ANTHONY BUTLER: Opposition hoping Eskom crisis will dislodge ANC
First published in BusinessLive and Business Day
20 JANUARY 2023
For opponents of the ANC, the unfolding Eskom crisis is a bittersweet experience. The costs of rolling blackouts have been enormous for the country. But opposition leaders can at least hope citizens will never forgive the ANC — especially since rolling blackouts will continue to be a feature of daily life up to and beyond the 2024 elections.
Sadly for such critics, it is far too early to assume the ANC has done enough to lose at the polls. Behind its tired and demoralised façade it still knows how to target important segments of the electorate. Many of its leaders possess a strong intuitive understanding of what needs to be done to win.
As a party of government, its record with regard to jobs, crime, transport and many other important issues has been poor for more than a decade. At least since the initial onset of the global economic crisis in 2008 the ANC has presided over economic stagnation and joblessness that electors have consistently identified as the main challenges facing the country. Yet it has survived as the majority party at national level.
The movement has also long demonstrated a capacity to shape narratives about issues that might seem destined to bury it, such as the HIV/Aids policy debacles of the Thabo Mbeki period. It consistently tailors messaging to the economically vulnerable or those in precarious employment, deploying scaremongering about a loss of social grants or job-destroying economic restructuring.
The ANC is equally expert at using geographic and ethnic segmentation. Over the past two decades the top leadership has rotated between a nominally Eastern Cape leader, Thabo Mbeki, a KwaZulu-Natal based faction around Jacob Zuma, and the hitherto marginalised northern provinces purportedly championed by Cyril Ramaphosa. This has brought fresh waves of ANC support, most notably in KwaZulu-Natal under Zuma, but also lasting gains for a movement that can claim to belong to the people of SA as a whole.
Messages about the historical legacies of the ANC have little appeal among the young, but they continue to have resonance among older citizens, who are more likely to register and vote. The ANC can still dominate “get out the vote” operations in rural areas and townships where, despite its travails, it has an unrivalled footprint.
Rolling blackouts pose a stiff test for ANC campaigners, but they are rising to this challenge on the back of the coal lobby’s already strenuous social media lobbying. Many of their narratives — concerning “baseload”, “clean coal”, and the imprudence of decarbonisation — have been borrowed from vested carbon interests elsewhere around the world.
Specialised local spin has included the idea that “white monopoly capital” is destabilising Eskom so as to buy it up cheaply, or that black excellence in the coal sector and parastatals is being deliberately trashed by apartheid apologists.
Already ANC backbench MPs and senior ministers are groping for a new narrative about “sabotage” — against Eskom or, better still, by the parastatal against the great liberation movement. It is sadly predictable that what former minister Alec Erwin called the “human instrumentalities” involved will soon be linked to Western imperialism.
The ANC’s ability to veto power cuts that might have affected its conference last December points to another obvious stratagem: a tame board and CEO can evidently be persuaded to suspend blackouts in the immediate run up to the 2024 elections.
If things get really bad, the ANC always has its classic fallback of “renewal”. We should not be surprised to find ourselves faced with a new “good ANC”, perhaps headed by an allegedly dynamic Paul Mashatile. He could ask the people for one last chance to govern, while apologising for the failures of the “bad ANC” — that led by an indecisive former president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.