OpEd: Writing the 2019 election: Watching ‘The X-Files’ with the lights off
Perceptions matter in politics. They matter, especially, during elections. The thing to remember, for those who want to be re-elected, is to have people believe you are humble. A zoot suit and shiny sneakers send bad messages.
The past seven days have been what we have come to expect as a rather typical week in South African politics. There were reports of corruption, crime, maladministration, of death on the country’s roads, of at least one senior politician picking a fight with the media, of another making his name mud, and raging fires somewhere in the country. In the middle of it all, the government was doing its best impression of Pangloss’s contradictions, after the previous week’s successful investors’ conference — with Gold Dust Ma in a starring role.
The events of the past week may seem incidental, especially since we have not fully felt the white heat of the elections. At the level of perception, however, last week’s events may have taken the three main political parties, the ANC, DA and EFF, several steps backward.
For once, the EFF have remained relatively free of controversy. This has not elevated the EFF to some moral high ground, it simply means that they have been quiet, except for the threat to sue a political commentator, and decrying the dismissal of Tom Moyane as Commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), as unlawful.
To this troika, we should, probably, add the United Democratic Movement asfilé powder to thicken our toxic political stew, after developments in the Nelson Mandela Metro last week. What, then, were these facts and events? What might be their significance? And, most crucially, what might be the perceptions? Let us start at the top, with the ANC’s Malusi Gigaba.
The Gigaba Affair
The personal life and peccadillos of any one of us should, necessarily, be private. This applies to everyone. Those of us, myself included, who live utterly boring lives have nothing to worry about. We have, however, raised the bar for elected officials, especially the most senior of state executives. The problem with the Gigaba sex tape going public is mainly around trust and security. It does raise the question of whether one can trust a Cabinet minister, if he cannot keep his own phone safe.
Last week, renewed questions were asked about the role Gigaba played in the creation of a private terminal at Oliver Tambo International Airport, for the exclusive use of the Oppenheimer family. These issues can be added to others that have cast a shadow over Gigaba’s fitness to hold office. These matters have been exposed and reported on over the past few years. They will not go away any time soon, and may haunt the ANC during the 2019 election. Let us pull on a few loose threads.
There was the 2015 story of a Gigaba family member wearing sneakers that cost an estimated R11,000. Two things are worth stating. First, people may wear what they choose. Second, we have to believe that no official funds were used to purchase the sneakers. There are, no doubt, people who would say that one should not “police black wealth” — which is fair. But if you live in a country with extreme levels of inequality, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, violence and displacement, it is probably good advice to keep displays of consumerism and avariciousness to a minimum. Perceptions matter in politics. They matter, especially, during elections. The thing to remember, for those who want to be re-elected, is to have people believe you are humble. A zoot suit and shiny sneakers send bad messages.
The Gigaba Affair — this is not a reference to any romantic tryst — is huge. It is one of the more damaged parts of that stereotypical minibus taxi that is the ANC. Gigaba’s tenure as Home Affairs Minister is also marked by apparent blunders. First there were the visa restrictions placed on foreign visitors travelling with children. Among regulations introduced by Gigaba in 2015, was one that required that children travelling to and from South Africa carry an unabridged birth certificate. Reports suggested that the tourism industry took a massive hit after Gigaba’s decision.
Gigaba is, however, not the only politician who is shaving away the credibility of the ruling party. A shady faction, reportedly steered by former president Jacob Zuma, seem bent on reversing key decisions by the ruling party, with serious implications for the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the ANC and of the republic. In the meantime, ANC members and leaders are being lined up to explain to the Zondo Commission on State Capture the roles they may have played in hollowing out the state through formal or informal criminal networks.
The Opposition Parties Falter
Across the aisle from the ANC, the DA lost two high-profile members last week. On Wednesday, Patricia de Lille resigned as Mayor of Cape Town and quit the DA, mostly because of what she described as “racism” within the party, and because, De Lille claimed, it was a party in which some people were more equal than others. The next day Brett Herron resigned from both the City council and the DA. On the way out of the door Herron described the DA as “a lost cause” and a party hanging on to “racial exclusivity”. A few days earlier five DA councillors from the City of Cape Town caucus resigned. The DA may have an election strategy and campaign in place, as one party leader explained, but the developments of the past week or so cannot help.
The EFF, apparently still reeling from being implicated in the VBS Mutual Bank scandal, peeked above the parapet briefly last week to file a lawsuit against political analyst Prince Mashele for defaming the party and its leader, Julius Malema. The EFF has demanded a public apology from Mashele after remarks where he alleged that the party was formed to pursue fraud and corruption, and that its deputy president Floyd Shivambu had been implicated in the banking scandal. If Mashele refused to apologise, the EFF threatened to sue him R500,000 for damages and “injury to their reputation”.
On cue, also, last week, the EFF released a statement objecting to the dismissal of SARS commissioner Moyane. We should assume that it is a coincidence that Moyane is represented by multi-millionaire lawyer Dali Mpofu, the National Chairperson of the EFF.
The UDM, too, staggered, at least in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro where the Mayor Mongameli Bobani has been implicated in dodgy financial transactions. It was reported last week that Bobani had allegedly received seven payments amounting to R664,000 from a company accused of siphoning money meant for Nelson Mandela Bay’s rickety bus system. This was reported after the Hawks launched an investigation into fraud‚ corruption and money laundering involving municipal officials‚ politicians and businesses.
The Significance of Facts and Events
The three main political parties face serious credibility problems. Their core body of members and supporters may be unwavering in their support, and sure of whom they will vote for next year. What seems clear, based on events of only the past week or so, is that the ANC, as the ruling party, continues to fight the scourges of corruption, maladministration and internal factional disputes.
The official opposition has image problems. It might be too soon to say whether the departure of De Lille and Herron will have short-term (the next six months) implications for the DA. The EFF seems wounded. Having been the loudest voice against apparent corruption and ill-advised decision-making during the Zuma years, some EFF leaders have been exposed as possibly having benefited from misadministration of funds. These remain allegations.
The one weapon the EFF used last week was a combination of a lack of understanding how political commentary on the pages of newspapers actually work, and contributions to the judicialisation of politics that has marked South Africa over the past decade or so. Their threat to sue Mashele for his opinions is the stand-out example. It may not go anywhere.
The EFF’s rejection of Moyane’s dismissal as SARS commissioner seems familiar. It is shaped in part by the belief that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” — where even a public servant dismissed for wrong-doing becomes “a friend”. Another part seems to be shaped by a type of political ambulance-chasing. They scan the horizon for things that go wrong, and rush to the scene for a photo-opportunity or sound bites.
The UDM is very much a regional party with its base in the Eastern Cape, although the party has received some support from pockets of voters around the country. We should probably wait for legal challenges involving the EFF, the DA, the ANC and the UDM to run their course. DM