There is no issue or factor that, on its own, will determine whether the African National Congress (ANC) gains or loses support in the May election.
While the anger and disappointment of some sections of our country’s citizenry over the response of President Jacob Zuma and his party, the ANC, to the report of the Public Protector on the Nkandla security upgrade scandal may be justified, it is by no means an indication that a significant number of ANC supporters will abandon the ruling party in the upcoming general election.
While this may itself be true, it is possible that the ANC, because of its blind loyalty to, and uncritical defence of the President, may be planting the seeds of its ultimate demise.
But what is important for now is the need to interrogate the reasons why this is not obvious to the supporters of the President. In this regard, we must start by distinguishing support for the President from support for the ANC. In other words, there is a need to differ- entiate between what is in the best interests of the dominant faction in the ruling party and that which is inconsistent with the national interest and the interests of the party. This conflict in interests has been shaped by the fact that, for some supporters of the President, the interests of the dominant faction and those of the ANC as a party have become synonymous. In fact, the party and the dominant faction have become one. And, therefore, to defend the President is to defend the ANC by defending the interests of the dominant faction.
But what is more interesting is the possibility that, at a conscious or unconscious level, statements by some leaders of the ANC are intended to invoke the liberation movement model. In terms of the liberation movement model, the liberation movement has many features and one of the most important relates to the disappearance of the line between ‘the people’ or ‘our people’ on the one hand and the liberation movement on the other. The people and the liberation movement are one, and the liberation movement is an organisational expression and manifestation of all things that are in the best interests of the people as a whole or those among the people who constitute the key motive force of revolution. To speak in criticism of the leader or the liberation movement is, therefore, to speak ill of the people themselves.
In our postapartheid ‘democratic’ setting, the ANC can rely on its doctrine of democratic centralism if the need to arrest internal dissent arises. It can also rely on the benefits of single- party dominance as one of the by-products of our uncompetitive party system. More important is the fact that the uncompetitive nature of our party system means that opposition parties cannot perform the function of agents of restraint. Under these circumstances, nothing constrains the dominant faction in the ruling party from making choices which widen even further the gap between the ideals of the party and what it has become, since there is a conflict between the ideals of the party and the interests of the dominant faction. In very simple terms, the dismissive response of the ANC to the report of the Public Protector is informed by weaknesses in our political system that have conspired to the advantage of the dominant faction in the ruling party. In addition, it may be no exaggeration to suggest that statements in defence of the President are, in part, informed by the fact that, increasingly, members of the ANC are nothing more than affiliates of other members.
However, what is of particular interest to me is the possibility that the Nkandla report is not going to have a significantly negative impact on the electoral fortunes of the ANC. To some extent, ANC leaders are not too wrong when they suggest that the Nkandlagate report has become an obsession of the mainstream media, the chattering classes and the middle class.
It would not be for the first, and most probably will not be the last time these groups of South Africans confuse their views and political preferences with national opinion. Further, the majority of ANC supporters do distinguish between the party and the leader. In the absence of what they consider to be credible alternatives to the ANC, they will vote for it despite the Nkandlagate scandal and whatever misgivings they might have about Zuma. As for criticism from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), its leaders must remember that political perceptions are sometimes shaped more by a criminal conviction in the court of public opinion, in which case EFF leader Julius Malema may be deemed unfit by some ANC voters to opine on the Nkandlagate scandal. And, whether we like it or not, moral and ethical considerations are not going to be major concerns for most ANC voters.