Tale of three rallies as ANC prepares to claim another huge win in South African election

Victory dance: ANC says it will smash opposition. EPA/Ihsaan Haeffejee

The African National Congress drew a crowd of more than 100,000 supporters to its final election rally in Soweto at the weekend and there was a palpably jubilant mood at the rally as supporters predicted another landslide victory with more than 70% of the vote. There were even placards declaring, “ANC rules until Jesus comes back” and mocked-up coffins bearing the names of the opposition parties who, it was argued, would be “crushed” at the ballot box.

It was an impressive show of strength by the ruling party, which has won every election since the “liberation election” of 1994 in a succession of landslide victories. While its supporters might be somewhat optimistic in their predictions of gaining a 70% vote share, the latest polling figures from Ipsos predict another commanding victory at the polls, forecasting that the ANC will gain 63% of the national vote, with the closest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, polling at around 23%. The recently formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the firebrand populist Julius Malema, is predicted to gain the support of around 5% of the South African electorate.

Orchestrated show

The election rallies held by the three parties over the weekend reveal a great deal about the nature of their campaigns and also their strengths and vulnerabilities.

The ANC knows how to put on a show. It bussed in thousands of enthusiastic supporters from across the country, many of whom travelled through the night. It was a graphic illustration of the importance of identity politics within the party and the capacity of the ANC to offer its membership a collective sense of belonging, as well as a show: there was more singing, dancing and DJ sets than there was political content at the ANC’s rally. From parades of motorcycles to flamboyant performers gyrating on the stage, there was little that could be described as dull at the event. At least until the politics began.

ANC speakers offered a mixed smattering of well-worn dismissals of the DA as “the party of white privilege” and the EFF as an illegitimate upstart born out of ANC factionalism with no traditions of its own.

ANC president Jacob Zuma’s speech was, rather predictably, a laborious affair. Zuma took a leisurely 46 minutes to list the ANC’s achievements since 1994 and, in particular, its “good story to tell” from the past five years. One might quip that it was a story told rather badly and by someone who is increasingly unpopular within the ANC’s rank-and-file. It has been well documented that Zuma struggles with pre-scripted speeches and journalists regularly bemoan his lack of charismatic delivery on the podium. Indeed, by the end of his speech at least a third of Zuma’s comrades had left the stadium, opting instead for the catering units and an opportunity to dodge traffic home.

But this misses the point somewhat. The lack of entertainment is the political spectacle. The ANC is well ahead in the polls and has little to gain in straying too far from its usual election script. It can only lose votes and lend opposition campaigns legitimacy by being bated into debates over corruption, patronage and the leftist political rhetoric of the EFF.

Finding the right platform

It’s therefore up to the opposition parties to rock the boat. The problem for the DA at the moment is that its not really sure what tipping the ANC boat requires. Its public rally on Saturday revealed more about the party’s weakness than its strength. Opting for a less ambitious arena, the DA drew in a credible 12,000 supporters to its rally, where party leader told the crowd that iANC ayisafani (the ANC is no longer the same) as it had been before under presidents Mandela and Mbeki. Predictably taking aim at Zuma, DA leader Helen Zille reaffirmed her battle cry that the ANC was now a party mired in corruption.

Strong challenge: Democratic Alliance leaders at the party’s final rally at the weekend. EPA/Cornell Tukiri

But the DA’s political message remains deeply personalised against Zuma and doesn’t have a clearly delineated platform that could potentially draw away the core support base of the ANC in any significant fashion. The DA needs more than a slick US-style rally fronted by the likes of Mmusi Maimane, who has consciously played up to the image of being South Africa’s Barrack Obama.

The EFF, on the other hand, played to its limited strengths. EFF leader Julius Malema harked back to the fiery populist rhetoric that has grabbed him so many headlines in recent years. The crowd of around 30,000 remained transfixed as Malema delivered his speech promising expropriation of land and free education, among other things – promises that one commentator cruelly dismissed as ones “that last only as long as the voting station doors are open”.

ANC not what is was, say the Economic Freedom Fighters. EPA/Stringer

But the EFF rally reflects a smart strategy. It isn’t preparing to become a government – at least, not for now. Devoid of the kind of organisational presence that the ANC has across the country, the EFF is best able to maximise its vote through high-octane rhetoric and a play to public political theatre.

If current polling data is correct, then the election could be a very bland affair. But this is perhaps what ANC wants for now – and it is ultimately the opposition’s task to formulate a credible, attractive alternative.