ANC's dominance not written in stone

Alex | Sep 29, 2009
Lawrence Schlemmer takes a close look at the factors that determine political loyalties in South Africa.

Summary - On the eve of our third democratic election South Africa is a beacon of stability on the continent. But ordinary South Africans are not reassured. In a recent opinion survey reported in Business Day, only 45 per cent of interviewees believed that democracy was working well. While much of this pessimism is due to failures in state delivery of services and so on, some of it derives from the perception that elections are turning into meaningless rituals because black South Africans will always vote for the ANC regardless of its performance. Pre-election polls seem to confirm this, with well over two-thirds of respondents (excluding undecideds) indicating they would vote ANC. But appearances are misleading and there are signs that the ANC is not as secure as it looks. A recent Helen Suzman Foundation/MarkData poll showed that 52 per cent of Africans considered it possible that they could vote for another political party, and 27 per cent said that it was “very possible”. Moreover, only 40 per cent of middle-class Africans named the ANC as their first choice, which suggests that black upward mobility could erode the party’s dominant position. Most importantly, only 40 per cent of those who were dissatisfied with the ANC still supported it. This finding challenges the impression that the ANC enjoys automatic and uncritical support among black voters. Why, then, does the ANC still enjoy such high support? In large part this is due to gratitude for its role in leading the liberation struggle and dislodging the apartheid-era white elites. Though many expect this motivation to dilute over time, it is constantly recharged by ANC leaders who blame the legacy of apartheid and racism for most current problems. The policy of transformation is a continuation of liberation politics by another name, offering the emerging elites enhanced opportunities while sanctifying practices that amount to favouritism and patronage. A second reason for the ANC’s continued popularity concerns the need among poor people in unequal societies for demonstrations of sympathy from a leadership that “cares”. The opposition parties cannot compete with the image of the ANC as a caring party that at least would like to offer “a better life for all”. The ANC’s skill at simultaneously promoting the interests of the new elite through transformation and promoting welfare for the masses goes back to its history as a “broad church”, and so far this balancing act is working well for the party. But it will not deliver economic growth or create jobs, as more and more voters will come to realise. So although the ANC will win the 2004 elections with ease, thereafter opportunities for opposition parties will expand.

As we look forward to our third successful democratic election, South Africa's political system is a beacon of stability on a troubled continent. Karin Neiryinck and Roger Southall, after listing the conditions for democratic consolidation identified by Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, conclude that: "… if such criteria are strictly applied, only a very small number of African states (perhaps South Africa, perhaps Botswana) could lay reasonable claim to being 'consolidated' democracies…". (Africa Insight, vol 33, no 3, September 2003). South Africa certainly has all the major formal elements of democracy in place.

Yet our democracy is nowhere near as reassuring to ordinary South Africans more intimately exposed to its texture and achievements. For example, Business Day of October 21, 2003, reported that in a "Proactive Insight" opinion survey, based on a sample of 1300 South Africans in metropolitan areas, only 45 per cent of the people interviewed felt that democracy was "working well" for all or most people. These results echoed those of many other opinion polls conducted in recent years.

Much of this pessimism is due to perceived failures in state delivery of social services, high unemployment and a rather slow rate of social and economic progress for the masses. Some of it, however, derives from the fear that we have an entrenched ruling party that cannot be replaced in democratic elections. Among minorities in particular, there is a perception that the ANC is impervious in its dominant position because a majority of the largest segment of the population, the Africans, will always vote for the ANC no matter how badly it performs. They fear that the political culture of the masses will for a long time to come turn elections into meaningless rituals, or "racial censuses" as the phrase goes.

All pre-election polls that have appeared recently at first sight appear to confirm that we have what is called a "one-party dominant system". Research conducted by the Helen Suzman Foundation no exception. In a representative nation-wide opinion poll conducted through MarkData in mid 2003, based on a well-stratified sample of 2250 adult South Africans, 55 per cent of all people interviewed said that they would vote for the ANC. If one excludes the 11 per cent who said that they would not vote and the 13 per cent who could not make a choice, then a massive 72 per cent of people who make a choice opt for the ANC, suggesting that it will get the two-thirds majority needed to change its largely liberal constitution. This poll, however, was too early to predict the outcome of the forthcoming elections but it certainly confirmed the view that the outcome is beyond doubt.

