2004 election: High stakes, low interest

David Welsh argues that Mbeki's handling of the Zuma-Ngcuka dispute has not improved his image as a strong leader.

Summary - There is no doubt that the ANC will win the 2004 election comfortably. However, it may not be entirely plain sailing for the ruling party. There are signs of decreasing interest among the electorate, particularly among the young, and possibly more than a third of potential voters have not registered. It is difficult to predict whether discontent with government policies will cause a deliberate stayaway. Polls by Lawrence Schlemmer in March 2002 and by AC Nielson in May 2003 show that the ANC’s support has decreased substantially. However, opposition parties show a similar loss of support so the balance is unchanged. Of critical importance is how the estimated 25 per cent of ‘undecided’ voters will swing. Schlemmer’s poll revealed that less than a third of opposition party supporters are satisfied with their performance, a fact he rightly attributes to their inability to compete effectively against the hegemonic power of the ANC. Other opposition parties in southern Africa have experienced similar demoralisation. However, Zambian opposition parties eventually succeeded in ousting Kaunda, and the MDC in Zimbabwe would certainly trounce Zanu-PF in a free and fair election. Single-party dominance is likely to continue in South Africa for at least two elections after 2004, and it is difficult to say what party or movement could challenge the ANC in the future. However, a powerful populist movement could arise if unemployment, poverty and ANC ineptitude in the face of the HIV-Aids crisis continue. Will the ANC’s electoral prospects be harmed by the battle between Jacob Zuma, Bulelani Ngcuka and Penuell Maduna? This dispute, which probably has more to do with succession than with Zuma’s alleged misdeeds, has highlighted other divisions within the ANC and has also deflected attention from the arms deal, which urgently requires investigation. However, the ANC will probably not suffer serious fall-out as a result. It is likely that the ANC’s election campaign will fall back on the race card, with the DA as its prime target. This is unjust. Roughly half of the DA’s membership is black, and over two-thirds of DA policy is devoted to ways of making South African society more equitable. It is a pity that the ANC does not engage with the DA on policy issues. Both parties might benefit. It is also unfair to accuse the DA of exploiting minority fears. What it does do is warn of the ANC’s creeping hegemony and its implications for minorities, which are legitimate concerns for an opposition party. Elections are institutionalised ways of managing political conflict, but they work well only if there is a shared commitment to underlying values. The race theme jeopardises the emergence of a democratic culture and impedes the development of a common South African identity.

The ANC and the DA would benefit mutually from a dialogue on policy.

Of one thing you can be sure: the ANC will win the 2004 election fairly comfortably. It may even win a two-thirds majority, and could be the dominant political force in all nine provinces, winning outright control in seven and being the dominant coalition partner in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

No date has been fixed for the election, but the reckoning is, supported by tantalizing hints from deputy president Jacob Zuma, that it will be in April, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the founding election. Zuma has called for an 'explosion' of celebrations on 27th April next year, which makes one believe that the ANC will exploit the anniversary for its own election purposes.

While the likelihood of the ANC's consolidating its political hegemony is real, there are also possibilities that it will not be entirely plain sailing. Take, for example, the question of voter registration and potential voter turnout for the election. In 1994 and 1999 the percentage polls were, respectively, 86 per cent and 89 per cent. It has commonly occurred elsewhere in Africa that the huge enthusiasm generated by the first or 'independence' election tapers off in subsequent elections, especially where a dominant party is steadily consolidating its hegemony and ordinary people have derived few benefits from independence.

How South Africa will fare on this count is not yet known, although there are some signs of voter or potential voter disinterest.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), whose tasks include overseeing the registration of voters, has expressed some concern about the apparent tardiness of young people in either registering or actually voting. According to the IEC's chief executive Pansy Tlakula, only one per cent of those aged 18 to 19 were on the roll.

The total number of registered voters in 1999 was 18,1 million, rising to 18,4 in 2000, but thereafter dropping to its current figure of 17,9 million (Cape Times, 29th August 2003). Most of the names removed from the roll had died, according to the IEC, raising the question as to whether Aids has begun to take its toll on the electorate.

The Stellenbosch demographer, professor Jan Sadie, advances the startling view that at least 27,5 million South Africans should be eligible to vote in 2004, suggesting that over one-third (or 9,5 million people) have not registered. The IEC promises an intensive registration campaign on the weekend of November 8 and 9, but it seems unlikely that this will make much of a dent in the number said to be unregistered.

Almost certainly apathy accounts for a significant proportion of those who have not registered; but lack of knowledge, and the hassle factor of registering are also important. As in other political systems, it is predominantly the poor and the uneducated who tend to remain outside of the electoral system. On the other hand a recent AC Nielsen poll suggests that 75 per cent of respondents intend to vote (Business Day, 10th September 2003).

How much discontent with the impact of, and benefits conferred by, government policies will cause a deliberate stayaway is hard to predict. Lawrence Schlemmer's survey1, conducted in March 2002, measured satisfaction/dissatisfaction among ANC supporters which yielded the following results:

43 per cent are satisfied with Mbeki and 42 per cent are dissatisfied, with the rest neutral or uncertain;

50 per cent are satisfied with the ANC's performance and 49 per cent are dissatisfied.

Schlemmer concludes that between roughly 40 per cent and 50 per cent of voters continue to support the ANC even though they are dissatisfied with key aspects of the party and its leader. Mbeki's and the ANC's position may have improved in the intervening period: an Omnibus poll conducted by AC Nielsen in May 2003 indicated that approval of Mbeki in the sample, which encompassed all races, urban and rural areas and different income groups, had risen from 23 per cent in February 2002 to 32 per cent, while approval of the government's performance as 'good' or 'very good' had risen from 29 per cent to 41 per cent over the same period (Business Day, 29th September 2003).

Both Schlemmer's and the Omnibus poll indicate that overall support for the ANC is substantially lower than it received in the 1994 and 1999 elections - 50 per cent and 56,5 per cent, respectively. But similar substantial apparent losses of support are imputed to most of the opposition parties as well. Relative to one another, however, there appears to be little change in the overall balance of political forces, none of the opposition parties having gained from the ANC's loss of support. Which way the approximately 25 per cent of 'undecided' (according to the polls) voters will swing is, of course, a critical issue.

Schlemmer's survey results contained a disquieting message for opposition parties: less than one-third, and in several cases, much less than one-third, of supporters of opposition parties expressed satisfaction with their particular party. Schlemmer, correctly, attributes this to their inability to compete effectively for power and influence against a hegemonic party like the ANC, which, in turn, demoralizes and frustrates opposition voters.

Opposition parties elsewhere in southern Africa have followed broadly similar trajectories: demoralization is followed by alienation and/or apathy, with obvious corrosive effects on the parties concerned. Namibia's opposition is a case in point; Zambia and Zimbabwe's opposition parties endured long periods of inability to make any dent in the ruling parties' dominance, but in the convulsive election of 1991 Kaunda's UNIP was ejected from power by a broad-based, ad hoc coalition, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy; and it is a racing certainty that Mugabe and Zanu-PF would be trounced by the Movement for Democratic Change in a genuinely free and fair election.

Single-party dominance is likely to continue in South Africa for at least another two elections after 2004. It is impossible to speculate what alternative party, coalition or movement might pose a serious challenge to the ANC sometime in the future. For the time being its Alliance with Cosatu and the SACP remains intact: cracks have been recently papered over. Wiser counsels in Cosatu appear to recognize that breaking away from the ANC to form a party of the left would very likely be a one-way ticket into the political wilderness - at least for the time being. The possibility at some future stage of the rise of powerful 'populist-leftist' parties cannot be excluded if unemployment remains chronic, poverty remains acute, and the government's ineptitude in the face of the HIV/Aids epidemic continues.

Whether the serious battle between deputy president Zuma and director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka and his minister Penuell Maduna will do damage to the ANC's electoral prospects is an interesting question. Maduna's stated intention of retiring as minister of justice after the election should be read as an indication of how rough the fighting has become; and the chances are that it will get even rougher. It is doubtful that the fingering of Zuma that started the feud is, in fact, the core issue, or, if it was, it still is. The issue of succession is more likely to be the key, with an attempt to knock Zuma out of contention being one of its by-products.

The dispute, moreover, has become a kind of proxy for other divisive issues in the ANC: exiles versus 'inziles' (as those from the internal struggle are called), the orthodoxy of GEAR-style macro-economics versus the evident populist leanings of Zuma, as suggested by the thunderous reception he received at the recent Cosatu conference; and then, perhaps deadliest of all, the smouldering issue of who was a spy in the apartheid era.

Frankly, Mbeki has not improved his image as a strong leader in a crisis situation. He has done little more, so far as outsiders can tell, than stand on the sidelines, wringing his hands.

The extraordinary course of the conflict has turned around 180 degrees with the original accuser, Ngcuka (and whoever else is behind him?), now the accused. Zuma has shown himself to be a doughty fighter, and, as I read the state of play, he is well ahead on points.

The pity of it all is that the debacle has deflected attention away from the underlying issue: the arms deal. If ever there was a scandal that needed thorough investigation by a truly independent commission it is the alleged irregularities associated with the arms deal - which, incidentally 62 per cent of ANC supporters, according to Schlemmer's findings, consider 'unnecessary/should be cancelled'.

Whether the feud between Zuma and Ngcuka and Maduna can be patched up at all, let alone before the election, is impossible to predict. Zuma has by far the bigger constituency in the ANC, and he is a Zulu, which, in this context, may be an advantage since Mbeki would probably not wish to see him forced to resign with a closely-fought provincial election in KwaZulu-Natal coming up. On the other hand, the ANC's hand might be forced if Zuma is implicated even more than before by evidence at the forthcoming trial of Schabir Shaik and the possible co-operation of the French authorities in investigating Zuma's alleged solicitation of a bribe from a French company. Zuma may yet have to stand trial and, regardless of the outcome, that would damage him politically and almost certainly knock him out of the succession race.

However messy the feud may become, the ANC is likely to be able to ride it out. After all, whether it is the arms deal, its calamitous HIV/Aids policy (and Mbeki's woeful lack of leadership) or other policy failures, its 'halo' effect as the premier liberation movement, tends to cushion it against large-scale defections. Over time, no doubt, rising generations less familiar with the ANC's role in ending apartheid will be more inclined to judge the ANC solely on its merits.

The indications are that the ANC will fall back on its trusty weapon, the race card, in the election campaign. It is unlikely to want to attack rival African parties like Azapo and the PAC with any great vituperation. Their voter appeal is in any case insignificant. Its campaign in KwaZulu-Natal, where it is desperately anxious to win an outright majority, may also be somewhat muted for reasons of prudence rather than conviction. The province remains tinder-dry and an overly robust campaign could re-ignite the flames of violence.

Which leaves the Democratic Alliance as a prime target for allegations of 'racism'. Playing the race card is an all-purpose smear, damaging one's opponents, whether opposition parties, newspapers, individual critics or, more generally, those who disagree with the ANC's line and, ergo, are guilty of being obstacles to transformation - and, by definition, it is only the ANC's view of transformation that is the true and correct one.

Accusations of racism also help to keep the spirit of 'revolutionary struggle' alive in times when memories of apartheid are beginning to fade. (It is astonishing, by the way, to speak to young Africans who have no notion of how the pass laws bound their elders in merciless bureaucratic coils.) The 'broad church' of the ANC preserved its solidarity by common opposition to apartheid; preserving that solidarity in the post-apartheid era requires that apartheid's legacy and those of a racist cast of mind remain as targets - and as excuses for policy failure.

