South African opposition can no longer hide behind Zuma
Cape Town Letter: DA and EFF parties relied on presidential scandals to distract public
African National Congress (ANC) leader Cyril Ramaphosa addresses a meeting of the ruling party in Johannesburg earlier this month. Photograph: Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images
South Africa’s two largest opposition parties have been finding out the hard way how integral the recently ousted Jacob Zuma’s scandal-ridden presidency was to their own popularity with the public.
Millions of South African voters became disillusioned with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party under Zuma because of the allegations of corruption that dogged him throughout his nine years as the country’s president.
With so many voters susceptible to switching political homes, it was hardly surprising that the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) cloaked many of their strategies to attract new support in their opposition to the unpopular Zuma and his ANC allies.
And to a large degree this approach proved successful at the ballot box. The liberal DA’s popularity with voters has grown significantly since Zuma first took the helm of the country in 2009.
From the general election that year to the 2014 national poll, the DA increased its support base from 16.66 per cent to 22.2 per cent. In the 2016 local elections it increased its support further to 26.9 per cent.
Julius Malema’s EFF came into existence in the Zuma years after the former ANC youth league leader was sacked from the ruling party in 2012 by the man he had helped to become its president in 2007.
The far-left party has grown steadily since it was formed in 2013, securing a credible 6.35 per cent of the vote in the 2014 national elections. Two years later at the local government poll it edged its support up to 8.31 per cent.
Beating the anti-Zuma drum proved so successful that in 2016 the DA, EFF and some smaller parties got enough support on the back of an anti-corruption election campaign to push the ANC out of power in the cities of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria.
Moving to reverse this situation and secure another term in office at the 2019 general election, the ANC elected Cyril Ramaphosa its new leader last December and forced Zuma to resign as South Africa’s president in February.
Unsurprisingly, given that many South Africans find it difficult to ditch the ANC because of its role in ending apartheid, Zuma’s demise has benefited the party’s public standing.
Under Ramaphosa the ANC has been granted a honeymoon period by ordinary citizens in the hope it will purge itself of corrupt members and implement the social and economic policies the nation needs to prosper.
However, the public has been less forgiving of the DA and EFF in the post-Zuma era. Both have been scrambling to maintain their relevance, and their own inherent weaknesses are no longer camouflaged by Zuma’s scandal-prone rule.
In the weeks since Zuma’s fall the DA has already sullied its image with the electorate because of its inability to resolve internal party rows that have suspiciously racist undertones.
The most significant of these involves Cape Town’s DA-appointed mayor, Patricia de Lille, a popular politician of mixed-race descent. She appears to have got on the wrong side of a faction in the DA that is predominately white.
It is still seen by many as a party that supports the interests of whites first, and the manner in which the DA has attempted to remove de Lille from office in recent months does little to dispel that notion.
De Lille has been accused of nepotism and turning a blind eye to corruption, but the allegation has not been dealt with by a disciplinary hearing or court.
Instead, the DA has chosen to take a shortcut to get rid of her. Earlier this month it said that under its rules de Lille automatically forfeited her party membership – and therefore her position as mayor – by indicating during a radio program that she planned to quit once she had cleared her name.
De Lille is contesting this position in court, and the legal row could drag on for months.
The DA’s deputy federal chairwoman Natasha Mazzone has conceded the party has suffered “immeasurable damage” from the de Lille row. “We recognise that we will need to rebuild trust with the voters.”
As for the EFF, it has chosen to become even more extreme and populist in the post-Zuma era. Among other things it wants to introduce land expropriation without compensation and to nationalise the country’s mines and banks.
In addition, Malema and the EFF have been sharply criticised over their ongoing attacks on white people in South Africa, who they scapegoat for many of the country’s social ills.
The respected commentator Justice Malala said of Malema recently that with Zuma gone, “the fascist within has been revealed”.
“He never went away,” Malala wrote. “Instead, he hid under the cloak of the anti-Zuma struggles that many South Africans waged.”