South Africa gears up for a bruising election campaign

Fingers crossed. Democratic Alliance

South Africans will go to the polls on 7 May in what promises to be the country’s most interesting election since 1994. Commentators are already speculating (wildly, and without any reasonable evidence) that the African National Congress (ANC), which has won every previous election by a landslide, will see its support drop by some percentage, or this or that opposition party will at last make a breakthrough.

One sentiment we hear at each election is that it must be time now for voters to start turning their backs on the ANC. Surely South Africans don’t feel like they still owe the ANC something for its role in the liberation struggle, particularly with Nelson Mandela no longer among us? Surely any “rational” voter confronted with the massive socioeconomic inequalities, unemployment, corruption, dysfunctional service delivery and crime might conclude that it is time for something new?

Yet in every election that rolls by, the ANC still manages to win by a landslide. Is there anything to suggest that 2014 will be different?

The battle for party image

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), polled 16.66% at the last national election in 2009. While this reflected a steady growth of the party’s share of the vote in recent elections, it paled in comparison to the ANC’s 65.9%. So far, the DA has not been able to shake off its image as a vanguard party of white interests; a recent poll suggested that nearly half of young South Africans believed that it was the policy of the DA to bring back apartheid.

In an attempt to rehabilitate itself, the party launched a “Know Your DA” campaign last year in attempt to detoxify the DA brand. Alongside this, a leaked DA document outlined a more combative strategy of presenting the ANC as akin to the old National Party regime, drawing comparisons between police brutality during the apartheid era and the 2013 massacre of mineworkers at the Marikana platinum mine. The document used crude visual imagery to drive home this point, notably a mock-up of the ANC flag that replaced its traditional green, black and gold with the colours of the old South African flag.

The DA’s rebranding efforts recently came to a head when the party announced that Mamphela Ramphele, the leader of a newly formed opposition party, Agang, was to become the DA’s 2014 presidential candidate. After five chaotic days, it was declared that Ramphele would not, after all, become the DA candidate. The ensuing acrimony has nearly destroyed Agang and has damaged the DA’s reputation, particularly since Ramphele declared that the reason for the spilt was that people in the DA were “trapped in old-style race-based politics.”

Dancing to the ANC’s tune?

But besides internal squabbles, the DA faces another critical challenge to overcoming the ANC: resources. The ANC can comfortably outspend all of the opposition parties put together. This further inhibits the DA’s ability to manage the way its image is portrayed in public, and it is forcing the DA into a series high-stakes publicity stunts.

It was one of these stunts that led to the events of February 12. The DA had organised a jobs march into the centre of Johannesburg, which it had originally planned to end at the ANC’s headquarters. The ANC applied to have the march banned, fancifully arguing that its staff and assets would be threatened. An ANC spokesman declared that the DA “are coming armed to the teeth, with helmets, batons, shields. They have even booked places in hospitals. That can only be the actions of a party at war.”

After the ANC’s application was dismissed by the court, the DA began its march flanked by a large team of private security guards. Meanwhile, ANC supporters lay in wait for the DA’s arrival, brandishing bricks and placards and warning that the DA was provoking a reaction. Anticipating a bloody confrontation, the police stepped in and managed to avert a major outbreak of violence. In the end, the DA’s march was called off before it reached the ANC’s headquarters, and four ANC members were arrested.

One might be forgiven for asking why, when it has such a strong support base, the ANC should react to the DA in such an aggressive and defensive fashion. Surely this just feeds the opposition more publicity? But far from being the work of an ill-disciplined few, I would argue that these violent confrontations are actually a more carefully orchestrated form of violent political theatre. The ANC wants to fight the election on comfortable symbolic terrain, framing it as a battle between a heroic liberation movement and an array of counter-revolutionary subversives disguised as political parties.

All eyes on 2019

In the face of ANC dominance, the DA must develop a clear and appealing political message. The DA’s 2009 campaign to “Stop Zuma” no doubt resonated with some sections of the public; it will continue to do so in 2014, given Zuma’s low approval ratings and the various allegations of corruption levelled against him. But loyalty to the ANC runs deep, and despite disillusionment with Zuma, research suggests that negative perceptions of individual ANC leaders will not necessarily cut into support for the party.

To make matters worse, the DA’s current policy messages are simply not distinctive enough to grab the headlines. Ultimately, the party seems unwilling to embrace a radical socioeconomic agenda that could grip the public’s attention and sway the voters it badly needs.

Conversely, the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party is attempting to do exactly this, and threatens to wrestle away the public spotlight as a result. The EFF is led by Julius Malema, a firebrand former leader of the ANC Youth League who was expelled from the ANC for ill-discipline. Among its proposals for more radical socioeconomic transformation, the EFF advocates Zimbabwe-style fast track land reform and the nationalisation of the mines – policies that mix together a potent publicity-grabbing cocktail of hope, anger, fear and confusion.

This is not a coherent policy blueprint, and it is unlikely that the EFF will have either the time or capacity to present itself as a credible government-in-waiting before May. On the one hand, it doesn’t need to: the EFF’s hope is simply to gain enough protest votes this year to lend it credibility in time for the 2019 election. But the party’s current leadership might prove too divisive to build a broader coalition against the ANC, and much of the party’s agenda smacks of radical nationalist sentiment couched in racial language, rather than a coherent left-wing agenda.

Instead, the most important developments in South Africa’s political scene might well emerge from the current turmoil and infighting within the powerful trade union movement.

Since Zuma’s accession, the independence of the unions has been eroded by the ANC’s factional struggles. As Zuma has sought to extend his control over the unions, he has been increasingly resisted by unionists who resent ANC interference; recently, for example, South Africa’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), withdrew political support and funding for the ANC. It has set up its own political school to discuss the need for new political formations and radical socioeconomic alternatives in the face of endemic inequalities, corruption and poverty.

This could herald one of South Africa’s most significant political shifts since 1994, as the trade unions have both the political credentials and the organisational muscle to form an alternative political force to the left of the ANC. Such a move will require courage; as we know, taking on the ANC is no easy task, and it could lead to the internal fragmentation of the labour movement. There is also no guarantee that union members would support such a move.

What is clear, however, is that debates within the union movement, and among the left more broadly, could contribute to a far more meaningful discussion about South Africa’s long term future: a discussion that must extend beyond the narrow ideological confines of the political pantomime currently being played out in the 2014 election campaign.