Zuma: Asset or liability ahead of elections?

30 April 2014

Party stagnation, splits with trade union and youth movements, and a scandal around public funding of a privately owned presidential compound; it all makes for cumbersome baggage for the African National Congress ANC) ahead of a crucial general election. The question Associate Professor Richard Calland wants to ask is: will President Jacob Zuma be an asset to the ruling party - or a dead weight?

The Zuma question could well be a "hinge moment" in South African politics, says Associate Professor Richard Calland, director of the Public Law, Democratic Governance and Rights Unit in the Faculty of Law.

Speaking at the university's Open Planning Forum in March - organised by the Institutional Planning Department, and aimed at facilitating the exchange of ideas across the university on topics of strategic importance - Calland presented several scenarios that could alter the electoral landscape, drawing on key trends in municipal and general election statistics.

The case of KZN

The fallout from Nkandla following the Public Protector's report is considerable and inconvenient for the ANC, Calland said. KwaZulu-Natal, a Zuma stronghold, is the country's most populous province. For the ANC, facing eroding majorities and a battle for supremacy in four major metropoles (Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane), the province could be decisive. "In the 2009 general elections Zuma was a massive electoral asset for the ANC," Calland noted. "In eight of the nine provinces the ANC's vote went down 8% on average - but in KZN it went up 16%. It's the most populous province, so to do well there is to do well nationally." That gap has been narrowing since the 2011 municipal elections, when international market research company Ipsos's study showed a similar trend.

"If his personal support in KZN declines, then the ANC will be substantially hit," said Calland. "Of course Mr Zuma is aware of this, and so he's put in a huge amount of resources into securing or buoying up his support there."

Youth and unions

But there have been other seismic shifts in the ANC. At the epicentre is the split with trade union movement COSATU, altering the geography and character of South African politics.

"This has been the biggest factor in the past 20 years, not just from a union perspective but from the ANC's perspective. The alliance has been at its centre, holding everything together, like ballast."

Calland believes the youth bulge will be particularly important in this election.

A divided African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), post-Julius Malema, has cost the party dearly. "They've lost two big pieces of their mobilising campaigning power," said Calland.

To aggravate matters, the red berets - the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), under Malema - have further destablised the ANC. "Malema and his cronies can go into places and say things and do things that the ANC seems no longer able to do," Calland remarked. The EFF is surprisingly well organised, with the capacity to draw 4 to 5% of the vote, he said. But Calland wonders whether many of their probable voters - the young, disgruntled and unemployed - have registered.

"And if they have, do they have the money, skills and muscle to chase them to the polls to vote on the day?"

The 'born frees', another significant youth bracket, are much more open to persuasion, offering another possible hinge moment in South African politics. But, Calland pointed out, their allegiances and keenness to vote are harder to determine.

DA nipping at the heels

More intriguing, he said, are the dynamics between the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the ANC. In an election where smaller parties like the Congress of the People (COPE) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) will be squeezed to get more than 10% of the vote, and in the likelihood of the EFF securing 4 to 5%, the ANC and DA would find themselves fighting over the remaining 85%.

"If the DA's starting point is the 24% they won in 2011 municipal elections, then every percentage point of progress the DA makes from this base will knock a percentage point off the ANC. There's a serious possibility that the ANC could fall below 60% in this election. If you're in the 50s, your majority looks more perilous.

"It could be a game-changing moment." The DA has presented itself as the party of change, and could leapfrog the ANC, which finds itself mired in anti-transformation behaviour and protecting its own security and vested interests. Is this likely?

"One of the big issues in this election is whether the DA can make serious inroads into the black vote, especially the working-class black vote." Municipal election trends in Johannesburg and Cape Town between 2006 and 2011 showed that the DA had doubled - and even tripled - its support. "If you take a typical working-class area like Khayelitsha, one sees that DA support went from 0% in 2006 to 1.64% in 2011. Now, that's from nothing to tiny; but if you're trying to grow, tiny is better than nothing."

If the DA builds a critical mass of support in a "hitherto hostile political environment", the principle of exponential growth might come into play. With a stronger brand and leadership, the DA is stronger, and well positioned to build on this base, he added. "First in the Cape, and now - almost miraculously, and almost imperceptibly - in other parts of the country, the DA is now able to position itself as the party of change, whereas the ANC increasingly appears like a conservative party whose interest is in maintaining the status quo.

"Now that's an extraordinary flip, and electorally powerful. Change is a very strong and powerful motif to an electorate that is disgruntled and unhappy with progress."

The 'good story'?

But don't discount the ANC, said Calland. They're seasoned campaigners, with the advantage of incumbency; a resilient brand that - despite Zuma, cronyism, and corruption - does have a good news story to tell, especially in the light of the '20 years of democracy' celebrations.

"The ANC's best chances are to look backwards; not at what it promises, but at what it stands for and what it's delivered; its historical role. Its two powerful motifs are its good news story, and that under the ANC, South Africa is a better place to live."

But this stance is ultimately unsustainable, and Calland suggests this will be the last election in which the ANC will be able to do this with any degree of credibility.

The looming spectre, said Calland, is that we may end up with an electoral split. "Here, the ANC - whatever its leadership, its character and disposition, whatever its policies and government - presents itself as the party of the majority, the working class and the poor, and the DA captures and soaks up all other minority races, and virtually all of the middle class; the result being that despite what people say, increasingly we see a divide between classes and between races."

As he reminds us, much hinges on the DA's ability to win working-class black votes.

Madiba magic

And then there's the Mandela factor. This will be the ANC's first election without the talismanic 'Father of the Nation' as ballast for the party's image. "Does Mr Mandela's death in December remind voters that the ANC is a great liberation movement, or does it remind them of better days and that they have a leader now who doesn't stand up to scrutiny?"

Story by Helen Swingler.

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