Everything ANC is not all so cut and dried

Conventional thought has it that the ANC is in an electoral crisis. The opposition is predicting that the ruling party stands a real chance of losing national power in 2019.

Likewise, that suggestion has proven to be a helpful stick for those alienated from the ANC to beat President Jacob Zuma with.

The assumption has found some currency in the press too, and speculation to this end is now common.

However, when it comes to quantifying electoral trends, SA generally operates as an evidence-free zone. The media and civil society do not conduct regular polling in the way the US or UK do and, for the most part, we rely on sentiment to guide our political prognostication.

The truth is, no one can say with any certainty what the current electoral landscape actually looks like. Only that there is consensus the ANC is in serious trouble.

It is helpful to play devil’s advocate in these kinds of environments, where hope and fear, more than surveys and data, tend to drive analysis. It forces one to consider the option that enjoys less legitimacy and, in indulging it, to identify the hard obstacles it presents to the widely accepted alternative.

Here, then, is a thought experiment: “In the 2019 national and provincial elections, the ANC will get 60% of the vote.” Let us examine how plausible that is.

In the 2014 national and provincial elections, the ANC secured 11436921 votes, or 62.2%. The gap, in absolute terms, between the ANC and its nearest competitor, the DA, was 7345337 votes. That is a vast gulf, and the DA alone, which secured 4091584 votes (or 22.3%) in 2014, would have to grow by more than 50% to bring the ANC down to a 50% threshold in 2019.

In other words, based only on the 2014 numbers (that is, not catering for an inevitable increase in the registered voter pool in 2019 or turnout differentials), the ANC would need to lose about 2.2-million votes to fall to 49% in 2019.

That is not impossible. However, the party lost just 200000 votes in 2014 and so, were it to lose 2.2-million votes, it would represent a profound implosion – just as 50% growth for the DA would be an unprecedented achievement; growth that would have to be matched by other smaller opposition parties.

All this is within the realm of possibility, even if an outside bet. The 2014 numbers are just a loose illustration of the obstacles, but they make the point well enough. Nevertheless, there is a powerful sentiment underpinning this narrative and it essentially boils down to Zuma. It assumes that the turmoil and moral decay he has inflicted on the ANC will continue, possibly even gather momentum, in the run-up to 2019.

But there is a counter-narrative starting to augment itself: the idea of renewal and rejuvenation inside the ANC. It is built primarily on the potential election of Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC’s December elective conference and, with him, a cleaning of the house. Whether or not he is able to match those expectations is a subject for a different discussion. Nevertheless, that is the suggestion.

One could argue that even if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is elected instead, or some other, less prominent, candidate comes to power, the simple fact that Zuma’s tenure comes to an end will, to some degree, have a positive effect on how the ANC is perceived among voters.

Electorally, none of these scenarios would be a panacea for the ANC. It is difficult to imagine any situation in which the ANC does not lose support in 2019. But, to one extent or another, what is suggested above might act to stop the rot and arrest further electoral haemorrhaging.

In fact, there is a case to be made that, regardless of the requisite skills or ability needed for any particular candidate to unify or enthuse the ANC’s base, change itself often has that effect.

What factors are in the ANC’s favour? The first and most obvious is that in no national election to date has any opposition party managed to crack the party’s core support. It won 12.2-million votes in 1994, 10.6-million in 1999, 10.9-million in 2004, 11.6-million in 2009 and 11.4-million in 2014. That bedrock – of between 10.5-million and 12-million votes – has never been breached.

Complementing that is the size of the voting pool – 19.5-million people voted in 1994, 15.9-million in 1999, 15.6-million in 2004, 17.7-million in 2009 and 18.4-million in 2014. It is generally helpful to ignore 1994 on this front, as it was something of an aberration. Together, these two sets of statistics go some way towards explaining the phenomenal effect Zuma has had on the ANC. In 2009, a surge in support for him brought just over 800000 new ANC voters into the party fold. Though fewer than half the total number of new votes cast in 2009, it went some considerable way towards nullifying any substantial growth for the opposition.

As is typical for second-term administrations, the ANC’s vote in absolute and percentage terms dropped marginally in 2014, as did the number of new votes cast, down from about 2.1-million in 2009 to 700000 in 2014.

If the ANC is able to elect a new president capable of embodying some kind of new enthusiasm, sense of purpose and unity and, with that, to roughly hold its support at about 11-million votes, it could well finish at about 60%. It would mean losing almost all new voters to the opposition and perhaps a fraction of its own. But it would turn almost entirely on how well a new ANC president was received by the party’s core base.

It’s a double-edged sword for the ANC. In 2009 Zuma did not just drive up new ANC support but, to a greater degree, new opposition support too. Ramaphosa is, however, less demagogic than Zuma and thus unlikely to be as divisive. He would have more of a chance of reducing the gap between the number of new ANC and opposition voters.

Two final points. First, this scenario is unlikely. What evidence there is suggests, as things stand, that the ANC will drop well into the 50% bracket in 2019. Second, the scenario is difficult to imagine, such is the current environment. How can it possibly be that the ANC could find, amid the chaos, division and disorganisation, some kind of new life? Or, more importantly, how could it possibly re-energise a base that is increasingly alienated and apathetic?

But the SA political environment is incredibly fluid, and the stronger the narrative becomes that hope exists, the more powerful its effect will be – if ever realised. It is thus worth contemplating.

Power tends to transform perspective, merely by being made real. Many in the ANC may oppose Ramaphosa today, but the question is: would his election be something they could live with regardless?

The ANC operates as a collective and that attitude is instilled in its voters too. The fact that the ANC’s elective conference precedes the 2019 election means ANC voters will be able to see where power lies beforehand. That can be a strong political aphrodisiac.

All of this would be remarkable. But not impossible.

In turn, it might be incomprehensible but, if the 2014 election taught us anything, it’s that it will take more than Nkandla to break the ANC’s stranglehold.

Last week five by-elections were held in five different provinces. The ANC took two wards off the DA, in the Western Cape and the Free State. It narrowly defended a marginal seat in Gauteng. That in itself is remarkable. Conventional thought would have as tough a time explaining it as it would the scenario sketched out above

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