🔒 RW Johnson: Reading the election’24 tea leaves

The recent Markdata survey commissioned by eNCA, analyzed by R.W. Johnson, unveils a landscape of political discontent in South Africa. With the ANC’s vote plummeting to 41.4% and a surge in support for the MK party at 10.9%, alongside widespread disillusionment with the ruling elite, the survey paints a picture of a populace yearning for change. However, amidst the desire for a new government, concerns arise about the stability of potential coalition arrangements and the fragility of the ANC’s dominance. The survey also highlights a willingness among voters to prioritize efficiency and incorruptibility over strict adherence to democratic norms, signalling a complex political landscape ripe for further evolution.

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By RW Johnson ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

For the past fortnight I have been pouring over the results of the Markdata survey commissioned by ENCA. With a far larger sample than any of the telephone polls recently conducted and with the advantage of face-to-face interviews right round the country, including deep rural areas, the survey provides a wealth of information. But in the end – and far more than is usually the case – I was left wondering what did it all mean ? Indeed, it put me in mind of John Keats’ sonnet, “On looking into Chapman’s Homer once again”. Keats talks about the excitement felt by “a watcher of the skies” when “a new planet swims into his ken” or the “wild surmise” Magellan must have felt on first glimpsing the Pacific Ocean. 

Not that the survey was that profound. But it was intriguing. The headline results weren’t in doubt – a collapse in the ANC vote to 41.4%, the MK party rising out of nowhere to 10.9%, the DA at 20% and the EFF at 15.5%. But even more striking was the pervasive mood of pessimism and disillusionment revealed by the survey, an almost complete cynicism about the ruling political elite and a wish to have a complete change from the present dispensation. On the other hand, these feelings are still cross-cut by party loyalties which in some cases constrain or limit the full expression of those feelings. We saw this with the very first question which asked whether respondents would like a complete change but carefully avoided putting this in party terms. 57.5% wanted a complete change and a different government, but that government’s political complexion was unspecified. When we then introduced questions involving partisan loyalties the picture shifted. We found, for example, that 50% of voters welcomed the Opposition’s Multi-Party Charter “because it’s time for a change”, but only 27.5% were willing to vote for parties which were part of the MPC.

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This split-level reality is likely to produce mixed and contradictory results. On the one hand it seems clear it will produce sweeping defeats for the ANC with the loss of large numbers of parliamentary and provincial legislature seats and a great weakening of the ANC patronage machine. On the other hand the ANC seems bound to remain the dominant party and the inevitable heart of any coalition government. Moreover, the three possible coalition arrangements (ANC-MK, ANC-EFF and ANC-DA) all seem unlikely to provide a stable and workable government. We may be heading for ungovernability or a very weak government which will accentuate state failure. 

Several of our questions explicitly asked respondents to look back over the whole 1994-2014 epoch, now likely to be defined as the (vanished) period of ANC majority rule. And in any case the sense of a finite epoch, of thirty years of ANC rule, is very present in the media and, doubtless, in the minds of our respondents. 

That 30 years period was introduced with enormous fanfare as the Coming of Freedom, the Arrival of Democracy, the Era of Reconciliation, the Rainbow Nation, the Dawn of Transformation, South Africa the Miracle Country with one of the world’s finest constitutions. There was to be A Better Life For All. Thirty years later this has only served to deepen the sense of disappointment and disillusionment. Far from believing in a better life for all, the large majority of respondents expect the future to be worse or merely the same as the (unsatisfactory) present.That is pretty gloomy if one takes into account that GDP per capita has been steadily falling for a decade now. The only political leader with a net positive rating was the long-retired former President Mbeki. All currently active politicians have negative net ratings.

There was a strong sense in many of the responses of the rejection of the entire post-1994 epoch. The majority wish for direct presidential election and a more constituency-based parliamentary system should be seen as rejections of crucial elements in the current political system. Similarly, the willingness of a majority to surrender democracy if in its place they could have an efficient and incorruptible government signifies a willingness to do away with the whole of the present constitutional order. The distrust of the IEC and, even more, the doubt that the ruling ANC would behave democratically in defeat (only a small minority believe that it would leave power peacefully if defeated) also reveal that key elements of the political status quo are contested. Those who enjoy rhapsodising about our wonderful Constitution should be warned that the electorate no longer shares their feelings. As the example of Weimar Germany shows that a new set of political institutions, no matter how democratic, is extremely vulnerable to popular rejection if the apparent fruits of democracy are mass unemployment or hyperinflation. In South Africa too, democracy has brought mass unemployment, runaway corruption and widespread state failure.

