ANTHONY BUTLER: Clean streets, coalitions and impenetrable polls
First published in BusinessLive
30 SEPTEMBER 2021
Guessing the outcome of elections is always a mug’s game. But the results of this year’s local government elections are the hardest to predict in recent times.
We have endured two years of Covid-19 lockdown troubles and human tragedies. Each of the big parties seems to be on its own slow-motion suicide mission.
The electorate is tiring of the notion that the Good ANC needs voters’ support if the Bad ANC is to be vanquished. Municipal services are worsening in full view of voters.
The DA has a good story to tell about local governance. It can point to cleanish streets and only mildly stagnant waters in the Western Cape and Midvaal. Its plan to Eskom-proof six Western Cape municipalities is quite clever.
But failed experiments in coalition government in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay are still fresh in voters’ minds. The bungled removal of party leader Mmusi Maimane left residues of scepticism.
The EFF, flush with cash, might capitalise on the anger of pandemic times. But has their macho posturing softened enough to tap the 55% of registered voters who are women?
When the realities of coalition politics kick in after the election the ANC has the ultimate conciliator, Cyril Ramaphosa, as its dealmaker. Chastened by post-2016 coalition experiences, the DA wants prenuptial agreements with potential suitors that will be hard to strike.
The ANC has natural if unreliable coalition partners, including the externalised faction of the movement labelled EFF. The red berets’ “radical policy” will reap some votes the ANC has lost. When push comes to shove, the EFF’s commissars will trade votes for power.
The DA has adopted a similar strategy, with external factions free to harvest the rewards of identity politics that a liberal party cannot openly champion. The Cape Independence Party is apparently punting a restoration of coloured and white labour preference policies. The Freedom Front Plus, fielding candidates in more than 3,000 wards, will likewise suck in former DA voters and deliver their mandates to John Steenhuisen’s formidable coalition machine.
In Gauteng, ActionSA’s human dynamo, Hermann Mashaba, has a cut-and-paste DA manifesto. His strategy, however, is “DA Plus”, the plus being an open xenophobia that will deliver voters that liberals cannot openly pursue.
However, the real key to the election was revealed by the ANC’s venerable chair, Gwede Mantashe, in his superficially incoherent and rambling remarks at the manifesto launch of the liberation movement in Pretoria’s Church Square on Monday evening.
Ramaphosa had already made a number of dull commitments, including a promise that the ANC would promote “the unrestricted development of urban and pavement gardens where crops can be planted to increase food security”. The president also sincerely expressed his hopes that former president Jacob Zuma would enjoy a speedy recovery from his medical ailments, a sentiment all citizens no doubt share.
But it was Mantashe who offered a pellucid analysis of the situation facing ordinary voters. “You don’t vote DA to power and insult the ANC”, he observed. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Politics in SA involves an exchange of goods for political support — and it is only the ANC that can deliver those goods across almost all of the country. Only those who vote for the liberation movement, Mantashe claimed, “acquire the right to insult and shout at the ANC at the height of your voice”. Citizens who do not “vote correctly” will never be heard.
The outcome of the election will turn, in large measure, on how many ANC voters will still accept the terms of this unholy contract, in which loyalty provides the only prospect of political voice and access to public resources.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.