YONELA DIKO: Is ANC still a contender for power in the Western Cape?

OPINION

At no other point in the last fifteen years has the African National Congress (ANC) been so well placed to wrestle power from the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the Western Cape.

In what has been the DA's stronghold since 2006, the City of Cape Town, with the party winning the city in the 2016 elections with 66.7%, it lost almost 10% of the electoral vote and led with a 58.2% majority in 2021. The DA has 386 seats fewer now than it had after the 2016 elections and according to analyst Dawie Scholtz, the DA is now down to 54% of the coloured vote from 77% in the 2016 elections.

While this loss of support is largely happening without any help from opposition parties, the DA has not been as weak as it has been now and opposition parties have a rare opportunity to pull the rug under the party's table and possibly push them into opposition benches or a frustrating coalition.

If, however, the ANC is ever to take advantage of a weakening DA, it needs to fix its own house.

The ANC suffers from its own enduring challenges

At the core of ANC Western Cape problems is the massive loss of the party's activist base in almost all communities. What then stands between residents and their vote is the media's hollow echo chamber as the only political engagement that shapes their political experience and perspective.

The ANC's activist base has disintegrated so much that the party has surrendered much of the Cape metro and surrounding areas to the opposition parties. It prefers to classify half of the metro as hostile to the party. While one can easily see the DA's presence and a long line of DA's blue in every suburb, street, pillar and poster, the ANC has largely disappeared from view.

In every community, the ANC is supposed to have a branch serving as a bridge between the communities and their government. Today, however, hundreds of ANC branches exist only in name. The result is an organisation that has fewer soldiers that are available for the banal work of local activism. Without the daily presence of activists constantly championing people's concerns and interests and being their voice, even convincing die-hard ANC supporters to continue supporting and voting for ANC becomes hard, it becomes hard to keep the organisation fresh in people's minds.

ANC branch as the centre of the community

It is only during elections that the scattered remnants of the party pull together to form respectable political machinery. The question is what does the ANC do in-between elections. Does the party disintegrate into warring factions? Does it get complacent and even anachronistic?

The first thing the ANC must admit is that its branches are off-putting and boring. No one wants to waste their valuable time in such spaces. To keep the members and supporters excited about the organisation in-between elections may need some innovation and lots of intellectual stimulation. Our branches also need to be humane and warm and be a space for people to grow.

Our branches need to exist outside the monotonous historic activities, open themselves to other people who can enrich the space, leading journalists, judges, and business leaders so that the complete humanity of an ANC member is anchored and enriched. Without pressures for the next elections, there is much to do to develop members and make branches exciting.

Inward looking and self-serving

If the ANC continues to be characterised by internal bickering and elitism and if it does not revive its art of grassroots politics, the party may not be relevant for too long. If local ANC leaders are not always there with the people, listening to them, taking up their concerns and ensuring the effectiveness of government programmes in communities, the organisation will be replaced by new community champions who will lead without political grounding but with potential for even greater harm.

The ANC has got the experience of grassroots politics and galvanising the base, what it needs now is enthusiasm. The losses the ANC has experienced in the metros should not discourage the party but be a lesson of what happens when an organisation losses its local activist base and is absorbed by internal factional battles.

Although the ANC needs to sharpen itself for battle on all fronts, in elections, in Parliament and in constituencies, the most important battle the party must win is the grassroots battle, street by street, house by house, ward by ward.

When a party has a strong activist base, it closes the space for opposition parties; even when there are national issues that the party can be picked on. There is no amount of social media, TV or radio that can replace grassroots politics. The ANC must go out to communities and champion people's issues. This inward preoccupation with positions and deployment and largesse needs to end.

Social ills between ANC Western Cape and power

Every community has core issues that ANC activists can pick up and champion, such as racial makeup of senior management in DA's city and provincial governments, biasness in contract and tender distribution, tax spend on frivolous interests of the privileged, homelessness, uneven service provision, poor maintenance of infrastructure, land and many more.

There are, however, issues that cut across all communities and one of those is crime. It has been the biggest concern for all communities for the longest time and organisations that have won people's votes over the years have been strong on fighting crime, in action if not in rhetoric, and those who have lost were seen as likely to worsen crime.

In a research done by the Institute of Multi-Party Democracy in 1993, more than 53% of the Western Cape voters said the number one priority for them is violence. The Apartheid government took advantage of this. Prolific writer Mandla Langa, in his book with former president Nelson Mandela called Dare Not Linger, The Presidential Years, points out that part of the plan of the National Party was to ensure that there was continued violence in ANC strongholds of townships post-1990 so that people began to question ANC's capability to protect its own people.

So in the efforts of the National Party, blackness, townships and the ANC got associated with violence and guns. Alcohol and drugs were poured into black spaces with families further breaking down at a time when they were supposed to reunite and focus on the future.

Violence and crime, therefore, have a much deeper emotional content in the townships because at one point it was meant to be their defining feature, the defining feature of black people.

This in many ways is what is at the core of racial antagonism between African blacks and coloureds. Both races have an underlying assumption of what association with the other will mean, given their respective enduring stereotypes. This is not a natural suspicion more than an image of violence that one group has of the other. As long as violent crime is high in both communities, the mutual suspicion endures and the creators and peddlers of that suspicion are free to run the province.

A vigorous and determined effort to solve the crime will therefore answer a multitude of sins.

Electoral victory

At a purely electoral contest level, for ANC to contest power from the DA and succeed it must answer two questions.

Without whom can ANC not succeed?
What do these people need to support us?

Once the ANC identifies where its electoral win will come from, and schedule what it needs to do for those people and then formulate a strategy for victory, both 2024 and 2025 elections may see a DA facing the end of the line.

There are still die-hard ANC supporters who must never be taken for granted and there are minority swing votes - who are always enthusiastic about voting - who must be tapped into for victory.

Victory is the ANC's for the taking.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko