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The ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, is facing a dramatic decline in support ahead of the country’s 2024 election. According to recent polls, the ANC’s support has fallen to 37%, the lowest it has been in the past year, and 20.5 percentage points less than the party received in the 2019 national election. The Eskom crisis, combined with the party’s failure to deliver growth, services, and jobs, has eroded its authority. President Cyril Ramaphosa has been a reluctant reformer and it is highly unlikely that a cabinet reshuffle will bring about significant change. The ANC’s response to decline is likely to involve a strong leaning towards populism, with a focus on extending the social grant system and scare-mongering tactics.
How the ANC is facing decline
By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*
There are multiple signs that the ANC is in decline. Various polls show a steep loss of support. The ANC has failed to deliver growth, services and jobs, and it has lost a sense of higher purpose and direction. The party has also shown that it is unable to fundamentally change its ideas and modernise.
The Eskom crisis has sounded a national alarm about the wider dangers of ANC rule. If a party so committed to a large role for the state cannot even provide reliable power, its authority is eroded with each blackout.
With the election to be held around May next year, the country is already in campaign mode. Recent polls must have contributed to a mounting sense of panic in the party over the chance that it might have to share power in a coalition or be out of government.
Polls over the past year have shown a dramatic fall-off in support for the ANC. Almost all the recent polls are consistent in showing the same direction of travel: a fall in support and the ANC polling below 50 percent. A poll leaked last week to the Sunday newspaper, Rapport, shows ANC support at 37 percent. This is by far the lowest showing of ANC support of all the polls conducted in the past year. This is 20.5 percentage points less than the party received in the national election in 2019, and 6.5 percentage points less than it achieved in the 2021 municipal election.
If it achieved only 37 percent, the ANC would be in a rush to find coalition partners and could just find itself out of power if opposition parties put together a government.
There are no quick fixes for the ANC to effectively window-dress its upcoming election campaign. There are power cuts, there is minimal economic growth, high unemployment, a failure by the government to do its job, and for much of the nation there is a loss of hope.
A fresh agenda in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address, SONA, later this week and the pending Cabinet reshuffle, cannot save the party. What can save us is faster economic growth, lower unemployment, and an end to power cuts. But Ramaphosa and his cabinet have shown themselves unable to take the big steps, like large scale privatisation and cutting the role of government in order to unleash growth.
This year’s SONA will be an attempt to lift the national mood, offer hope, and bolster ANC chances at next year’s election. In previous SONAs the President has shot high, with plans to build smart cities and promote the electric vehicle industry. A social compact between big business, labour, government, and community groups is now in draft form, and has been a high priority. These are all distractions from the country’s most pressing issues of how to lay the basis for faster growth.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has been a reluctant reformer. It has been a slow and tortuous process expanding the role of independent power producers even in the face of an energy crisis. Now that he has overcome his opponents in the ANC and rules supreme, he should be pushing ahead with reforms. So far, the two major reforms have been lifting the 100 MW threshold in what independent power producers are allowed to generate, and permitting Transnet to sell off concessions to the private sector on the Durban-to-Johannesburg rail freight route.
These are all positive, but the private sector should be permitted an even larger role in all the areas dominated by state enterprise. But the ANC cannot break with its core system of beliefs. One of their worries is that wholesale privatisation would undermine its project of black empowerment, and whites and foreigners would dominate the economy. It would also undermine a source of patronage and hence support.
It is highly unlikely that a Cabinet reshuffle will inject greater impetus into the government. A fresh Cabinet will amount to a new look to the government and reward the ANC factions that supported Ramaphosa, but it is highly unlikely to bring about a spurt of reform in the year before the election.
In the run-up to the election, the ANC must show the nation it is doing something to deal with the power crisis. It will be very difficult for the party to hide the fact that it is responsible for the Eskom disaster. So, a declaration of a state of disaster could help the ANC show that it is being proactive. Whether this in fact reduces power cuts is another matter. But to show its effectiveness in resolving the crisis, there will have to be far fewer hours of power cuts in the weeks running up to the election. That will be very difficult to achieve, other than by perhaps delaying Eskom’s maintenance programme.
The ANC’s response to decline will involve a strong leaning towards populism. In its campaign the ANC will have to make a far-fetched claim that the DA and all the opposition parties would cut social grants. Even if the ANC is widely distrusted, this sort of scare-mongering is something that works.
It might also feel compelled to extend the social grant system. There is discussion of a special grant for small businesses and individuals that have been badly hurt by the power cuts. The Treasury is studying the idea of a basic income grant, and there are other ideas floating about for an extension of the system of social grants. What makes grants central to any election campaign is that 46%of the population receive these benefits. With little growth and high unemployment, the system has become essential in alleviating poverty and in helping the ANC get re-elected.
Then, to capture votes that might perhaps go to the EFF, the ANC might well use the recently passed act which allows expropriation without compensation. It might seize and redistribute land as a sign that it means business.
There is an open question about whether the ANC will accept defeat. There is some credibility in the old adage that for a country to be a proven democracy there must have been at least two changes in government. There are a large number of long-ruling parties around the world that have cheated and rigged the voting to stay in power. This is a test that South Africa has yet to face.
Just before the 2014 elections, EFF ‘Commander-in-Chief’ Julius Malema complained about the Electoral Commission using members of the ANC-aligned South African Democratic Teachers Union as election officials. While there have been no large-scale voting irregularities so far, it may well be increasingly difficult to ensure free and fair elections if the ANC faces losing its majority. A party facing defeat might well resort to desperate measures.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.
*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.
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