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Elections, the ANC and the Suspension of Disbelief

- Susan Booysen

South African voters are cynical beings, but not immune to bouts of political magical realism.

The times of living with the ‘post-Zuma’ ANC, in which the former president is revered by loyalists, and tolerated and elevated by others (to give the construct of ANC unity a fighting chance), have given the voters little reason to suspend their questioning.

It is the time for suspension of disbelief in South Africa: it is the time of elections, Election 2019.

Nowhere are the changes in the texture of belief in democracy in South Africa more notable than in the current run-up to Elections 2019. Evidence of the changes in political culture, system and parties, 25 years into democracy, is all around. Gone are the fervour and starry-eyed trust in leaders and political parties, the multiparty system and competitive elections. Instead, there is cynicism, discontent, and at best a poorly substantiated belief that Elections 2019 “will help make things better”.

In South Africa’s little political universe in which the African National Congress limps but remains dominant, voters will be asked to believe that there is one ANC that is contesting, one policy direction to vote for, and that this party in the next five years will be making more progress than any of the competitors in progressing towards those elusive liberation ideals.

South Africa’s voters will be asked to endorse that the ANC is a party that has forsworn corruption, put malfeasance to the past. They will be implored to believe that the Zuma shadow is only a mirage (that the aberrations were the exception, are not ingrained in ANC fibre), and that there is no fightback that can render a Ramaphosa-inspired vote for the ANC obsolete.

South African voters are cynical beings, but still not immune to bouts of political magical realism. The times of living with the “post-Zuma” ANC, in which the former president is revered by loyalists, and tolerated and elevated by others (to give the construct of ANC unity a fighting chance), have given the voters little reason to suspend their questioning.

The same Ipsos poll that gave the ANC the rosy prospect of 61% in the forthcoming vote also found that around 40% of the respondents (including those who endorsed the ANC as their party of choice) were sceptical about their chosen parties’ abilities and characters.

The question is whether the ANC can continue to induce the belief that it is the party that can be trusted best. It is in this relativism – the ANC when compared with the other parties – that the ANC rises again. It may still be punished at the polls, yet it is foregone that none of the other parties will even vaguely match the ANC’s electoral total. This is part of a process in which the former (but in its own construct continuous) liberation movement-party benefits from a suspension of disbelief in the odds against.

The ANC’s Moses Mabhida campaign launch – the event, the messages on policy and government capacity, leadership dynamics, and pledges on better government – sheds light on the state of popular trust in and credibility of the ANC. For the ANC to restore its dented standing it needed to succeed on three broad fronts: persuade the electorate that it is truly a new, united and transformed organisation; persuade voters that this reinvented organisation is capable of assuming effective and honest control over the state and civil servants, and convey a consistent, ideologically coherent ideological and policy message.

The ANC showed progress, of sorts, in presenting the ideal of the united party to the world. The construct of unity was there in the all-important television broadcast. It was a “politically civil” occasion. No humiliation of President Cyril Ramaphosa. The imposed discipline in the Zuma heartland also rendered the event a bland affair. There were little fervour and excitement. One after the other, significant statements in the delivery of the manifesto slipped by … without applause. Excitement depended on staged fanfare and the manufactured crowd numbers (a routine part of mass rallies nowadays). If this tactically constructed post-Zuma ANC still has a political heart it did not show.

For the ANC to garner enough votes to get an outright electoral majority, it needs to persuade voters that it is a new ANC, which encapsulates “hope and renewal” (Ramaphosa’s manifest phrase). Again, the evidence was spread thinly. Voters see Zuma (no criminal convictions, but with an unequalled record of circumventing court appearances), along with a host of corruption-implicated others, on campaign stages and candidate lists, even on the list for statesman presidential advisers, in the name of “unity” … the sacrosanct mission in the 2017-2019 quest to survive Elections 2019. To fuel popular flames of disbelief Zuma proxy parties are spewed out, while Zuma tweets beguilingly – and sabotages crudely the hope-and-renewal message.

These factors bear on leadership, and also cast shadows on the ANC’s credibility in persuading the electorate that this is a united, new ANC, a party of reconstituted identity, worthy of trust, able to renew and forge anti-corruption in government. In the week of the campaign launch, the electorate was watching from the wings while senior ANC functionaries on the ground worked to counter flare-ups of the anti-Ramaphosa fires. Pro-Zuma chants and the need for NEC members to sidestep obstructionist regional structures in the province illustrated the persistent obstacles.

The ANC manifesto gives reasonable evidence of some progress in putting across a coherent ideological and policy message. There is concerted attention to rebuilding the economy, in trying conditions, creating skills and opportunities for a more inclusive economy that is designed to take care of the poor and marginalised (albeit in many cases in the long, very long, term). Ambiguities leap off the pages, but there is evidence that Ramaphosa’s vision is being carried forward, largely, by the diverse and factional National Executive Committee.

Thus, on the three fronts of policy-ideology, the ANC organisationally, and the ANC in its ability to govern, there are mixed messages that may fall short of persuading a cynical electorate. The electorate’s frequent blind belief in the ANC’s liberation movement credentials (in this organisation being virtuous party-politically) has been countered both by the Zuma years and the tepid Ramaphosa takeover. On grounds of systematic, rational evaluation by the electorate, the ANC is not tipping the scales.

Its hope lies in the electorate being persuaded, again, to suspend disbelief.

Susan Booysen is a Professor in the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on the Daily Maverick.