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South Africa’s ANC can only be salvaged by leadership of epic ethical proportions

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (left), who is also the president of the governing ANC, and his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

What a year 2016 was for South Africa.

The August 3 municipal polls consigned the governing African National Congress (ANC) to the opposition benches in some municipalities, including the major urban areas. This makes 2016 a defining year in the history of the country’s electoral politics.

Beyond being political rituals with prescribed rites overseen by the Electoral Commission (IEC), “elections decide politics”. There is more to them than just casting of a vote.

After two decades of political dominance, the ANC’s electoral performance came down to its lowest since it became the governing party. But is the party unravelling? This is the question it takes into the New Year.

To many, an answer is writ large. But, is it, really?

I ask this question because despite its weakened position the ANC still managed to garner more than 50% support, with the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) trailing at 26,9% while the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) could only get 8.19%. Statistically, 27% margin of variation between the ANC and DA is too wide to disentangle the dominant party equilibrium.

Electoral dominance vs hegemony

The ANC is still ahead of many other political parties. Because of this some argue that a dominant party system is still intact, implying that the party’s political hegemony is not unravelling.

That the ANC is statistically ahead electorally is true, especially on the basis of its aggregate electoral performance. But electoral dominance does not equal political hegemony. This is because where there are a “small number of large parties” and patron-based “large number of small parties” electoral statistics often mask the truth.

As the Italian neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci explains:

Hegemony belongs to those who enjoy the greatest ideological resonance in society.

Hegemony is therefore a function of the ability to galvanise a following based on political acumen to map social reality and create “collective conscience”. Does the ANC’s 53.91% aggregate voter support in the 2016 municipal polls imply this?

This percentage obfuscates a woefully dismal showing in the metropolitan areas. These areas are “home to some 40% of the population” as well as majority of young black middle-class professionals.

But most people in this constituency have dual domicile, straddling urban and rural areas. Their following of a political party is not necessarily based on historical affinities, but the logic of ideas that are in sync with their epoch.

This urban-based strata of voters influences the countryside voters, who depend on the former for their subsistence. In this relationship there is the power to influence.

Misconceptions about the urban/rural divide

The black urbanites with rural connections – largely educated and perhaps with the streaks of sophistication – wittingly or unwittingly impart their political choices in their interactions with the countryside. These influence voter behaviour. The countryside vote is therefore not entirely a reliable pillar for political longevity.

The ANC’s support in the urban areas is declining. That its performance is propped up largely by the rural vote may be a harbinger for its atrophy. In the illusion of the ANC’s invincibility based on the rural support, its president appears to want it to be a rural party, mocking the black middle class as “clever blacks”.

ANC supporters at the launch of its local government election manifesto. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

This has pernicious implications. It is at odds with the historical foundation of the ANC as an urban-based party. Compounding matters is that the ANC’s rural support is actually declining. Overtime, its sanctuary in the rural vote is going to vanish.

Doesn’t this make the black middle class a strategic bet to reclaim political hegemony and longevity?

Elections and the middle-class

Elections are important in many ways. As the American political scientist Murray Edelman explains:

(They) give people a chance to express discontents and enthusiasm, to enjoy a sense of involvement [in the democratic process], [to] draw attention to common social ties and to the importance and apparent reasonableness of accepting public policies that are adopted.

All these are necessary to consolidate democracy. The urban voters are particularly important to this end. Largely, they are not voting fodder. Their participation in the elections is not ritualistic. It is a means to optimise accountability, to change the behaviour of those charged with the responsibility of managing public affairs.

A political party with strategic foresight consolidates urban support to incubate its ideological posture for electoral virility. Ideological resonance is measured by the extent to which the enlightened subscribe to a party’s system of ideas. This is important to ensure that, in Marx and Engels words:

The ruling material force in society is at the same its intellectual force.

Political hegemony is created and maintained this way. With the abstention of the black middle class, especially in the urban areas, does the ANC still command political hegemony? Or has it become a ruling class without hegemony?

Silver line in the ANC’s defeat

In the cities such as Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, coalition arrangements had to be structured because there were no outright winners. This spawned minority governments. There is at least a silver line in this.

The ANC’s loss does not necessarily mean that the opposition parties performed better. Much as they appear to have made inroads into the support base of the ANC, in the main voter abstention accounted for its diminishing electoral prospects.

The voters did not necessarily abandon it. They just withheld their vote. Their gripe is about corruption, factionalism and slate politics.

If former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report is anything to go by, state resources are being siphoned through state contracts, where the preoccupation is to profit from the state.

Venality creates the opportunity for state resources to be used to quench the insatiable lust for vanity, especially of the political elites, while those largely in the lower strata are kept perpetually hoping for a better life.

State resources are misappropriated for the personal aggrandisement of the political elites. Consequently, their personalities overshadow the party. Members become “members of members” rather of the party. Loyalties are due to the personalities.

These developments have estranged the black middle class. Hence their abstention in the recent municipal polls. But that they mostly decided not vote rather than switch allegiances, is an indication of their understanding of the distinction between the personal behaviour of individuals in leadership positions of the party and the noble principles at the historical foundation of the ANC.

This is an opportunity for organisational self-correction. But it is not going to be easy. The rot goes deep. Leadership of epic ethical proportions, absolutely unblemished, is required to salvage the ANC.

The jury is still out on whether the ANC veterans’ sigh of wisdom in calling for Zuma to resign, and the recent gesticulation by veterans of its armed wing, will salvage this desperate epoch of its history.

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