is the case in the North West, the EFF is the official opposition, it will either dislodge or come very close to dislodging the ANC as the ruling party.
At national level, the EFF has a problem. Its messaging resonate with many in the ANC support base. The problem is that the majority of voters do not believe the EFF is fit to govern. Therefore, I expect the EFF to improve on the 6% it garnered in 2014 and settle just below, or above, 10%.
Will this election deliver change?
If it does, it will not do so significantly. Ramaphosa’s subjective weaknesses and limitations as a leader will show up much more strongly after the general election. His inability to make tough choices will become more apparent, with his disciples describing him as the consummate player of ‘the long game’. He will still not be able to govern without the consent of his opponents in the ANC.
-Aubrey Matshiqi is a Financial Mail rated political analyst for the second year in a row. He is also one of South Africa’s most in-demand speakers on the subject of the political state of the nation.
-Opinions expressed by Forbes Africa contributors are their own Ticking the right boxes: Will the elections come down to the wire?