How the ANC and Swapo strategise to stay in power


From the outside, Namibia looks just like South Africa with vast and growing income inequalities, high unemployment and a national politics dominated by their liberation struggle as well as a colonial and pre-independence history, as if not more brutal than South Africa’s. 

Unlike in South Africa, however, the ruling party has never been more popular. The November 28 national election saw the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) win a landslide 80 percent of the vote up from 75 percent. As impressively, voter turnout is above 70 percent and elections are essentially free, fair and transparent.

While 2014 saw the African National Congress (ANC) lose seats in parliament for the first time since 1994; there are good reasons to believe that Swapo’s landslide victory could foretell the continued success of the ANC in South Africa. When explaining why they vote for Swapo Namibians here are quick to point out that Swapo has delivered stability more than anything else.

Swapo’s 2014 political slogan, “Consolidating Peace, Stability and Prosperity” and the electorate’s resonance with the need for stability, however, mask a deeply ambitious, complex but subtle political narrative.

Swapo’s elite, like the ANC’s have crafted a brand and a narrative that present South Africa and Namibia alike as equals in the global community. Both the ANC and Swapo understand that the bulk of the electorate are tired and angry of Africa being seen and presented as a failure. The man in the street is tired of Africa being branded as a collection of backward and ‘kleptocratic’ states populated with unsophisticated peoples and disinterested electorates.

 For this reason, Swapo eschews talking about ‘poverty’ in favour of first world concepts such as combatting disadvantage and building an inclusive work force. What Swapo presents to the Namibian electorate is a country able and confident to compete on the international stage, a country where improving longevity, managing diabetes and providing sophisticated cancer treatments are as important as combatting HIV/AIDS, where green economies, industrialisation and full employment are within reach with the right party in the lead.

In short, Swapo gives Namibians something to vote for, thus differentiating itself from the opposition that is largely associated as being a vote against the way things are more than anything else. Voting for a better and richer Namibia is a vote for hope and positions Swapo as the facilitator of positive change thus giving it an insurmountable advantage over the opposition.

In South Africa, the ANC is not yet in the same space as Swapo because it is still torn between its members that want to talk about inequality and poverty and those that want to talk about industrialisation, first world health care systems and sophisticated infrastructure investments. But over time, it is likely that the ANC will realise that its biggest competitive advantage is its least sexy: a stable South Africa, with calm decision makers and measured steps towards growth is something South Africa’s electorate will continue to vote for as do Namibia’s.

Julius Malema’s, Namibian copycat of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), made little impact on Namibia’s elections largely because they were unable to present a vision of what to vote for. Similarly, when the dust settles from the recent parliamentary spat in South Africa, the ANC will come across as wanting to maintain calm and order in parliament whilst the EFF and DA will likely be associated with undisciplined and rowdy behaviour. In the short-term, it is certainly exciting and appealing to see accountability in action in the way that the EFF and DA confronted the speaker of parliament. 

However, in the long term this will prove disastrous because it feeds into a narrative and imagery that most South Africans simply do not want to see: that is of an ungovernable, backward South Africa that embodies the worst of Western derogatory perceptions of Africa.

At the end of the day, while the DA and EFF have very different politics they have mistakenly crafted their branding in a way that makes them relevant only so long as the ANC fails to deliver or rein in corruption. In many voters’ eyes, the DA promises nothing more than to implement the ANC’s policies more efficiently and cleanly. The problem is that to vote for the DA or EFF essentially means to support the allegation that South Africa embodies the worst and most degraded images of what Africa can be.

Similarly, while the EFF at least has a different ideological bent, it too relies on a narrative positioning itself as the vanguard against bandit and crony capitalism, an Africa in decay and rotten to the core. Simply put, neither of the images put forward by the EFF and DA are appealing or affirming. Furthermore, it is quite clear that this picture of Africa might very well be the reason that the DA and EFF fail to win a majority from an electorate tired of talking about Africa (and by implication, Africans) as a failure. If the ANC’s opposition is to have a better chance at electoral success than Swapo’s, they need to give voters hope and a narrative that affirms and builds on the good of South Africa.

While the day-to-day politics may focus on South Africa backsliding, the ANC and President Jacob Zuma are playing the long game. They are investing in branding the ANC as having the only credible vision for a first world South Africa. This is what’s at stake with the Presidency’s investment in the National Development Plan, the extensive and expensive government monitoring and analysis services and investments in first world infrastructure. As Zuma famously quipped, the roads to Tshwane cannot be compared to those in Malawi’s capital, clearly distancing South Africa from that of ‘Africa’ as a whole. Zuma’s South Africa is a South Africa of high-speed railways, shining football stadiums, international influence in peace keeping as well as international finance and in challenging the hegemony of the World Bank.

The EFF and DA must spend the time to 2019 developing a credible and positive vision for South Africa if they hope to get the support of those voters that see South Arica as one in a nation of equals and not a country primarily determined by the worst associations and often derogatory visions of African incompetence. If South Africa’s opposition are to learn anything from Namibia’s elections, it must be that they need to play the long game to be credible. The ANC certainly understands this and in 2019 will undoubtedly run on how they preserved the dignity and authority of South Africa’s institutions while demonstrating the success of South Africa abroad.

If the ANC is able to successfully brand the DA and EFF as rabble-rousers, interested in nothing more than destabilising and interrupting democratic processes, the ANC will yet again win the heart of the electorate and easily out-manoeuvre their opponents. 

At the end of the day, politics is theatre and when it comes to the issues that matter most such as educating one’s children and caring for one’s parents, dull as it may be, calm, austere and authoritative almost always wins over histrionic, combative and disruptive. – Pambazuka News

* Alexander O’Riordan is an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding Researcher. This article was first published by The South African Civil Society Information Service

December 2014
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