Election Watch

Municipal elections – the worst of times

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 Whether it will be an autumn or winter election campaign, this year’s municipal elections will be a dangerous time for the governing ANC as well as for the country.

Normally one would expect the elections to dominate the news scene for the next few months. That might not to be the case, not with the present build-up of racial tensions, up-coming court verdicts concerning President Jacob Zuma, and the tenuous state of the economy.

The election itself will probably aggravate the dangers to social stability in the country and to the ANC.

For one, the proliferation of populist, and often militant protest groups in South Africa over recent months, most of them having started to exploit the pre-election environment to further their various causes. In many instances a dangerous anti-white racial undertone has also developed.

To what extent the ANC has fallen into the trap of allowing the so-called race card to infiltrate its early electioneering, is illustrated by the race rhetoric of key leadership figures – as we reported last week.

Last week John Kane-Berman, a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, also accused the ANC of “out Malema-ing Malema” (leader of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters) on the question of land redistribution.

In the same week even a boast about the statistics of a public library in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, by Western Cape Premier Hellen Zille in her State of the Province Address (SOPA), was turned into a race issue by the ANC.

Timing of election

The new, and somewhat controversial Co-operative Governance Minister Des van Rooyen, is formally charged with the responsibility of determining the date of the election.

By law it must take place between 18 May, date of the previous election, and 18 August. The formal declaration will come from the office of the President.

A governing party normally has a slight advantage in being able to choose the, for it, most opportune election date and fine-tuning its preparation first.

Against this background the date-selection process is effectively in the hands of a wider leadership collective of which ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe from Luthuli House plays a key role as campaign manager-in-chief.

The reported talk from ANC insider circles, and own sources, indicate that we are probably heading for an early August election – making for a winter campaign, which especially in the DA-controlled Western Cape, is not an attractive option.

About the motivations for the August option we can presently just speculate that it is hoped that some initiatives can be launched to turn the ANC’s present low ebb in public opinion around.

In Gauteng province, where, judged from among other things 2014’s general election results, the ANC is under pressure, Premier David Makhura last week, for example, in his SOPA announced that a new economic plan, linked to the goals of President Jacob Zuma’s nine-point plan, will be launched in May after public consultations.

Public perceptions

Whether this plan will be enough to turn public perceptions of the ANC as a party of promises rather than action around before August is doubtful – especially in the light of the latest known political opinion survey by the organisation Good Governance Africa.

The survey, titled “What the People Really Think”, found that 56.2% of its 2 245 respondents agreed with the statement that “people are giving up hope that the government will listen to them”.

Across race lines the vast majority of respondents, from 76.8% black to 89.8% Asian, also agreed that the poor state of the economy was due to incompetence and corruption in government.

The likelihood of these perceptions improving over the next few months is slim. Indications are strong that the lived reality of the population is rather likely to deteriorate, due to factors listed in a Bloomberg report under the heading “Tipping point looms for SA as economy’s despair grows”.

Against the background of a very unstable global economic environment and of enforced structural changes in the domestic economy, reports are mounting of looming higher unemployment rates, labour unrest, falling standards of living and mounting violent protests.

In fact, there is a case to be made that it would be better to go for an earlier rather than a later date to get the election over and done with – in the interest of both the ANC and social stability.

Uncertain factor

For the ANC, regardless of what date is chosen for the election, there is the added uncertainty of potentially highly embarrassing developments surrounding President Zuma.

Top of the list is the outstanding judgement of the Constitutional Court in the case brought before it by opposition parties with regard to the Public Protector’s report on the Nkandla affair, and the pending Democratic Alliance application that corruption charges against him must be reinstated.

To add to the general atmosphere of uncertainty the Independent Electoral Commission got itself embroiled in controversy last week when ordered in court, at the eleventh hour, to postpone municipal by-elections in Tlokwe.

It cannot be the easiest of calls in the lives of Mantashe and his co-responsible ANC functionaries for when an election date should be set. No matter where, during the three-month window in which it has to happen, it will remain the worst of times.

Conclusion

Although in some instances it might substantially contribute to the news, it is unlikely that the election will be the dominant news item in the months to come. There are a number of potential contenders, from the position of President Zuma and ramifications that would result from it, to the escalation in race conflict, the first phase of which might already have started.

One thing is certain: South Africa has entered the most volatile and dangerous phase in its post-1994 history.

by Piet Coetzer

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