Back in 1970, in the whites-only general election, the United Party (UP) campaigned with a poster: “Want TV? Vote UP!”
My progressive teenage set ridiculed the official opposition for such a marginal message, given the miseries of apartheid.
However, in that poll, for the first time in six elections, the UP actually gained seats off the National Party (NP). One feature of the TV slogan was a reminder that in addition to racial segregation, the NP stood for dour Calvinism; the relevant minister described television as “the devil’s box”. TV arrived six years later.
Lighting up the dark (courtesy of stage 4 load-shedding) this time is Julius Malema, whose latest slogan reads: “For flushing toilets, vote EFF”.
One of the myriad differences between the old UP slogan and the EFF’s current promise is that 50 years ago mass television was just 20 years old and, whatever its other attractions, it was not an essential part of basic life.
By contrast, flush toilets have been around for a century and failure to provide them is a denial of basic human dignity. Reminding voters today of the unfulfilled promises of the ANC is, like clubbing a baby seal, painfully easy.
Last week the ANC restored former president Thabo Mbeki to campaign prominence. However, when he was in office Mbeki solemnly assured parliament in 2006 that “the government will eradicate the bucket toilet system by the end of 2007”. Well, here we are 14 years later, and the painful salience of the EFF poster reminds voters of another unmet promise. No “better life” here, to quote another slogan.
President Cyril Ramaphosa himself is no slouch at overpromising and underdelivering. His sense of timing is also exquisitely off-key.
For example, earlier this week, on the very day that Eskom darkened the country in stage 4 blackouts, Ramaphosa cheerily informed investors that SA is to prioritise the production of electric cars.
But long before the state capture looting spree engulfed Eskom, crippling its capacity and deskilling it, the ANC had an uncomfortable electoral reckoning with its planning omissions at the state utility.
The night before the 2006 local elections, my last as a party leader, Cape Town suffered power cuts due to technical shortfalls and supply constraints at Koeberg. Extraordinarily, instead of manning up to the failure to build new plants, which he and Mbeki had nixed, public enterprises minister Alec Erwin blamed “sabotage” at Koeberg. The next day, voters ejected the ANC from power in the Mother City.
This week ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte was also in full third-force mode. She said of Eskom’s woes: “We are saying it is sabotage.” Like most mutterings from this motormouth, she later attempted to walk this back.
The fact that Ramaphosa escapes, electorally at least, the consequences of his gaffes and unkept promises says a lot about either about the credulousness of voters or the state of the opposition.
But there are other factors that might explain the president’s enduring personal popularity despite a backdrop of human misery, local government chaos, sky-high unemployment and a dearth of trust in state institutions.
One reason, beyond Ramaphosa’s easy charm and winning smile, is the absence of Jacob Zuma, now in the dock in Pietermaritzburg. He was the galvanising force in 2016 that propelled so many opposition voters to the polls and kept so many ANC supporters at home.
A ravaged country still breathes easier for his removal from the presidency and credits Ramaphosa for piloting his exit and replacing him. But his credit line, on the back of enduring power cuts and a tide of local misery, might prove on Monday to have been used up.
One insight into the state of play was offered by a resident of Makhanda, one of the worst-governed municipalities in SA, Xolelwa Donyeli.
Donyeli, who is standing for election in the former Grahamstown as a candidate of the Makana Citizens Front, told The Times of London: “Spending money on what a place is called is much easier than fixing its roads.”
By Tuesday morning we will have a good idea of how many South Africans in how many places endorse this sentiment. And this time back it with a vote.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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