No one, of course, denies the baneful legacy of apartheid or that racism still exists (among both white and black): the question is whether the stock-in-trade playing of the race card is helpful in overcoming racism and its legacy. More likely, this ritualized form of abuse impedes the development of any sense of a common South African identity. It is also profoundly disempowering because it easily degenerates into an all-purpose method of deflecting responsibility away from one's own shortcomings.

The Democratic Alliance will almost certainly be returned as the official opposition. Perhaps, in alliance with Inkatha, it will form part of a governing coalition in KwaZulu-Natal. Its prospects in Western Cape are uncertain since much depends on how disenchanted former NNP voters deploy their support. It is likely that the ANC will emerge, as in 1999, as the biggest single party in the Western Cape though still short of an overall majority.

Accusations of racism levelled against the DA reflect two features: first, that its leader and a majority of its parliamentary members happen to be white and that its origins lie in progenitors who served in the apartheid parliament; secondly, it has never been allowed to forget its 'Fight Back' campaign in 1999, even though the slogan had nothing to do with race - in fact, it was the ANC who condemned it as 'Fight Black' and were, in consequence, forced to withdraw placards imputing such views to the (then) Democratic Party.

Currently, the DA enjoys majority support among whites, and possibly among Coloureds and Indians. It claims to have growing support among Africans although this will have to be tested in the election. Its organizers mention an interesting phenomenon in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal where significant numbers of Africans, perhaps especially members of minority African ethnic groups, are turning to the DA as a counterweight to the alleged 'Xhosa domination' of the ANC. Again, how significant this is will have to await the electoral test. Roughly 50 per cent of the DA's membership is black (in the inclusive sense) and its Youth League is overwhelmingly black.

The allegations that the DA 'opposes transformation', receives 'a fat wad of money from its traditional supporters' (Kgalema Motlanthe), and exploits minority fears, need to be viewed with considerable skepticism. Its policy documents are almost entirely devoted to transformation issues: how to create more jobs, how to improve delivery, reduce crime, improve education, and so on. The routine smears overlook the fact that at least 70 per cent of DA policy is devoted to ways and means of making South Africa a more equal society, so much so that the DA, on a universal scale of ideological positioning, virtually qualifies as a social democratic party.

The great pity - and a serious flaw in the functioning of our democracy - is that the ANC does not engage with the DA on policy issues. Both might benefit from the exercise.

It is highly doubtful that the DA receives more funding than the ANC has done in the past, from local and foreign donors. This is not an issue that can be analysed because, at present, parties are under no obligation to reveal the sources of their funding, other than, of course, the amounts given by the state, of which the ANC receives the lion's share, thanks to its whopping majority. Donors might reasonably want confidentiality. That is a good argument for maintaining the status quo. But it is trumped by the stronger argument to be presented in court action by Idasa to seek disclosure of funding because non-disclosed private funding can have deleterious effects on the quality of democracy.

Finally, the claim that the DA exploits minority fears needs careful scrutiny. Does it fan minority fears in an anti-African way? There is not a scintilla of evidence to support this; but what it does do, perfectly legitimately, is to warn of the ANC's creeping hegemony and its implications for minorities. Moreover, given the ANC's substantial lock on the majority of African votes, thanks in no small measure to the survival of the ANC's 'halo' effect, what else are opposition parties with support-bases rooted in minorities expected to do?

How effectively minorities are represented, and how their reasonable interests and rights are respected, is a measure of a democracy's strength, not a sign of opposition perfidy.

None of the preceding paragraphs is intended to be a puff for the DA. The intention has been to delineate a probable major theme in the election campaign, and also to stress how damaging it is to our fledgling democracy.

Elections are ritualized, supposedly peaceful, institutionalized ways of managing political conflict: but they work well only if there is some basis of common ground and a shared commitment to the values that underpin democratic politics. Developing political styles over the past few years have jeopardized the emergence of a political culture that is supportive of democracy. A rancorous campaign, with possible violence in some areas, will damage what is still a fragile plant.

1 Reference: Lawrence Schlemmer: Can South Africa's Democracy Survive its History and Political Culture? (Published by The Helen Suzman Foundation, 2003.)