OPINION: Political waters from here to 2019 – Uncharted, full of dragons
It is now almost common cause among supporters of all three main parties that the results of the local government elections have almost capsized our particular little kayak. The ANC appears to be determined to ignore that it's in danger of running aground, the DA is picking up steam, and the EFF is moving along at dead slow. But our country's captain is not someone who likes to appear impotent, while the cannon has already been fired to find a replacement for the braid cap. And in the middle of it all is the feeling that whoever does assume command of the bridge will themselves simply rearrange the deckchairs. So then, what does that all mean for the good ship South Africa over the next three years, until the whirlpool of our 2019 elections holds us in its grasp?
If you haven't realised it by now, we're in uncharted waters, the kind of space that the ratings agencies often slap with the label "Here be dragons". Hidden dangers reside everywhere. Which makes any kind of prediction as to how our voyage could end up an educated guess at best. In short, to finally give up on the nautical metaphors_ (Thank God - Ed)_, our politics is entering a period of instability. Despite what some ratings agencies may tell you, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But we should get used to shocks, reactions and bounce-backs, even though some trends now do seem discernible, and are likely to continue.
Jacob Zuma. The man who is South African president, if not always leader of South Africa, is not afraid of an odd shock, or two, or twelve. Maybe he enjoys it, maybe he just has debts to pay, but way too many times in the past he has shocked us all. We should not be surprised were he to do it again now, even this week. At the same time, he will surely know that in politics if you're not on offence, you're on defence. And that means he may actually be spurred into some kind of action, to show everyone that he is still the MacDaddy of our politics.
This could take the form of some action against Cabinet ministers seen as "difficult", or coming from organisations such as the SACP, who themselves are being "critical". Or it could take the form of a similar tactic to that used during the saga around The Spear, the controversial painting of Zuma. Despite all of the important and critical issues involved in that, it really does also have the appearance of a political manoeuvre. It is entirely possible that something similar might happen again, something that catches us all up in a mix of race, class and our history. It will, of course, be impossible to prove the source of this distraction, but we can ask the usual question; "who benefits?".
The second critical area of focus is the ANC itself. The statement issued by the national executive committee (NEC) on Sunday night, that the NEC takes "collective responsibility" for the election results, has been widely seen as a sign that nothing will change in the party, that it's going to be business as usual. That analysis is almost certainly correct. But what may be more significant is what did not happen. And while Zuma was not recalled, what also did not happen was the disbanding of the Gauteng ANC. It's hard to know at this point if this is a sign that both sides feel they don't have the power to push their case, or whether they are simply biding their time.
But that surely doesn't mean their war is over. The sniping at Zuma by some parts of the ANC, the coded subtext about leadership and moral authority from some parts of the party, will continue. So, in less than coded form, will the criticism from people who have retired or left the party. Expect more opinion pieces from the likes of Mavuso Msimang and Ronnie Kasrils, and more interviews from people like Denis Goldberg. These interventions may not seem like much at the time, but they are mounting up. As more and more of the "old guard" of the ANC become more and more critical of the party, it's only a matter of time before some of them start to publicly suggest that people look for alternatives. When they do that, they could serve to legitimise those alternatives, and thus give them a certain strength.
At the same time, young people entering politics will surely be turned off the ANC; they will not see it as something to aspire to. This could have implications over the longer term - the best political talent available may join other parties at a young age, and thus become useful to the opposition, rather than the ANC.
In the meantime, there may be the implementation of some measures the party believes will be vote-getters. Already it is moving towards a minimum wage. The aim is to find issues it believes the DA will oppose, and so to try to split voters from it. But issues such as changing the names of streets have lost some of their power, which makes that more difficult than it was before.
But the real issue for the ANC is what could happen during the race to be the party's next leader. It is now pretty much impossible to know how that is going to turn out. And the pie of power available to be shared in the ANC is getting smaller, which means the intra-party fights could well be tougher. It is even possible that the conflict within the ANC, in some places, over this choice, makes the violence we've seen over candidate lists look a little like a picnic. If this is the case, the ANC is likely to decline much more quickly than previously anticipated. However, it is also possible that this doesn't happen, that one strong candidate emerges and is able to unite the party.
In some ways the results of the 2019 elections rest almost entirely on the identity of their candidate. It is surely the case that for many people the elections of 14 days ago were a referendum on Zuma. If someone who is perceived to be like him is the leader of the ANC, it would be foolish to expect these polls to have a result different to what we've just seen. Of course, there will be differences, the factors that determine voting patterns in local and national elections are different, and these processes do ebb and flow. But unless the party is able to somehow do a complete about-turn on Zuma, and apologise for his conduct, opposition parties will find it easy to ensure that the 2019 polls are again about him and his track record. Should the ANC leader be someone very different to Zuma, they would find it harder to do that, with a big difference to the final result.
Another trend that seems impossible to ignore is the widening gulf within the tripartite alliance. Last week the SACP made it clear, via subtext, that they now hold Zuma responsible for what has happened. Simply by referencing Nkandla in their statement, it was clear what they believe has occurred. But Cosatu seems to have a different view; they were much less critical of Zuma, and, on the evidence presented in their statement, appear to believe the elections should just be re-run in the hung metros.
A more immature response is hard to imagine. This would suggest that Cosatu is simply going to become increasingly irrelevant, while the SACP is going to find it a long and lonely struggle out in the political wilderness.
Meanwhile the DA is going to be much more interesting. Despite the fact that it did not actually gain much more support than it did in 2014 in the metros, the few percentage points it did gain were hugely important; they put it above the ANC in Tshwane, and give it enough to possibly control Joburg with the EFF and Nelson Mandela Bay with other parties. In the public imagination this is the party with momentum. It can probably expect more applications for membership from the politically ambitious.
It will also have to start managing the dynamics of actually being in power, which are very different from those of an opposition party. There are plenty of pitfalls here. But still, it has momentum, and as any good captain knows, forward movement is crucial - it makes all other problems easier to manage. This should mean that DA leader Mmusi Maimane is safe for now. Just that fact, the fact that the party is likely to look a lot more stable than the ANC over the next few years, could well be an important attraction for some voters.
Then there is the EFF. It is under power, making some progress. Julius Malema may need to stop and think for a moment about what his real goal is. Is it really to be president, or simply to remove Zuma from power, or to be a radical party, oppositional to whoever is in charge. It seems there is a limit on how big a radical party can be; if the ANC does lose more support, some of that may go to the EFF, but it is not certain that a large percentage of it will. This means he has to make some choices - does he try to become slightly more establishment and become a "radical ANC" or does he show that he can actually govern by working with the DA.
Or, does the party just raise hell in whichever chamber it sits?
It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the ANC. The most fundamental question really is this: Can the ANC elect a new leader who will put the Zuma era behind it, without tearing itself apart. Answer that, and you can make your own predictions.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for _ Eyewitness News _ and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: _ @StephenGrootes_