A stern electorate gives the major parties one more chance to do what they promised
The limitations of each party were made plain by the votes given them
After many politicians spent recent months screaming at the top of their voices about change, the electorate has now demonstrated, with a healthy dose of gusto, who actually needs change.
The electorate has punished major political parties in this election - effectively ordering them to attend to the cognitive dissonance of performances inconsistent with actions. The ANC, DA, and EFF will, for myriad reasons, be forced to look back at the 2019 general elections and ask: what went wrong?
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The ruling ANC, though relieved that it retained the throne and thus thwarted any notion of an EFF and DA coalition at the Union Buildings, has suffered a constant decline in electoral support. While many, especially in the DA and EFF, were hoping that Jacob Zuma's shameless corruption and state capture would floor the ANC, the ANC faithful were able to see that the worst was over. These elections also prove that campaigning against the ANC on its failures, including corruption, has major limitations.The very existence of the state of capture commission, which is a public display of the ANC's corruption and failure to manage the state, was as a result of the ANC trying to find its path back from the "nine lost years".Not everybody forgave the ANC, of course. The main opposition against the ANC seems to be apathy rather than any political party. Voter turnout in the townships remains stunted.
Another reason the ANC underperformed was because it seemed to cede youth support to the EFF. The ANC Youth League, responsible for ANC razzmatazz in years gone by, is all but obsolete. The youth of the ANC seem subdued by the pensioners' league, to use EFF parlance for MPs and cabinet members over the age of 65.
The DA's failure to grow is not only spectacular - it introduces interesting questions about its future. Three main factors seem at the heart of its lack of growth: racial tension, a preoccupation with attacking the ANC, and policy uncertainty.
The DA suffered an acute identity crisis. When he replaced Helen Zille as the first black leader of the DA, much hope rested on Mmusi Maimane to bring the party black voter support. But this required delicate handling. Retaining some white right-wing supporters while establishing the DA as a home for new black members was always going to be too tight a rope to walk for Maimane.
The rise of the right-wing Freedom Front Plus (FF+) in this election is the result of disgruntled DA voters who responded well to the FF+'s slogan, Slaan Terug (Fight Back), a slogan once used by the DA under Tony Leon. The use of this slogan by the FF+ was no accident of history: it was a response to the glaring identity crisis of the DA.
DA leader Maimane went to war with the ANC, claiming easy victories by focusing on state capture, Life Esidimeni and ANC cadre deployment, but his black and white voters wanted him to clarify the party's position on affirmative action, land and black economic empowerment.
When he fluffed his lines, some right-wingers joined the FF+, while potential black sympathisers agreed with Julius Malema that Maimane was not in charge. So the identity crisis of the DA cost them both black and white support. And therein lies the DA's existential question: will the removal of Maimane and his replacement by a white leader help the DA grow beyond 22% in the next polls? Is the loss of conservative white voters to the FF+ a necessary catharsis for the DA to start positioning itself as a genuine alternative - not a party of right-wingers with a black leader at the top?
The temptation to remove Maimane will be high - but replacing him without attending to policy incoherence will hurt the DA even more. It will come across as a party impatient with its first black leader, a party not ready for change and ill suited to change SA. But retaining Maimane without giving him the power to reposition the party will further erode its stature and risk it being overtaken by the EFF in the next polls.
So, ahead of this election, Maimane needed to have started internally clarifying policy, ensuring consistency before throwing his missiles at the ANC. Had he done this, former head of policy Gwen Ngwenya possibly would not have resigned a month before the DA manifesto launch.
Maimane and his comrades also lost planning time by focusing on getting Patricia de Lille and her supporters out of the party - an undignified spectacle that left the DA's image soiled.
A message from the electorate to the EFF seems to be that its economic policy is, to be charitable, adventurist. The EFF came across in this election as led by young, inexperienced leaders who, with limited understanding of economic systems, wished to wreck an imperfect economic system, but a working system nonetheless.
The idea of Africans asserting themselves more strongly is one that appeals to many, especially the youth. Unfortunately for the EFF, not too many of those actually vote. They may partake in social media wars and attend rallies because Malema is a great orator and has an unparalleled sense of humour. But where it matters most, they'd rather play computer games or listen to music on their earphones than stand in queues to vote.
At a general level, voting for the EFF, without governance experience in its five years of existence, seemed to voters a risky undertaking.
The voters have given Maimane an opportunity to sort out his party, and the EFF a chance to show it could govern. Voters have also given the ANC an opportunity to show that it is serious about its cleanup campaign.
South African voters hope that Ramaphosa's New Dawn was not an election scheme but a covenant that will ensure they too enjoy the fruits of liberation.
The cabinet Ramaphosa appoints will be his litmus test - to see whether the ANC is possessed of the will to remove any whiff of corruption and focus on those who still live in poverty, without dignity, in the hope that 1994 represented a path to an elusive better life for all.
• Sefara is chief executive of Unscripted Communication