At the end of last year, around the time of Nenegate, I released a couple of tweets which received some public traction. It was in the midst of a public debate calling on parliament to fire the president for jeopardising the country’s economic security through his irresponsible action of firing then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. I argued that in the context of our political system, only the national executive committee of the ANC could make this decision. This is because the president is inevitably chosen by the ruling party, even though the actual election ostensibly happens through a sitting of the two houses of parliament.
I effectively put it to the NEC of the ANC, via the Twittersphere, that sometimes people are called upon to make difficult decisions and that this was one of those moments. I also indicated that I understood that they were confronted with the danger of a split in the organisation, and that the plan might very well have been to wait two years for Zuma to leave as ANC president and then begin the arduous process of fixing the problems of the organisation and the country. But I warned that the danger of this strategy was that the ANC would continue to bleed with each new scandal that Zuma became embroiled in.
None of what I said was particularly earthshattering. It was a view shared not only by many analysts and observers of South Africa’s political scene, but also by many activists and leaders within the ANC. Since then, we have had the Constitutional Court’s decision on Nkandla, the continuous scandals around the Gupta family’s business dealings with public entities of one kind or another and the possibility of the reinstatement of the corruption charges against the president. Each successive scandal has severely eroded the stature and reputation of the ANC, even within its own support base. This has now come back to haunt the ANC.
The results of the local government elections are a dramatic symbolic reflection of the bleeding of the party. In its worst election outcome since the dawn of democracy, the ANC’s electoral vote at the national level has declined from 62% to about 54% between the 2011 and the 2016 local government elections. At the time of writing, the ANC had lost two major metros — Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay — and was in a decimal point battle with the DA for two others, Johannesburg and Tshwane. Having first lost Cape Town in 2006, and then again in 2011, it has now again lost it decisively in 2016, with the DA taking over 66% of the vote. In this election, it has also failed to get a 50% majority in Johannesburg and Tshwane. Coalition politics will take over with the greatest likelihood being a DA-EFF partnership that results in the ANC being unseated in both the political and economic capitals of the country.
ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu has described these results as “humbling” and “a cause for concern”. He told journalists that the ANC would need to do some introspection on “what went wrong”. But this is more than just a cause for introspection — it is a massive tragedy for the ANC. This is a party that has always been perceived as a modernist political entity. Yes, it is responsive to tradition and culture, but this has always been done with an eye to the future. The ANC, at least in recent memory prior to Zuma, saw tradition and culture not in a static sense, but as capable of evolving and being compatible with the project of modernity. This vision of tradition and culture has been under threat during the Zuma years, and the threat is now manifesting itself in the patterns of electoral support for the ANC itself.
By losing the urban metropoles, the ANC is going to be perceived — even if this is not the reality — as a rural organisation that is tied to a conservative, rigid notion of tradition. The question that now confronts the party is, what was the message being sent by voters as they shunned it in the urban areas? There is a tendency among some in the ANC to suggest that the failures in the urban metropoles really have to do with local politics. They argue that Nelson Mandela Bay and other metropoles were lost because of local issues such as specific instances of service delivery failure and even factionalised politics oriented around individual ambitions. There is some semblance of truth in this, but this alone cannot account for the massive swings to opposition parties and the large number of people who stayed away from the polls, especially in townships. After all, the suburban vote turned out in much bigger numbers than the township one, which impacted severely against the ANC. All of the local challenges existed in previous elections, yet the voters did not deliver such a massive rebuke. Why then did they do it this time around?
The answer has to lie in the campaign led by opposition parties which effectively focused on national issues such as corruption, etolls, the failures of the president, including the firing of the minister of finance, and Nkandla. For a long time, the NEC of the ANC deluded itself by insisting that Nkandla did not matter. These election results have proven that Nkandla does matter. So do Guptagate and the many other scandals that have plagued the president. Yes, this was a local government election. But perhaps more significantly, it was a referendum on the president, and this referendum has returned a decisive answer.
The question is where to go from here. It has been suggested that Zuma will respond to the election results by reshuffling his cabinet to get rid of dissident voices. But, Mr President, a cabinet reshuffle will not fix the problem. These election results are an indictment of you and the only cabinet reshuffle that would fix this problem is the one in which you exit from government. This is also the challenge that confronts the NEC of the ANC. It is a difficult decision. I understand that there are many risks involved, including the possible factionalising of the party. But there are historic moments in which hard decisions are necessary and risks have to be taken. These hard decisions cannot be avoided. They have to be confronted in the context of the existing political and socioeconomic realities of the historical moment.
If the NEC does not heed the warning that the electorate has delivered, then the ANC will likely bleed further, and it will continue to do so until such time as the organisation has the courage to make the right choices. The danger is that it may make the decision too late, and that by the time it does, the ANC would have lost the essential character that defined it as one of the great liberation movements of the African continent.
Professor Adam Habib is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand
An edited version of the article was first published in the Sunday Times on Sunday, 7 August 2016
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