Yet there is a strong sense in which the situation resembles the over-quoted maxim of Antonio Gramsci about the old that is dying and the new that cannot be born, producing an interregnum full of morbid symptoms. For while the ANC has collapsed, losing 14%-15% of the vote, the victory of the counter-revolution (as the ANC would see it) has not yet arrived because of the lack of a popularly acceptable alternative government. So the ANC will remain the largest party and the inevitable centre of any coalition government. And residual party loyalties are still too present to prevent the electorate from blindly accepting an EFF, DA or MK alternative. 

But at the same time the ANC vote is extremely fragile. There are many proofs of this – the way the ANC vote has utterly collapsed in KwaZulu-Natal, from 54% in 2019 to 13% now or from over 70% in Mpumalanga in 2019 to 41.6% now, or the willingness of almost a quarter of the ANC’s remaining electorate to welcome “a complete change” including a new government. Moreover, large majorities of voters see the ANC as unreformable and its leaders as simply not caring about the public good. Whether we asked about increasing poverty and inequality or about declining standards of public health or education the answer was always the same, that the ANC elite is greedy, corrupt and doesn’t care. 

All this makes it only too possible that what we are watching is merely the first part of a protracted ANC collapse, with the second part occurring only in 2029. What makes prediction hard is the impossibility of forecasting the future of MK. Jacob Zuma is 82, after all, and is unlikely to be available to lead it in future elections. However, one must take note of the fact that in the 1980s and 1990s Mangosuthu Buthelezi was able to marshal a Zulu majority against the UDF/ANC. Then in 2005-2007 Zuma was able to marshal that majority against Thabo Mbeki and now, in 2024, against Ramaphosa’s ANC. And at the same time there is a resurgent IFP with over 20% of the vote. The constant here is a Zulu nationalism with great staying power. The survey data from KwaZulu-Natal suggests a province in tumult, perhaps even on the verge of secession. So even if Jacob Zuma disappears from the scene it is by no mean clear that Zulu voters will simply reintegrate themselves into the ANC. 

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Forecasting the ANC’s future isn’t easy either though the omens are not good. Voters are, after all, quite right to regard the ANC as unreformable and its leadership as corrupt and uncaring. And the ANC stubbornly resists the economic reforms which could reduce unemployment. So the future direction of travel would appear to be downwards. Moreover, Cyril Ramaphosa’s popularity no longer props up the ANC, as it did in 2019. Indeed, a 4:3 plurality now thought he had been a disappointment as President. But all his possible successors are more unpopular than he is – indeed, the deputy president, Paul Mashatile, is unfavourably regarded by twice as many as those who regard him favourably. Moreover, Mashatile’s several palatial residences have already earned him both police and media attention. With the Speaker of Parliament also under investigation for corruption there seems scant prospect that the ANC will be able to improve its disastrous popular image. And while there is no sign of a successor governing party the process of political fragmentation clearly has further to run. This too points towards ungovernability and state failure. 

Perhaps the most intriguing result is that 48.6% of respondents would be willing to give up democracy if they could instead have an efficient and incorruptible government – against 44.4% who thought it more important to preserve democracy. Moreover a majority of respondents were more concerned that a government should work well than that it should be demographically representative. It was striking, too, that a majority of both ANC and EFF supporters favoured the privatisation of state owned enterprises, despite the fact that this flies in the face of their parties’ ideological commitments. The point here was not so much that such voters have undergone a process of ideological conversion: it is more that voters are bitterly frustrated with all the things that no longer work properly. They just want whatever works. Thus while only 20% of voters were prepared to vote for the DA, a full 80% agreed that the DA-ruled Western Cape was the most successfully governed part of the country. And the DA was the most favoured party to be part of a coalition, more favoured even than the ANC.

Whenever a survey is conducted one only sees later that there is at least one key question which should have been asked but wasn’t. In this case one must bear in mind that when respondents say they are deeply disillusioned and disappointed with ANC governance, the only comparator in their minds is the white minority government which preceded the post-1994 era and was undoubtedly viewed as more efficient and less corrupt than the ANC. So the key missing question this time was whether and under what conditions would respondents prefer the old minority government to the one they have now ? Has the disillusionment with the post-1994 epoch become so deep that voters would like to put the clock back ?   We simply don’t know but we have reached a point where the resulting answers could be interesting.

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