It’s the cold weather, the pernicious media, traitorous “clever blacks” and feckless young voters who didn’t bother to go to the polls. The excuses are flowing thick and fast. It’s all irrelevant. The simple fact is that the ANC has been handed its biggest drubbing in 22 years. The ANC lost Nelson Mandela Bay to an opposition party whose candidate was a middle-aged, white, former farmer.
In Gauteng, SA’s economic powerhouse, in the metros of Tshwane and Johannesburg and possibly Ekurhuleni, it will at best govern as the largest minority party. At worst, it will be in the opposition benches, no longer able to fuel the great machine of patronage it depends on. In the Western Cape, the ANC has been destroyed. Even in KwaZulu-Natal, President Jacob Zuma’s personal fiefdom, it has taken bruising body blows.
ANC leaders will have to come to terms with the fact that South Africa’s body politic has been set on a fundamentally different course from what they assumed – that of the historically preordained primacy of the former liberation organisation. If they can’t get their heads around that, the ANC will be handed an even greater thrashing in the 2019 general election, which is a little more than two years away.
In SA, the social democrats are coalescing in the DA, while the radical populists have found a home in the EFF. The ANC is losing the urban vote and having to retreat to the countryside, as happened across the Limpopo in Zimbabwe to President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. But unlike Zimbabwe, in agriculturally important KwaZulu-Natal at least, not even that is a safe refuge.
The IFP won seven rural councils in KZN with more than 20% of the vote. The question is whether the ANC, in its own metaphorical retreat from the cities, will echo Uncle Bob in resorting to increasingly desperate and despotic stratagems to retain power. Zuma comes from a military background that might be responsive to the siren calls of the securocrats that he has surrounded himself with. It would be a mistake.
If anything, these elections show SA’s democracy to be in boisterous health. We are not, unlike Zimbabwe, a cowed and pliant populace to be trifled with, to swallow platitudes about the ANC’s vanguard role and instructions from the ancestors – with Zuma as intermediary – on how we should vote. Zuma has presided over a sustained and accelerating decline in the ANC’s fortunes.
Under his leadership, in the 2014 general election, the ANC vote dropped five percentage points from its 2009 high of 67%. Just over two years later, it has dropped another seven percentage points. This election has only been peripherally about local issues. Primarily it has been a referendum on Zuma, secondly on the performance of the ANC. Given the dismal results for the ANC, it seems inconceivable that the party leadership, or at least that of it that has not been captured by Zuma, will allow him to serve out his full term.
The opposition parties, for all their rhetoric that it is time for Zuma to go, should pray that he remains. For in the same way that in the US presidential elections Donald Trump has become Hillary Clinton’s secret weapon, so Zuma is the best alienator of ANC support that SA opposition parties could ever hope for.