Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

‘ANC Needs to Wake Up’ in Light of Election Results, Says Adam Habib

Posted in African Politics, South Africa by ruben eberlein on July 12, 2009

Interview with Adam Habib, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, on the political prospects after the elections and the formation of a new government in South Africa. He says that the ANC  ‘needs to wake up’ in view of the losses in all provinces but KwaZulu-Natal.

adamhabibWhat explains the continuing success of the ANC when it comes to elections in South Africa?

There are a number of reasons. First, there is no doubt that it is the party of liberation. It is perceived to have delivered freedom to the vast majority of South Africans. But the party’s success, to a large extend, also reflects the failures of the opposition parties. There is a significant percentage of black people, something like 30 per cent, who would be open to vote for opposition parties. But the problem is that they do not see such a party. The existing ones do not project an agenda and an image that is seen to represent the interests of poor and marginalised people, particularly black people. So, a large number of these 30 per cent end up voting for the ANC.

But one should not simply assume that this was a significant endorsement of the ANC. The party strongly increased its vote in KwaZulu-Natal. Outside KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC lost about 12 per cent. That should be a worry for it, and the ANC needs to wake up.

Do racial issues play a decisive role in elections?

There is a wonderful study recently concluded by the University of Cape Town who speaks to the issue of why opposition parties do not do well. The results show that party images, their rhetoric and the policies they adapt are much more important than racial identities. I am personally convinced: If you would have Jeremy Cronin, who is a person with a white ancestry in the ANC, as the president of the ANC, the party will still have won decisively in this election. It is not about if you are white or black, it is about whether you are seen to represent the interests of the marginalised and poor majority of the country.

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If Cope does not get their acts together,

then they will die soon.

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Was Cope performing as you expected?

I expected them to perform slightly better. But about 7,5 per cent are not bad for a party that is only six months old. That they did not get more votes has partly to do with the divisions within the party and with the fact that they did not campaign in the first two months of the election campaign. On the other side, Cope’s 7,5 per cent is – in racial terms – a much more diverse result in comparision to the 16,66 per cent of the Democratic Alliance. So it has much greater support in townships, for instance, than the DA has. This is in Cope’s favour. But if they do not get their acts together in the coming months, find an agenda and a perspective, then they will die soon.

What do you think to be the reasons for the relatively good results of the DA?

The big shift in the DA was the consolidation of support amongst the coloured and white community in the Western Cape. It did not do particularly well amongst the black African community. Its big strength was that it doubled its vote in the Western Cape. I think that there are a number of reasons why this election had the turnout that it did. There was a much more politicised environment in course of the last two or three years because of the succession crisis within the ANC, and the emergence of Cope created the potential for an alternative. The Obama factor galvanised young people. All of that played out well for the DA, particularly in the white and coloured community.

What are in your view the implications of the relative strength of the DA nationally, and its huge success in the Western Cape?

The DA needs to think through how its undertakes its agenda. It now faces a dilemma: How do you engage, be critical, be principled, yet simultaneously do not come to a point where it undermines your policy to govern effectively in the Western Cape. Some of the engagements in the first two or three weeks after the elections were just silly. It clearly indicated that she has not understood this dilemma and how to confront it. That changed somehow recently.

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Zuma’s cabinet opens up a debate about what

is the most appropriate agenda.

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Did Jacob Zuma assemble a competent cabinet?

It is an interesting choice. On balance, I think it is better than the cabinet that Mbeki had. With regards to economic policy, the choice opens up a debate within the corridors of economic power. Trevor Manuel is now head of the National Planning Commission, there is Pravin Gordhan in the Finance Ministry to pacify the markets. Simultaneously, there is Rob Davies in Trade and Industry who knows and understands global trade negotiations and South Africa’s agenda in that regard. Economic Develoment is chaired by Ebrahim Patel who is responsible for issues of planning, quite pro-interventionist and ready to protect certain sectors, particularly industrial sectors. This choice all in all opens up a debate about what is the most appropriate economic agenda. I think that this is fantastic, because the answers to the challenges we are facing lie in a complex and nuanced mix of policies. 

So, it does not indicate a radical shift when compared to the Mbeki era?

We will likely see some shift to the left. But remember, we already had a marginal shift during the last years of the Mbeki government. In the late 1990’s, we were talking about privatisation, today we are talking about development instead. There are 13 million people on social support grants, education and health budgets have been going up for a number of years. South Africa was already undergoing quite a shift in policy under the last years of the Mbeki administration. Will there be a radical shift? I think: No. You might see more industrial targeting, a prioritisation of unemployment and the like.

Have you been surprised about the selection of Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder as the deputy minister for agriculture?

It shows that the ANC is trying to extend its space. It is not surprising, they have done this before. But it is interesting that he got appointed to that particular ministry. It means that there will be a serious discussion about agriculture and land reform. As Mulder is coming from the farming community, I think it is clever to engage him. Whether it will work – this is a different matter.

Will the fact that Barbara Hogan changed from the health ministry to public enterprises impact on South Africa’s Aids policies?

I would have liked her to continue in the health ministry given the importance of that portfolio for the development agenda. She brought a refreshing change of policy. There will, however, in my opinion be no profound change of health policy. To a large extend, the policy is in place and works.

Will there be a changing role of South Africa in the region and on the continent as a whole?

There will not be a dramatic change, I think. One has to bear in mind that the architects of South Africa’s foreign policy has been the leadership of the ANC. For a long time, it has been connected to the person of Thabo Mbeki. The assumptions that governed his policies are widely shared within the ANC. One of the central aims of South Africa‘s foreign policy is to chance the global order and to try and make it a more equal playing field. But simultaneously, while doing that, also to be more open to engage in that system and to transform it from within. It is a kind of realism from the South in which a lot of pragmatism and a readyness for tradeoffs are involved. We likely will see this strategy to prevail.

Interview originally published in the July edition of the German magazine Welt-Sichten. Conducted at 8 June 2009.

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  1. […] 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 posts: (automatically […]


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