JUDITH FEBRUARY: No matter who governs, SA’s future political landscape is messy


When watching the Democratic Alliance ‘flag-waving’ ad in which its federal chairperson, Ivan Meyer declares, ‘South Africa need (sic) change’, one does not know whether to laugh or cry. South Africans deserve better grammar.

We also deserve an official opposition which is in touch with South African society and can see how woefully lame this latest campaign is. One doesn’t need to be a marketing analyst to figure out that this campaign is stillborn.

The DA has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons; some elected representatives faking qualifications has caused an awful lot of handwringing and awkwardness.

READ: WC Premier Winde suspends MEC Madikizela over CV qualification claim

The governing ANC is in such a holy mess that one would imagine the opposition would be able to capitalise on its weaknesses and corruption pretty easily. But South African politics is so much more complex, as are our voting preferences.

Whatever Mmusi Maimane’s faults were as leader, John Steenhuisen has simply not been convincing in the role of party leader. When facing off against President Ramaphosa in Parliament, Steenhuisen seems Lilliputian in comparison - and always so very angry. Not that we don’t have much to be angry about in South Africa, but anger and outrage is not always a political strategy.

Steenhuisen was an excellent party whip, understood the rules of Parliament and was able to use them effectively. But leader of the party and forging a new trajectory after the 2019 national elections has been a step too far.

With local government elections coming up, the DA has a great deal to lose. Can it exploit the obvious weaknesses of the ANC and its appalling management of our cities and towns? Or has it reached its proverbial electoral ceiling?

Some have said Cape Town is in play, though the more likely scenario is that voter apathy will again deliver Cape Town to the DA. Those who are apathetic will likely come from black communities who are simply weary of the indignity of living in a city where they forever feel like visitors. The DA has tended to run the City on autopilot in many ways. Unresponsive councillors and tardiness are mostly the order of the day. Urban neglect is very real in many parts of (even) the leafy suburbs.

Aiding and abetting the DA in the Western Cape is the dysfunctional ANC. The failure to provide proper electoral competition to the DA, by the ANC or any other party, has led to complacency. The local government elections will be a further opportunity for GOOD to increase its electoral support and in so doing create discomfort for the DA.

It’s five months to go and much can happen in that time. This election also takes place during the time of COVID-19, which will present new mobilising challenges for all political parties. Our politics is all about the mass rally, after all.

Meanwhile, the ANC is struggling to hold its centre together as irreconcilable factions slug it out for power. It is unattractive and venal in many ways.

“Will the centre hold?” former President Thabo Mbeki was fond of asking. We often wondered whether he meant the country’s or the party’s? It matters because the wellbeing of the ANC and the country are so intrinsically linked. Mbeki probably meant both.

During a leaked audio of this past weekend’s ANC NEC meeting, Mbeki was heard asking a different and even more profound question, “Do we still have any organisation called the ANC?”

Over the past decade we have seen the country brought to its knees by state capture. As we face a global pandemic and increasing inequality, we find the kitty bare and our institutions hollowed out, unable to perform the basic functions of the state. The ANC, distracted by capture and corruption, finds itself in a perfect bind, with the party’s dysfunction spilling over into the public domain. Yet again.

The latest version that is the soap opera of ANC politics played itself out in the debate about ‘stepping aside’ – whether the resolution that ANC members should step aside if they are facing criminal charges or not should be implemented and how? In the eye of the storm is secretary-general Ace Magashule, facing charges of fraud and corruption. Politics is no stranger to irony and it eventually fell to deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte to issue Magashule with a suspension letter.

After what can only be described as a media circus, Magashule in turn ‘suspended’ President Ramaphosa. Since then, however, some degree of calm has returned to the political landscape. It is a sign that we have become so used to the ANC’s dysfunction that we all went to bed none the wiser - but not particularly perturbed - about whether the President of the country was suspended from his party or not.

READ: Magashule turns to court to overturn suspension, avoids apologising to party

The chutzpah of Magashule was not surprising. He and his merry band of supporters are used to behaving in unaccountable ways, after all.

But the moment of the grand denouement was always going to come. Perhaps this moment is not one of ultimate resolution because like so many others in captured institutions, Magashule and his band have much at stake; their very livelihoods and access to power in direct and oblique ways.

They will fight to the bitter end, even as they are weakened.

The narrative surrounding Magashule and Ramaphosa has always been decidedly unhelpful. Like a boxing match, since Nasrec, it has had several rounds. Each day, the win is tallied; today it may be Ramaphosa, tomorrow it may be Magashule. Depending on the given week, a newspaper may declare Magashule as a future president, sending a brief shiver down the spine. Or, Ramaphosa may be strengthening his position, who knows, consolidating it even?

Most of politics is a long game and Ramaphosa certainly knows how to play it. The one thing that eludes Magashule is the state power Ramaphosa wields. With that comes the ability to dole out patronage.

So, amidst all the noise and the distraction, we would do well to put it all into perspective. The daily ‘win-lose’ tally is therefore tempting, but decidedly unproductive.

Whatever the individual fortunes of these two men and their respective factions, the ANC in government is decidedly distracted by this internal party division. All around us we see the effects of a government distracted: neglect, mediocrity and presidential indecision.

Somehow, we have to keep the economy afloat, somehow we have to develop the capability to vaccinate millions of people, and somehow we have to ensure that a full-blown public service strike is averted.

A healthy opposition would be able to take advantage of the ANC’s distractions. But the official opposition finds itself in a position of weakness as it fights its own small wars.

The EFF continues in its opportunistic path together with its unique brand of ideological confusion.

Quite what the future political landscape will look like after the local government elections is unclear. We will wait a while yet for the ANC to split, if it ever does.

Coalition politics will most certainly be in our future. That is likely to be even messier and more unpredictable than the current malaise, given our lack of democratic maturity.

As ever in South Africa, we are at the point of present tense, future uncertain.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and 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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