The ANC/DA’s high-stakes pendulum

There was no official start to election season, but campaigning is already in full swing. In a few weeks,

there will be advertisements, billboards, posters, pamphlets and spam messages in your inboxes, all attempting

to penetrate your conscience and influence your perception. There will, of course, be a lot of bluster from

political leaders, doing their best to discredit other parties and making the case as to why you should vote

for them. There will be plenty of election promises about what they will be doing for you - most of which

falls through the cracks after the election. But what do the two major parties, the ANC and the DA, need to

achieve? And why?

If politicians had to write election wish lists, what would they say? Of course they all want people to vote

for them and not to be humiliated with negligible numbers buying what they were selling.

There is a range of new and existing small political parties hoping to win a significant number of votes to

guarantee them seats in Parliament. When the votes start rolling in, there will, of course, be interest in how

parties such as Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters and Mamphela Ramphele's Agang fare, and whether the

Congress of the People and Inkatha Freedom Party will be able to hold on to their positions as the third and

fourth biggest parties in Parliament.

But the focus of attention on the big boards at the Independent Electoral Commission's headquarters will be on

the tallies next to the African National Congress (ANC) and Democratic Alliance (DA). The ANC and DA are

likely to remain at the top of the political food chain but the number of votes they get will determine how

South Africa is governed for the next five years.

President Jacob Zuma revealed recently that he wants a two-thirds majority - apparently to change some

unspecified legislation. This was the president being ambitious and possibly teasing his detractors, as the

ANC leadership is quite aware that the 2014 elections will be the party's biggest challenge since acquiring


The ANC is currently holding forums across the country to draw from its constituency what should be in its

election manifesto. The ANC's narrative in this election is that South Africa is a vastly different place from

what it was 20 years ago. It wants the electorate to gauge the party's performance since it took power in

1994, rather than just the past term under the Zuma presidency.

The Zuma administration is a pretty hard sell on its own, even though the ANC is asking for a second term for

the president. The administration has been plagued by a number of scandals, such as the exorbitant expenditure

on renovations at the president's private home at Nkandla, the Guptagate saga, the death of soldiers in the

Central African Republic, the non-delivery of textbooks to schools in Limpopo and its biggest shame, the

Marikana massacre.

Add to this is the poor performance of the economy, the inability of government to bring down unemployment

figures, service delivery failures which have led to violent protests and policy uncertainty, and it is all an

inflammable cocktail that will constantly be thrown in its face. What makes things worse is that the ANC did

little to fire-fight these problems while they were in progress, and either downplayed the crises or left it

to government to deal with. The obvious problem now is that it cannot very well claim all the successes of

government and wish away the series of disasters.

So the plan is to measure performance from 1994 to 2014 - how South Africa has changed in this time and how

equal rights and a democratic government has serviced areas and people previously disregarded by the Apartheid


This is, of course, a two-sided coin.

The past 20 years have seen dramatic changes across the country with the construction of housing developments,

schools, roads, clinics and industrial areas, as well as the delivery of water, electricity and sanitation in

areas deprived of these services during Apartheid. On the other hand, the shortage of jobs, poverty, HIV and

Aids, crime, delivery backlogs and poor functioning municipalities have had devastating consequences in


The infestation of corruption, particularly involving the ANC's elected representatives, has also led to

extremely negative perceptions of the party. The party has also been plagued by infighting and factionalism,

which have caused splintering at all levels.

But the ANC believes that traditional loyalties and its delivery track record will outweigh negative

perceptions, and that even those who strayed away and have been critical will find difficulty vesting their

vote with another party. It is why the party is still pitching to acquire a national percentage in the mid 60s

(it won 65.9% in 2009), and believes the Democratic Alliance (DA) is being rather ambitious by aiming to take

control of the Gauteng province.

