Let's Think

South African opposition in a spot of bother

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As the days when Jacob Zuma was the gift that kept on giving for opposition parties are ending, an uphill battle in the run-up to the 2019 election awaits those parties.

At the time of writing there were reports that newly elected African National Congress leader, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has won important battles at the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting last week. The most important being the setting up of a NEC committee to negotiate a ‘dignified exit’ for Mr Zuma from the presidency of the country.

Some reports had it that it is very unlikely that Mr Zuma will still be around to deliver the State of Nation Address (SONA) as the head of government when parliament officially opens for its 2018 session.

There were also ample signs already that Mr. Ramaphosa has the support of the NEC to make good on his promises to fight state capture and the corruption that goes with it, to clean-up state owned enterprises, and turn the economy around. The appointment of a commission on state capture, and of a new board for energy utility Eskom, plus the zooming in on the so-called Zupta-network by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) through its Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) all attests to this.

These moves were widely welcomed by civil society and business formations, and the Rand responded positively. Ramaphosa will be able to take a ‘good story to tell’ with him as leader of the SA delegation to World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, starting today (23 January) in Davos, about South Africa having reached a turning point, and that policy certainly lies ahead.

He can also expect a positive response from the investor community in Davos against the background of the World Bank’s forecast in its latest report that emerging markets are expected to drive global growth in 2018. And, Goldman Sachs has identified South Africa as the “big emerging market story” of 2018, especially given the possibility of declining interest rates and a strengthening rand, and “given the market-friendly ANC leadership ... outcome.”

For the country and probably the ANC, that has seen its voter support dwindling under Zuma-rule, this is good news.

However, this does not mean that the ANC and the country are out of the woods yet.

It is unlikely that we have heard the final word on factions in the party, and it is all but sure that Zuma will not just go quietly. A split in the party could still happen.

And, while the Zuma years have left state administration on most fronts in tatters and many top civil servants have left the public service, the party’s next big challenge is going to be the management of expectations.

Opposition parties

While the ANC’s problems will not disappear over-night, and spectacular results in terms of service delivery, economic- and job opportunity growth, and decline in crime rates before the election is far from certain, they at least have their historical legacy, and more importantly, hope going for them. 

However, for the opposition parties the new political environment ushered in with the election of Mr. Ramaphosa, leading the reformist faction of the ANC as national leader of the party, poses serious challenges.

That is not so much the case for the smaller ‘special interest parties,’ facilitated by South Africa’s proportional voting system, which at best can aspire to influence in coalitions. However, for the two biggest opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the field of contestation for political power has dramatically changed overnight. And, the change has caught especially the DA ill prepared for it, and in a bad phase of its own development.

Economic Freedom Fighters

For the EFF the downside is that being anti-Zuma was the foundation on which it came into being. Since, they have established themselves on every radical populist ‘cause’ that came around. Ironically, they have just about hijacked, and are the party that most benefits from notions like “white monopoly capital,” introduced to the South African political scene by the so-called Zupta’s and their foreign advisors.

They capitalized on Zuma-created crises like the surprise announcement about free tertiary education, starting this year, and zoomed in on every conceivable event where they could play the race card – something one can expect to intensify in the coming months.

In the process they have, however, made themselves an unattractive option for the growing black middleclass, and if the ANC can keep the hope of inclusive economic growth going and score some early results once Zuma is gone, their growth potential might be relatively limited.

Democratic Alliance

For the DA the recent developments also came at a particularly awkward time, in the middle of a process of scoring own-coal upon own-coal.

While the ANC is coming out of a phase of self-destructive infighting and scandal upon scandal, the ever-present danger going hand-in-hand with the acquisition of real political power, the DA is clearly entering such a phase.

The scope, intensity, and detail differ, but at a fundamental level what is now happening with the DA looks frightfully similar to the process that played out in the ANC. And, as the ANC discovered, once the process has entered the fibre of a party it is extremely difficult to get rid of. It usually takes a major crisis to turn things around.

Unlike the EFF, the DA does not have much besides the Zuma-factor to distinguish it from the ANC – especially from the Ramaphosa-led reformist wing. They have invested so much effort and energy in anti-Zuma campaigning that an own clear policy identity never really developed. Little wonder the DA is often referred to as the ANC-lite.

And, as it got caught-up in its own infighting, it at times even took the eye of the political ball. For instance, they did not join the other opposition parties in the court case that finally forced the appointment of the commission of enquiry into sate capture.

The DA is in serious danger of arriving at its own Waterloo in the 2019 general elections.

Early days

With the election 15 to 18 months away, and in the face of the truism that a week in politics can sometimes be a lifetime, it is way too early to make predictions. However, it is safe to expect the political drama and posturing to considerably intensify in the months ahead.   

by Piet Coetzer

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