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JUDITH FEBRUARY: The brutal lows & great highs of the SA elections

OPINION

The people have spoken. The message to the ANC is clear: one last chance - clean up your act or you will be punished further in the 2021 local government elections.

Despite the rhetoric and ‘spin’, the ANC will be disappointed that it did not breach the psychological threshold of 60%. Yet, on Saturday evening as Cyril Ramaphosa stepped up to speak at the Results Operations Centre (ROC), he seemed humbled by the mandate he had been given. He was humbled and no doubt aware of the challenges that now face him. He is done serving Zuma’s term.

The mantle is now his alone.

Despite what ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule said so ungraciously on the ROC floor on Friday, there can be no doubt that it was Ramaphosa who stemmed the decline of the ANC even further. The ANC under Zuma received the bruising 53% in the 2016 local government elections. Corruption, state capture and inefficiency all contributed to that abysmal result. It is unsurprising though that Magashule has a selective memory. If Ramaphosa is true to his word, his presidency will not benefit the corrupt in the same ways Zuma’s did. And therein lies the rub - the corrupt faction of the ANC has everything to lose if Ramaphosa is serious about a clean-up of both the state and the party. He will unfortunately have no choice but to be decisive about the clean-up. If he fails to do as he promised, he will have lost the trust of the South African people and squandered a chance at hope.

Ramaphosa will need to move pretty swiftly to neutralise the most egregious elements within his party. It is thus time for clear-minded thinking about the future. If Ramaphosa wants to get this right he will need to ensure that he not only cultivates further support within his party, but also across broader society. South Africa is a forgiving place and both business and civil society will lend Ramaphosa’s government an ear (and a hand) if he is serious about building an accountable, transparent state with socio-economic justice at its heart. Known as the great negotiator, now is the time to harness the goodwill that exists for a Ramaphosa presidency. That will require active citizenship but also active partnerships across society to root out corruption.

A powerful network of government, business and civil society could truly map out a different future for South Africa. Needless to say, building such networks is hard work and will be fraught with disagreements, yet Ramaphosa will have to grasp the nettle of a broad-based consensus for accountability across society. It would allow him the space to make decisions that may be unpopular within his party and provide ballast for the constitutional democracy he has promised to rebuild.

With such support, it will be pretty hard for the anti-reform, corrupt faction of the party to argue with that given the ANC’s decline and the conditional mandate from voters. But this window of opportunity will be brief. For as much as South Africans are forgiving, our country also turns to cynicism as easily.

The early test will be who Ramaphosa includes in his Cabinet and importantly, how small that Cabinet will be. A smaller Cabinet and less waste will go a long way to drawing a line in the sand on the excess of the Zuma years. And our country desperately needs to draw that line in the sand.

If there were sobering lessons for the ANC, the opposition too has learned of the brutal lows - and great highs - of elections.

The DA will be disappointed with its showing and whispers are already out about Mmusi Maimane’s leadership. A decent man, Maimane however has simply not been strong enough to hold the centre of his party. Its election campaign was insipid, incoherent and saw some of its support base move to the Freedom Front Plus. It will need to do some serious introspection about its losses and whether these signify a plateau for the future.

As for the EFF, the ‘fighters’ will be well pleased with their performance, yet at 10% what it does indicate is that South Africans simply don’t have an overwhelming appetite for populist politics. For now, 77% of those who voted (ANC and DA voters) are firmly in the centre.

Of course, future trends will be interesting and that will include whether younger voters who did not register or those who stayed away will float to the EFF? Only time - and the local government elections - will tell.

What we do know is that the sixth Parliament will be very different. The reduced seats for the ANC and the DA and greater Economic Freedom Fighters representation will no doubt be a robust spectacle.

And so we are a maturing democracy, one in which the average person’s vote is increasingly ‘mobile’ and one in which millions of people are also apathetic. The significantly lower voter turnout should be cause for concern. What message was this group of millions trying to send?

There will be plenty of time to pause for thought on these and other trends, as well we should.

As the results were announced on Saturday evening and the national anthem was sung, we could reflect on the IEC, which despite challenges, held the line and stuck admirably to its processes. We are collectively grateful. We could reflect on our first election in 1994 when queues snaked, Judge Kriegler was irascible, yet tolerance won the day. That was no small feat. We could reflect also on Nelson Mandela’s words, which Ramaphosa invoked, and on "nine wasted years" under Jacob Zuma. Despite the bumpy 25 years, this country’s search for redemption seems almost unending.

South Africa has held another ‘free and fair’ election. It had all the rough and tumble of our politics and our people, but in the end, the will of the people has prevailed.

That should make us feel pretty proud even as the hard work begins - again.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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