On Monday, the Institute of Race Relations polling survey had the ANC looking at about a 54% take of the national ballot. While things can change until the last minute, a win for the ANC around the mid-50%s looks most likely. For the party that foisted Jacob Zuma on the country for a decade, and launched South Africa into its longest negative business cycle since WW2, this result will be impressive.
Local pundits and foreign publications like Bloomberg and The Economist have endorsed the ANC – despite the party’s performance over the last decade – because they see hope for reform in President Cyril Ramaphosa. Leaders in the business community have urged giving him a “big mandate” in order to pull off the much-needed reforms as kleptocrats are bound to try to frustrate such efforts at every turn.
Skeptics believe that a big win for Ramaphosa will also be a big win for Ace Magashule and other ANC leaders who have been humiliated by credible allegations in the press as well as before the various special commissions of inquiry. Such skeptics will, however, turn out to be a minority of active voters on Wednesday and the disturbing thing about this is that we’ve seen it all before.
After the ANC Polokwane conference in 2008, the Republic went into turmoil. Economic conditions were traumatic internationally as the overleveraged US housing crisis went global, but much of the trouble was home-brewed. The ANC had gone through a long and hectic infight between Mbeki, Zuma, and others which saw, among other things, the splintering off of COPE in opposition to Zuma’s victory.
But, as the election loomed, South African opinion gradually moved in a direction that favoured both the incumbent party and its leader. Leading business journalist Peter Bruce argued that the “Stop Zuma Stop Corruption” opposition campaign might just be racist after all. Big business made peace with Zuma’s libidinous lifestyle, his polygamy, and the arms deal’s shadow, respectfully setting aside Zuma’s private and pre-presidential life. When it came to office time, he was, in his suit and tie, said to be “one of us”. And when it came to the ANC, the doubters were scoffed at as unpatriotic.
Upon election, Zuma said “we mean business”. This sentiment ramified and is nicely captured in a piece by Richard Calland for the Mail & Guardian soon after. ‘Zuma’s breath of fresh air’ ran the headline in a piece that opened with talk of “‘glasnost’ emanating from the higher reaches of the ANC that is as refreshing as it is welcome”.
Calland tested this widely believed “myth” for veracity and found that, in comparison to Mbeki, Zuma turned out quite the winner after all. Zuma even stayed for dinner with the free press, which Mbeki never would have done.
A look at Ipsos opinion poll data indicates that the “myth” really did grip the national imagination. If you refer to the graph above you will see that during the tumult of 2008 a plurality of South Africans came to believe that “the country is going in the wrong direction”. But then, the election of Zuma reversed this trend. Huge enthusiasm blossomed under the “glasnost” (clean, business friendly) “breath of fresh air”.
Only part of this boon can be accounted for by the urbane sophisticates able to look through Zuma’s self-styled profile as a new-age traditionalist chief. Another surge in confidence came from those who thought that Zuma was precisely what he seemed to be, a big-man populist who would run the country as his personal fiefdom. Expanding patronage networks, eroding the rule of law, and entrenching social identities was what attracted those who believed they would win lucrative rewards in the new, shady South Africa. It also attracted those who hold fast to the ideology of National Democratic Revolution. Zuma was all things to all believers.
By the end of 2009, more than 55% of South Africans thought the country was headed “right” while those who thought it was headed “wrong” had been marginalized to less than 30%. A new dawn shone bright. Until reality impressed itself. In 2012, perceptions of “wrong” direction overtook the dreamers and, by the time CR17 and NDZ were battling it out at Nasrec, “wrong” direction perceptions were practically a supermajority.
I asked one of my esteemed colleagues, “In the next decade, are we about to watch the same movie as the last, just with different actors?” She laughed and then said: “No, the actors are all the same, they’ve just swapped roles.” Zuma. Magashule. Dlamini. Gigaba. The list goes on, they’re still there. We’re not watching a sequel. We are watching the ANC play its game of musical chairs to the sound of a country that would cry if it weren’t so full of hope come election season.
I had hope once, too, starting my career in political journalism on the eve of Nasrec by writing that Ramaphosa needed to harness his greatest strength. Namely the “love” this Republic has for him and his party. Ramaphosa used that exact language at the ANC’s final campaign, asking voters to bring the “love back”. I would. Except, last year Ramaphosa said “we would love to have Malema back in the ANC”.
Ramaphosa’s principles seem to stop where the opportunities to expand power start. “The people of this country will once again give the ANC a huge and decisive mandate to work together with them to further improve their lives”. That was Zuma in 2009, a winning formula. Perhaps he passed the line onto Ramaphosa over champers in 2019.
So I will be voting for MP Mosiuoa Lekota to return to parliament. He is the only person I see who is unambiguous about the Bill of Rights, who is unapologetic about pursuing non-racialism, who is not afraid of Julius Malema. Lekota is not one for musical chairs – he has real struggle credentials, by which I mean the struggle against Zuma, too. The struggle continues.
Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations