Eye witness: South African Elections

Ben Rodger - Cape Town 8 June 2009

When you consider that the past year has seen the African National Congress (ANC) suffer an unprecedented level of turmoil since their re-admission into the political process in 1994, their approach towards electioneering in Cape Town initially seems – to a foreigner recently arrived in the country – slightly odd.

Indeed, given that their representation may drop under the 60% mark for the first time, and the prominence of Jacob Zuma’s battle to escape fraud charges, one might expect that the ANC wouldbe pouring all of their efforts into a campaign emphasising the positives that the party will bring to the country.

However, whilst the placards of the Democratic Alliance and their leader Helen Zille can be found on every street corner, alongside images of Cope, Inkatha and the Independent Democrats respectively, one face seems to be missing: that of Zuma.

The reason, so I’m told, is fairly obvious. In a worrying parallel to Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party control the countryside, the same applies in South Africa where anything other than ANC rule is regarded as rule by the white man. Zuma is the warrior chief, an image that goes a long way to explaining his support-base. He is accessible and is by no means the friend to big-business that his predecessor Thabo Mbeki was. Indeed, having received next to no formal schooling, he makes few pretensions to being anything other than a man of the people. Naturally, a spell on the notorious Robben Island has rarely done anything to harm the image of the ANC’s leadership, and the same goes for Zuma.

As is often the case, quiet work behind the scenes has been going on in order to both protect the ANC and discredit their rivals. For example, Special Assignment – a satire that regularly took aim at Zuma – was pulled by the South African Broadcasting Commission reportedly on the orders of the upper echelons of the ANC.

In addition, there has been an element of negative electioneering – for instance, the distribution of anti-Cope material in rural areas such as Limpopo. Of course, this is not just a method of the ANC: the DA’s initial slogan of ‘Vote to Win’ has been replaced in many places by simply ‘Stop Jacob Zuma’. In many respects, this highlights the realisation that the opposition parties can achieve little aside from reducing the ANC’s majority – even huge election gains would still leave them all trailing far behind Zuma.

In terms of violence, little has made the news recently, but at the same time there is no doubt it is happening. The highly publicized killings of five politicians in the Eastern Cape since the start of the year do more than hint at future problems. Much of the unrest is on a small scale, such as the disruption of rallies or intimidation, but should the ANC’s hold on power weaken to anything below 60%, expect tensions to intensify.

Ben Rodger – Cape Town