But appearances can be misleading. Apparently entrenched one-party dominance in countries like Taiwan and Mexico finally yielded to popular pressure for change.

Digging deeper in the findings of recent opinion polls shows that the ANC is also not quite as secure in its dominant position as it looks. There is evidence of political pluralism in the detail of the findings that suggests that the ANC will have to work (or connive?) very hard to ensure the perpetuation of its power dominance in elections after 2004. Consider the following results from recent Helen Suzman Foundation/MarkData polls:

Some 49 per cent of all people interviewed have said that there is a possibility of them voting for a political party other than their current first choice. Among Africans 52 per cent entertained this possibility and as many as 27 per cent of African respondents said that it was "very possible" that they would vote for a party other than their current favourite in the future.

Normally voters who have powerful historical and symbolic bonds with a liberation party cannot even conceive of an alternative choice. But in the mid 2003 poll, a large proportion of voters readily gave a second choice of party. Among Africans 39 per cent had a second option, compared with 29 per cent among coloured people, Indians and whites. Among the first choice ANC supporters, some 13 per cent identified either the DA or the NNP as their second choice. These results contradict the impression that African voters in South Africa are trapped in a racial mould.

Among Africans with middle class income levels of R8 000 per month or more, the selection of the ANC as a first choice falls to a mere 40 per cent. Around 13 per cent are more radical and choose the South African Communist Party instead of the ANC and as many as 25 per cent support the DA. These "defections" from the ANC suggest that with upward mobility among Africans, the dominance of the ANC could steadily evaporate.

The second choices of political party among middle class Africans are even more very interesting. No fewer than 42 per cent select the DA and a further 13 per cent the NNP as their second choices, both of these being parties that are loosely portrayed as white-controlled or as representing "white" interests.

Most importantly, levels of satisfaction or otherwise with the performance of the government make a real difference to the way people intend to vote. While nearly 70 per cent of Africans who are satisfied with government performance support the ANC, this level of support drops to just above 40 per cent among those who are dissatisfied. This finding may appear to be self-evident but is challenges the notion that the ANC enjoys the automatic, visceral and uncritical support of the African majority.

These and other results from earlier surveys demonstrate that political pluralism is lurking just beneath the surface of voter choices.

Nevertheless, one has to explain the unusually high current support for the ANC among Africans and why as many as 40 per cent who are dissatisfied with government remain loyal to the party. The reasons are too subtle to be evident in crude percentages, but when the detailed responses and phrasing of answers in typical opinion surveys are inspected, the dynamics of loyalty to the ruling party become clear.

The explanations are to be found at two levels. Among the more politicised and radical voters, the symbolism of liberation and the material and emotional gratifications of dislodging the apartheid era white elites are irresistible. Many observers expect this type of motivation to dilute over time, but in South Africa it is constantly being recharged by political leaders and opinion formers who blame the legacy of apartheid and racism among whites for almost all current socio-economic problems. As the Human Sciences Research Council State of the Nation review puts it, Mbeki's agenda is "compromised by his administration's tendency to resort to racial labelling when confronted by critique" (John Daniel, Adam Habib and Roger Southall, State of the Nation: South Africa 2003-2004, HSRC Press, Introduction).

Apartheid must bear the blame for very many current ills, but to use it as a scapegoat for almost everything stimulates an unusual affinity for a continuation of liberation politics by another name. This extension of the ethic of liberation is one of the major planks in the ANC policy platform today, namely the policy of "transformation".

It goes without saying that South Africa needs effective policies to reduce racial inequality, but like all policies, they must be open to scrutiny and honest review. Transformation, however, has become elevated above this kind of accountability. It not only offers the emerging elites very necessary enhanced material and occupational opportunities, it also cleanses and sanctifies many processes that elsewhere in Africa have come to be exposed as favouritism, patronage and the "politics of the gut" (Jean Francois Bayart, 1989, The state in Africa: the politics of the gut, Paris. Fayarde).

Given the magic of the formula, it is perhaps remarkable that a small band of African intellectuals have already started to debunk the rationale of transformation, our president's brother, Moeletsi Mbeki included. He sees the specific aspect of transformation called black economic empowerment as "… a tool for fulfilling a political agenda." "… We are taking politically connected people and giving them assets which, in the first instance, they don't know how to manage". (Business Day, August 11, and June 11, 2003).

