Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The South African Opposition Challenge

Split of the vote since 1994: ANC is essentially at its
1994 level after increases in 1999 and 2004; the DA
has about the same share as the NP+DP in 1994.
When the dust has settled on the elections and the DA and EFF are over their triumph at a big swing in their direction (5.6% to the DA taking them to 22.2%, 6.4% from nothing to the EFF), we have to sit back and look at the big picture.

The total gains of these two parties are more than 3 times the swing of 3.75% from the ANC.

A remarkable thing about this election is how little the ANC was hurt by a string of scandals and blunders. While a swing of nearly 4% is pretty big, the ANC’s share of the vote in 2014 is only 0.5% below its level in the first democratic election in 1994 (illustrated, right).

Most of the DA and EFF increase has come from the collapse of other opposition party votes. Part of the DA swing is also accounted for by taking over Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats, who scored nearly 1% last time. COPE alone lost nearly 7%, and most minor parties lost votes.

While the DA has done well to increase its votes every election, chasing after votes of other minor parties has had the inevitable consequence of the DA losing coherence, with nasty infighting and selective leaks, some of which can only emanate from senior leadership. It was this selective leak culture that made the proposed deal with Agang very difficult to stitch together – leaks forced a premature announcement, leading to confusion.

Vote since 1994 including NP and NNP
Vote since 1994 including National Party 1994: the
opposition has essentially gone sideways and the ANC
has not really been punished for lack of performance.
The DA, to put things in perspective, in 2014 has about the same vote share as the combined Democratic Party (1.7%) and National Party (20.4%) vote in 1994 (total 22.1%). While this may be from a different demographic split (if you look at provincial votes, there are some big shifts), the DA has not significantly grown the opposition vote. In fact, given that they have picked up some support from black voters who would not have voted for the National Party, it is surprising that their vote share is no bigger than the combined DP-NP vote of 1994.

Look at the second picture: the dashed lines show that the conservative opposition vote has barely shifted since 1994, as has that of the ANC, while other opposition parties have been trading places rather than growing overall.

Another truly remarkable thing about this election is the way communities that have most reason to be upset about government failure still vote solidly ANC – sometimes with 80-90% of the vote. Ironically, where government has failed less, opposition parties score more votes. The DA has a real shot at winning a number of metros where the ANC vote has dropped to close to or even below 50%. These include Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela and Tshwane.

Despite all the complaints about potholes, e-tolls and the like, services in the metros are way better than in ANC-run small towns and deep rural areas. Where I live in Makana in the Eastern Cape, some township residents have been without water for months, some even years. Most rural schools are of a poor standard, and many rural communities have little or no cash economy besides social grants, with no prospect of jobs.

The ANC meanwhile is increasingly focused on pandering to the needs of a self-serving elite. The opposition made too much of Nkandla, allowing the ANC to paint a rosy picture of “good stories” – as if Nkandla was a glitch. Yet by the government’s own figures, R33-billion was lost to waste and corruption last financial year, an Nkandla every three days. No, not a glitch. This is the way the government usually does business.

 To resolve the mystery of why so many people who have cause for complaint vote ANC solidly, we have to look to history for why the excluded poor do not automatically rise up against a self-serving elite. In medieval times, a “good” lord ensured his serfs didn’t starve, since they were valuable as a pool of labour and as cannon fodder when a lord was called on to provide soldiers. Serfs were never allowed too much though – that would give them ideas above their station. Feudalism eventually ended when labour became scarce after Europe was depopulated by crusades, creating an opening for a working class with commercially valued labour.

As De Tocqueville observed, revolution broke out in France not because conditions were especially bad there, but because they were better than average in Europe – frustrated hope is a much bigger drive for change than utter hopelessness.

And that is the key to opposition politics in South Africa: very poor people on the edge of starvation are inherently conservative. They do not rebel against the existing order, not matter how unfair, if the existing order can instil in them the fear that they will do even worse if things change.

How unfair is the existing order? The worst off 20% of the population earn less than 3% of national income, and more than half of that is social grants. The best-off 10% account for over 50% of national income.

When out campaigning for Agang, one of the most incongruous sights was seeing a top of the line Merc festooned with ANC socks on its side mirrors cruising through a scene of extreme poverty. Why did those who had been left behind not bitterly resent the theft of public resources that went into that Merc? For the same reason a lord and retinue of knights in shining armour could parade through scenes of medieval poverty without risk of attack. Feudalism was such a complete trap that the victims could see no way out.

Here’s bad news for opposition parties: feudalism was an extremely enduring system. However, a key difference between the old kind and the new kind is we nominally live in a democracy. It is theoretically possible for a political movement to arise that challenges the system. It hasn’t happened yet, judging from the voting pattern of the last 20 years.

Why did Agang not do well this last election? Part of it was the difficulty of scaling up a new organization from nothing – the EFF for example had a large chunk of the ANC Youth League to build on. Another part was we were trying to address this dysfunction of the political system by addressing the left out voters – but the inherent conservatism of the victimized poor makes them a difficult constituency to win over. Much has been made of the failed DA deal – that was a setback, but cannot explain the whole problem.

I supported Agang because of Mamphela Ramphele’s history in Black Consciousness. What we badly need in this country is a revitalizing of hope, and the BC message of self-reliance, self-respect and rejection of externally-imposed limits is very much needed in South Africa today. It remains to be seen if the Agang project can survive the setback of a very low vote – but it is a worthwhile project and I intend to continue to pursue its goals.

No comments: