Violence in South Africa’s capital leaves ANC vulnerable at the polls

Tshwane mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa unsuccessfully pleads for calm with angry ANC supporters. EPA/Ihsaan Haffejee

The violence in Tshwane since South Africa’s governing African National Congress’s (ANC) announced Thoko Didiza as its mayoral candidate has been much analysed. Various players have offered very different interpretations.

Publicly the ANC has reduced the situation to a security problem while denying that it is about internal party politics. But the front-page of the Pretoria News, the leading local paper, revealed a conspiracy by supporters of the incumbent Mayor, Kgosientso “Sputla” Ramokgopa, to make Tshwane “ungovernable” after the ANC’s announcement. The term harks back to the 1980s when the ANC called on its supporters to render areas “ungovernable” as part of its resistance to apartheid.

Within this convoluted situation the challenge is to find the factors which have shaped its dynamics.

Most of the factors are not new. The candidate nomination process has become the convergence point of internal contestations within the governing party. The Tshwane violence has also thrown into sharp focus tensions that have been brewing about outsiders being imposed on communities by the party leadership, and about President Jacob Zuma’s leadership.

Fault-lines in the ANC

The Tshwane developments are inextricably part of the ANC’s local election nomination process. There’s widespread unhappiness among ANC supporters and within its alliance partner, the South African Community Party, about the procedure that was followed.

This is not new. After the local election in 2011 the ANC’s Dlamini-Zuma commission of inquiry investigated similar internal protests.

The nomination challenges, then and now, are informed by numerous considerations. These include the fault-line between local and national decision-making in the ANC, the pro- and anti-Zuma sentiments which produce factions in the party, and motivations to protect or gain access to patron-client networks in government.

Zuma’s leadership of the ANC forms an important subtext in this situation. Ramokgopa is not a Zuma supporter, especially since the 2014 elections. He shares that position with Gauteng provincial premier David Makhura and provincial chairperson, Paul Mashatile. Mashatile was politically marginalised by Zuma after the election and Ramokgopa was earmarked to follow suit.

A second consideration is that many in the ANC are suspicious of an effort by the Zuma leadership to accrue political and economic privileges for his home province, KwaZulu-Natal. This is seen to be at the expense of all the other provinces, including Gauteng.

Didiza is originally from KwaZulu-Natal. She was a member of former President Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet and left government with him after he was sacked. But in 2014 she was admitted into the Zuma fold. It is therefore not far-fetched for many to regard her as a “Zuma deployee” who comes to replace a Zuma dissident.

Insiders versus outsiders

The emergence of “nativism” in places like Atteridgeville, one of the black townships around Pretoria, is another complicating factor. The local “son”, incumbent mayor Ramokgopa is now replaced by an outsider. Ramokgopa was born in Atteridgeville.

A new dimension has been introduced in the dynamics, captured in media headlines like:

They can’t bring a Zulu to lead us

Such headlines are a reminder of the conflict dynamics recently seen in Vuwani, in the Limpopo province. The conflict in Vuwani was primarily about the municipal demarcation process. Some interpreted it as a contestation of patron-client relations threatened by the proposed merger of municipalities which also overlapped with Venda-Tsonga ethnic loyalties.

Nativism is about sharing a cultural subtext and familiarity with the local context. It is therefore not about knowledge of local conditions but about a deep sense of a common origin and experiences. Although Didiza has been a Tshwane resident for two decades already, the fact that she is not originally from the area hasn’t helped her case.

The role of violence

By the end of 2015 violence had already become prevalent at ANC meetings in Hammanskraal, Mamelodi and other parts of Tshwane during the early parts of the nomination process.

It is an overt attempt to protect Ramokgopa’s position and to keep his supposedly pro-Zuma deputy, Mapiti Matsena, out.

The ‘slate’ tradition in the ANC became prominent at the watershed Polokwane conference in 2007 which saw the removal of then President Mbeki. It introduced a zero-sum electoral contestation. Elections are divided into two sides: one wins everything while the other loses everything.

The level of violence in protests has gradually escalated and today it is almost always accompanied by arson –- particularly targeting public transport, schools and health facilities. These tendencies cause inconvenience for communities but don’t target politicians directly. Hence, incongruence exists between the issues (like nominations) and the targets (busses or schools).

The cost to the ANC

What are the costs of the latest developments for the Tshwane ANC? While Didiza’s nomination was ostensibly meant to mitigate the factional divisions, they have been deepened by the violence. If the “ungovernable” strategy is indeed validated, the Ramokgopa group will also be exposed and seriously compromised.

This leaves the ANC with only lose-lose options.

The ANC voters’ response in the upcoming local elections is unpredictable. Tshwane will be hotly contested, with some predicting that the ANC may lose it to the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

There could be a widespread stay-away which will automatically benefit the Democratic Alliance and another opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. The ANC’s winning margin of 50.96% in 2014 means that a marginal shift in 2016 could require a new local coalition government in which the ANC will not be guaranteed a seat.