Political Watch

Lay of the land shifting in South African politics

Leaders under pressure

Just about every South African political party is experiencing strain as the country has entered a new phase in its democratic development.

It is the two major parties, the governing African National Congress (ANC) and the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), that dominate the news headlines, but the smaller parties are not spared.

Even the Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFF) leader Julius Malema finds himself under pressure as does the United Democratic Front (UDM) who has won some share in coalition government at local government level in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropole.

How the prevailing tensions within the two major parties will play-out in the months ahead, and is managed by its respective leadership will, however, largely determine what will happen in the general election schedule for 2019 – the most crucial election since 1994.

Of the two parties, the ANC is not only the one with the most to lose, but also the one in the deepest trouble and increasingly looking unlikely to end-up post election 2019 in one piece and governing on its own.

For the DA the biggest threat of the present internal tensions, triggered by the controversy surrounding its previous leader, Helen Zille, could see its growth potential stagnate and make it a less attractive coalition partner for smaller parties.

The role of history

Zille’s biggest blunder was to, with a thoughtless string of tweets, saddle her party with the weight of colonial history as illustrated by an Eusebius McKaiser article and another by Prof Eddy Maloka.

It also left her successor as DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, in a no-win situation. If he does not take steps against Zille, he hands a stick to the ANC and the EFF, but if he is seen to be too harsh on her, he endangers the support of a present solid block of votes within the DA’s existing support base.

Depending on how he handles the situation, it might, however, still turn out to be an opportunity for Maimane to enhance his image as a capable leader.

For the ANC, the biggest danger comes from more immediate history – its track record in government, which is still an unfolding story and, the coming apart of attempts to accommodate conflicting ideologies and interest under one roof.

How slim the ANC’s changes are to survive in one piece until 2019 came in the form of news that some of the so-called stalwarts of the party, iconic figures from the days of the pre-1994 liberation struggle, are giving up on saving the party from its present leadership.

One of them, Mavuso Msimang, over the past weekend was quoted as having said: "The boat has left the shore and there is nothing that is going to happen."

One of the heaviest blocks around the ANC’s legs has become the extent to which it has allowed corruption to take hold of state institutions to the benefit a politically connected elite. Hardly a week goes by without a new scandal coming to light – as in the weekend’s reports that Eskom acting CEO’s stepdaughter was involved in contracts worth at least R1bn.

And, in the battle for control over resources, the party has become emasculated by internal power struggles at every level, from the local level, as in the Eastern- and Western Cape to the national level in the build-up to the December elective conference to elect President Zuma’s successor.

Red letter week

While South Africa is clearly amid a transition from liberation politics to a dispensation where voter behaviour is dominated by the daily lived reality and expectations of the majority of the population, predictions at this stage about what to expect from election 2019 is virtually impossible.

But, the balance of power is sure to look different from what we have experience till now. And, for the ANC, and for the country things could change dramatically next week, when the payment of social grants become due, if things should go wrong.

The shifting of the political land could become a land slide, not burying the ANC’s hope to retain power, but also seriously endangering social stability in the country.

by Piet Coetzer

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