Truth to power

Truth to power

South Africa and Zambia’s anointed leaders face very different challenges

Is the ANC now just another box on the ballot? EPA/Kevin Sutherland

Watching the South African metro elections from Zambia, in the final week of its own national election campaign, was a sobering experience.

Zambia’s economic indicators are pointing disastrously downwards, but the elections are entirely to do with the style of presidency and personalities of the two main contenders. In South Africa, on the other hand, this year’s municipal elections boiled down to a referendum on the policies of the president, Jacob Zuma, and the ANC and the direction of the country.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has a young and charismatic leader, Mmusi Maimane, but he didn’t try to project his personality in exuberant Obama-esque style. And perhaps that was just as well, since many voters think him just a bit too young, handsome – and, above all, too privileged in a way still associated with white people.

This was a fight between the ANC’s tired old refrains and the DA’s technocratic exuberance. The DA campaign railed against South Africa’s stagnant growth, its dismal job market, and the blight of state-sponsored patronage and corruption. They lamented the decline of probity since the first Mandela government, and the efforts at planning in the Mbeki governments. But, above all, the DA traded on its strong track record in Cape Town and the Western Cape.

For months, DA strategists had polled and crunched figures that showed the party could take control of Johannesburg and much of metropolitan Gauteng Province. It already ran a council in Kliptown, the poorest part of Soweto, where the ANC has done almost nothing to improve life in the birthplace of the struggle against apartheid.

The DA thought it had a message for the poor nationally as well as for the better-off denizens of the Western Cape. In the end, its success was more qualified than it hoped for – but the ANC was nonetheless humbled, winning only 53% of the vote nationwide.

A monopoly broken

While it outpolled the DA nationally by almost two to one, the governing party of Nelson Mandela is indisputably in decline in the great cities. For the first time, the DA broke out of the Western Cape and won a majority in Nelson Mandela Bay, meaning it will now dominate the country’s southern provinces. The party’s Anthol Trolip will become mayor; a white man who speaks fluent Xhosa, he couldn’t have been elected without huge black support.

Elsewhere, the DA won Tshwane (which includes Pretoria), but without a majority, meaning it’ll have to assemble a coalition to govern it. The ANC similarly scraped the largest share of the vote in Johannesburg, but fell short of a majority.

A DA victory rally in Pretoria. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Coalition administrations will give smaller parties a larger role than they’ve ever enjoyed in the new South Africa. This raises the hope of some desperately needed pluralism, but also it raises the prospect of further favour-trading – potentially a disaster for a country already mired in clientalism.

A lot will come down the behaviour of Julius Malema and his radical left-wing party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which won less than 9% of the nationwide vote but is the third-largest party in several areas. If it wants to be a player in any coalition, the party will have to stop trafficking in vitriol and defiance and instead sit down with others to try to achieve something.

Blessed belligerents

For it is the EFF and the intellectualised soundbites of student protest that most closely draw a parallel with politics in Zambia.

The multi-party democracy Zambia embraced in 1991 has led to several different parties taking control of government, but these parties are without exception the descendants from or splinters of previous ones. There is no single-party rule in Zambia, but that doesn’t mean the parties are genuinely diverse; they still reflect the country’s monolithic political past.

Zambia’s godly Edgar Lungu. EPA/Jason Szenes

The main opposition leader in the August 11 elections, Hakainde Hichelema, is the first credible challenger from outside the political establishment. Like South Africa’s Maimane, he’s a technocrat who claims to have the right policies for an economically embattled country.

But unlike in South Africa, there’s no policy debate in Zambia; in fact, there’s hardly any debate at all. Instead, politics is poisoned with abuse and accusations. The discourse is very like Malema and the EFF’s: everyone knows what they don’t like, but the practical question of what people would like is overlooked in the melee.

And at least South Africa was spared any claims that God has blessed one party or another. Zambia is a devoutly Christian nation – imperialism’s signature export having been so deeply adopted that it’s now considered “native” – and the incumbent president, Edgar Lungu, has campaigned as if leading a Christian evangelical crusade. It is God who will fix the nation, apparently, and Lungu is His anointed agent on Earth.

As the ANC begins its private post-mortems on how, for the first time, it polled less than 60% of the vote, the internal plots against Zuma will gain momentum. While the challenge of the DA has not been enough to have brought down the ANC completely, God nonetheless seems to be withdrawing His blessing from the party of Mandela and its benighted president.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.