Election statistics are obviously dependent on the percentage turnout and profile of voting areas. But the ANC

leadership, particularly Zuma and his allies, are determined to prove their detractors wrong by maintaining

electoral dominance in excess of 60% of the vote. A poll in the mid 50s will be psychologically troubling as

it means large portions of its constituency are turning away from it. The ANC leadership is determined to show

that its popularity has not been dented by the Zuma administration's bad run, and that negative sentiment is

being played up by the media and opposition parties.

The DA's major ambition for 2014 is to win 30% of the national ballot and control of Gauteng. It obviously

wants to maintain control of the Western Cape, and it seems as if it will have little trouble doing so as ANC

structures have weakened substantially in that province over the last five years.

The DA is currently running two parallel campaigns with separate messaging. Its national campaign is to

present itself as a full colour dream team which will be a credible alternative to the ANC government, based

on a strong track record of delivery in areas where they govern and uncompromising approach to corruption. The

party is, however, having trouble shedding its image as a white party with a few token black leaders, and has

therefore tried to trace its struggle credentials through the "Know your DA" campaign.

The DA is throwing resources at combing through township and rural areas across the country to widen its reach

beyond the middle class. It is trying to tap into disenchantment with poor service delivery, unemployment and

corruption in ANC strongholds by presenting itself as a party with clean hands and fresh ideas. But while the

DA's roadshow appears to be a high-budget campaign drawing large numbers of people, it is difficult to tell

whether the support is real and sustainable. People might show interest in their messages now but change their

minds later to parties they can more easily identify with.

In Gauteng, the DA's premier candidate, Mmusi Maimane, is running a high-visibility, American-style campaign

to sell himself as the man to run the province. Maimane, who is also the party's national spokesman, has his

own branding and slogan, Believe GP, and is touring Gauteng townships pretty much on his own to build his

profile. The go-ahead for e-tolls has fallen into Maimane's lap as a big campaign issue, as he has pledged to

get rid of the user-pay system on Gauteng freeways should he be elected premier.

On the face of it, it looks like Maimane is making headway, building support and becoming a recognisable

political personality. Again though, it remains to be seen if the new constituencies he appears to be winning

over will in fact vote for the DA when they see Helen Zille and not Maimane's face on the ballot paper. And if

Maimane is building support for himself, it could also result in people splitting their national and

provincial votes.

The big problem for the DA in both these campaigns is that there is a danger of alienating its traditional

base. The DA is taking for granted that its core supporters will stick with it, even as chasing new voters is

the priority. However, white voters and sections of the middle class, which previously voted DA, might switch

support to Ramphele, who has pretty much the same ideological positioning and outlook as the DA. Ramphele is

untested in Parliament and some people might feel that she deserves a chance to prove herself.

In order for the DA to meet its target to take over government in 2019, it has to win control of at least one

other province the Western Cape next year and dramatically shoot up its percentage ballot from the 16.6% it

won in 2009. The 30% psychological barrier is a big ask, especially with the proliferation of new parties in

the playing field.

The DA will be looking to form coalitions and election pacts with other opposition parties if they want to

break the ANC's dominance in the eight provinces the ruling party now governs. The DA has effectively co-

operated with smaller opposition parties in Parliament to fight the ANC on major debates and legislation. It

will be able to do that more effectively if they start to look like a viable government-in-waiting five years


The possibility of the party of liberation losing power to a former white party still seems highly unlikely,

but if President Zuma's second term in office is anything like his first, the idea might not be as far


Both the ANC and the DA have a lot riding on this election and a war of perception will be as much at play as

the actual voting numbers. Seven months or so before the election, South Africa remains in flux.

The ANC/DA percentage pendulum will in all likelihood swing many more times. With so much upheaval in the

country and so many disillusioned and disenchanted people, it is not impossible that more outrageous wastage

of taxpayers money and leadership failures could still be uncovered and affect voting patterns; it is almost

certain that the new ANC-related scandals will headline media outlets in the run up to the elections. Add a

few dark horses to the race (Malema, Ramphele) and it becomes virtually impossible to predict where this

pendulum is going to end. But what a swing ride it is going to be!

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.