But the imperative of transformation will persist for a long time yet. It has become a national project, the core of the new patriotism and akin to a holy grail, and as such it has begun to command reverence, among politically correct or nervous white executives as well as its major beneficiaries.

It has become a heroic trap even for the government. It dictates policies that cannot be relinquished even when they contradict all the very sensible policies and plans that the government has formulated for stimulating growth and competitiveness. For example, we have an excellent policy for promoting sector-based skills development that has been undermined by too many "transformatory" appointments to the boards or staff of the Sector-based Education and Training Authorities (Setas), to the extent that the minister of labour has had to step in to supervise some of their operations, and has ordered a review of some quite grossly inflated salaries (ThisDay, 21 January, 2004 and Business Report, 28 January, 2004). "Transformation" has certainly compromised the ANC's historic commitment to non-racialism and serves as a basis for consolidating power through a new elite. As Giliomee and Simkins, quoting TJ Pempel, have observed for dominant party systems in recent history, "historic projects" like transformation, by shaping the national agenda, produce a cycle of dominance or hegemony. (Hermann Giliomee and Charles Simkins, 1999, The awkward embrace: one party domination and democracy, Tafelberg).

But the vanguard of beneficiariest that is locked into supporting the ANC by transformation is still a relatively small minority. How does one explain the unusual political loyalty in the face of dissatisfaction among the masses? Popular Afrikaner politics in the era of the poor whites decades ago give some clues. A common feature of non-mobilised poor people in unequal societies is self-pity. This self-pity creates a powerful need for demonstrations of sympathy and for a leadership that "cares". The power of expressions of care and sympathy, more than ideological conversion, accounted for the displacement of socialism by welfare democracies throughout the industrial world. It is a symbolic populism of a kind in which expressions of sympathy and token welfare take precedence over longer-term policies of empowering and developing the resources of the poor.

The ANC supporting masses have become captive of this kind of populism. Helen Suzman Foundation opinion polls suggest that the ANC suffered modest setbacks in support during the era of the Masakhane campaigns to get poor people to pay for services and particularly in 2000 and 2001 when the government stance on HIV/Aids created an image of a lack of sympathy. In 2002 one poll showed that only 11 per cent of ANC supporters felt that poor people and the unemployed benefited most from government policies, and some 77 per cent felt that poor people were the most neglected group. During 2003, however, after Mbeki revised his position on HIV/Aids, started to visit townships more frequently and when Child Grants came on stream, support for the ANC recovered significantly.

The ANC seems to have renewed its skill at presenting itself as a caring party. Even though the ANC has resisted a Basic Income Grant, its expanded social pensions, Child Grants, comprehensive social subsidies of various kinds and its infinite patience in the face of non-payment of local rates, service charges and housing bonds have reinforced its image as a "caring party". Opposition parties are simply not able to compete with the constant repetition of the slogan, "a better life for all".

Any responsible opposition has to question short-term palliatives, but in our climate of self-pity and boundless need for succour, the collective opposition has been at a constant disadvantage. Hence, in my view, there is nothing peculiarly "African" or "pre-democratic" that accounts for the huge popularity advantage of the ANC. It is not a question of racial solidarity but of the exploitation of understandable short-term interests.

The ANC's skill in playing to the short-term interests involved in transformation at the elite levels and welfare politics for the masses goes back to its history as a "broad church". This is a penchant for syncretism - the blending of contradictory policies to position itself favourably for a variety of audiences and constituencies. Currently this balance of contradictions works so well for the ANC that one is almost surprised that the ANC remains so committed to some very tough and sensible macro-economic policies.

But sympathetic contradictions will not deliver economic growth, create employment or an efficient civil service. More and more voters, even among the supplicating poor, will realise this as time goes by. The survey results presented at the beginning of this article show that significant minorities of ordinary voters realise the relevance of alternative approaches and the need for opposition.

Hence although the ANC will win the 2004 elections with relative ease, thereafter opportunities for opposition parties will expand. Opposition parties, however, will only be able to exploit these opportunities if they devise ways of demonstrating to voters that some unpopular policies are necessary to deliver longer run prosperity.

This is a tough call, but a challenge that is not peculiar to South Africa or Africa. The consolidation of democracy, the longer run stability of society and ultimately the real empowerment of millions of poor people all depend on how well this challenge is met. This is a reason why the international community and development agencies operating in Africa should be as concerned about the quality of opposition as with the quality of governance in the current phase.