Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

‘Popular Protests in South Africa Will Definitely Increase’

Posted in African Politics, South Africa by ruben eberlein on July 4, 2009

Interview with Justin Sylvester, Political Analyst, Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa), Pretoria. Justin talks about his views on the continuing dominance of the ANC, the weaknesses of opposition parties and the possibility of a left-wing breakaway from the ruling party.

What are the reasons for the huge success of the ANC at the elections?

It is, without doubt, an advantage to be the incumbent government as they were during the last 15 years. Of course, people speak about the loyalty that ANC supporters have towards their party. They clearly enjoy high percentages of identification compared with other parties. Moreover, people who don’t necessarily identify themself as ANC supporters voted for them. These voters would in principle be ready to support another party.


Why don’t they?

People speak of a historical mission of the ANC, and this is, in a sense, twinned with development. If one looks at the ruling party’s campaign, you see that they campaigned on issues of socio-economic transformation. That speaks to the issues that are out there, namely unemployment, poverty, inequality, poor service delivery etc. The ANC, while talking about its successes, admitted that there hasn’t been enough delivery to the people in the last 15 years. Its campaign slogan was: ‘Together, we can do more’, and it reflected this moment of self-criticism.

There is indeed widespread criticism in South Africa that the ANC has not delivered as much in terms of social and economic advancement as hoped for in 1994. But still, it received just under a two-third majority. Why?

That takes us to the opposition parties. There are 20 to 30 per cent of people supporting the ANC who don’t identify with the ANC as a party that they will support in a partisan sense. So this tells you that, in general, there is a willingness to move to opposition parties. The problem is: Where to move to? Where is the alternative? The opposition parties obviously weren’t able to capture the important issues. Everybody in South Africa agrees on what the issues are – unemployment, poverty, inequality, service delivery etc. -, but the issue is: How deal with them, and what party would be best placed to meet these challenges. Seemingly the answer for people is the ANC, that‘s what we are observing since 1994. This is despite the fact that we haven‘t seen enough movement in meeting these challenges, and of course, these challenges are even greater now than they were before.

The key thing here is also that opposition parties need to adapt their party images and how they are perceived by the poor. That they are alternative political homes for the majority of the poor. At the moment they are not. Many good political messages by opposition parties are drowned out by their images as parties for the higher income earners and other minorities. Also, there is the issue that they do not enjoy the deep seated grass roots organization that the ANC does.

To what extend the results mirrored racial identities which might still be relevant in South Africa today?

That’s what is been spoken about a lot. But I think that this issue has been overplayed and that class is a far more relevant indicator when it comes to voting in South Africa. We have seen it with the emergence of Cope, for instance, which is predominantly a party of black people. They have taken votes away from the ANC. And I think what explains this move has more to do with class than with racial elements. In parties themselves, race plays a role, that is in their images and how they are perceived by voters out there. So in my view, it is more a question of class issues, of service delivery issues, of issues of transformation. And the ANC seems the only party able to get its message across on these points which are of pressing concerns to voters.

Why do you think opposition parties failed to a large extend to get their messages across?

Party images, particularily how they are perceived among the rural and urban poor, is very key. These constituencies have again delivered a very emphatic mandate to the ANC, and these are the people who are feeling the brunt of all the challenges that we face.

copeWhat perception Cope is enjoying within the populace?

There has been widespread criticism that Cope focused too much on the middle and upper classes. But one has to admit that this is a party in existence for less than a year, and it didn’t really have much time to organise a base. The resources are a major issue as well. If one looks at the ANC – there are reports that it spent up to 200 million Rand on the election campaign. The second thing is the branch structure of the ANC. They are well-rooted in most communities, particularly in urban and rural poor communities throughout the country. If you really want to succeed in South Africa as a political party, you will need a strong grassroots organisation. The other opposition parties also don’t have this kind of organisation in comparison with the ANC. Cope will probably have to take the next couple of years, with a view on the 2014 elections, to build a base and organise a grassroots branch structure and make its presence known in communities.

Was it helpful for the Democratic Alliance to limit itself mainly to an Anti-Zuma campaign during the deciding time before the elections?

dasouthafricaYes and no. When we look at the Western Cape, this was the point that won the province for them. It helped to consolidate the existing opposition vote behind the DA. They received all the backing that the New National Party enjoyed in 2004. When one looks at the declining support of the smaller parties – the African Christian Democratic Party, the Freedom Front Plus – these votes mainly went to the DA. In that sense, that Anti-Zuma strategy did help. But in terms of challenging the election dominance of the ANC, they will need to make moves towards the poor which they made not. The numbers, even in the Western Cape, match this up that they didn’t make any substantial inroads in that electoral base. So, in other provinces, that campaign clearly didn‘t work. It alienated potential ‘swing voters’ and created hostility among traditional ANC supporters. Zuma enjoys high levels of popularity in KZN for instance, so this strategy wouldn’t have played well in this province.

One could get the impression that all the scandals and public arguments around Jacob Zuma in the end helped to consolidate the support for him. Would you share this view?

There was much talk at that time, and especially in recent month, that Zuma was a victim of a political conspiracy and that all his legal trials were a part of this. I think that the ANC used that image quite successfully, particularly among the rural and urban poor, because that is where the mandate came from. There was a view that he is just an ordinary man, and state institutions were abused to victimise him by powers greater than him. That sort of image was portrayed, and it helped. But on the other side, Jacob Zuma proved to be a divisive figure within the party. Even now, post-election, one still sees factionalism, especially in the Western Cape ANC, but also in other provinces. Outside the party, it certainly helped. But the ANC has quite been damaged in recent years, and especially by the fight between Zuma and Thabo Mbeki. Both of them have proved to be quite divisive figures.

Do you think it will be possible that we might witness a breakaway of left forces from the ANC in case Zuma and his government cannot deliver on their election promises?

This is very difficult to tell at the moment. But if one looks at the recent weeks, after the elections, we have heard comments from within the alliance that the new government hasn’t been given a clean slate and that the tripartite alliance, especially Cosatu, will hold them to account. But this is nothing new, this is just political bargaining. We basically see the alliance much stronger now than it has ever been before for a good number of years, and definitely when compared to the time under Mbeki. And of course, access for the left forces to the ANC and government leadership is much easier in the current situation. Anyway, I don’t think that this would mean for them letting up the pressure in any sense.

Is there room for a party left of the ANC in South Africa’s political landscape?

Yes, generally I think so. But we speak about ten years down the line, or maybe even twenty years, if delivery on social and economic issues does not happen. What form that will take, whether it will be a workers’ party or something else, one will have to see. And it is very difficult to say what level of support such a party might get. At the moment, I doubt that this split will come, but the space is certainly there. It would surely be healthy for South Africa‘s political landscape if we see the foundation of a party left of the ANC. This competition would be meaningful in the sense that it could directly challenge the ANC’s base. We have also seen in recent years more and more protests of ordinary people, and that will definitely increase in the near future. I think that point is more important. People disaffected or discontented with the ANC, because of the conceptions of the opposition parties, are not moving support to the opposition but are abstaining from voting and take part in social movements and their protests.


This interview has been published by the German North/South magazine Blätter des Informationszentrums 3. Welt (iz3w), no. 313. Another interview on South Africa with Prof. Adam Habib from the University of Johannesburg appears in the July edition of Welt-Sichten. I will post an English version here soon. Pictures: Parties’ websites.

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  1. […] World (30/09) entitled ‘Kein Anschluss unter dieser Nummer’. Probably my recent interviews with Justin Sylvester (Idasa) and Adam Habib (University of Johannesburg) are of interest as well. Possibly related […]

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