Four trends to watch if you want to get behind the ANC horse-race

We follow the ANC leadership campaign like a horse race, setting the odds on every candidate, working out who is wearing blinkers and who carries a handicap. We get excited when one pulls ahead, worried when the other catches up and keep a wary eye on the outsiders gathering pace from behind.
But like most horse races, this one may be decided by things that happen out of sight.

Here are four megatrends that you should be watching — and worrying about — if you want to understand what could shape or distort the outcome of the presidential race at the ANC’s elective conference in December.

• Chatting recently to a campaigner in one camp, I asked jokingly if they had enough money to buy the ANC branches. There are about 4,000 of them, each sending two delegates to the elective conference and in a competitive race, it would get costly.

I got a serious answer: “We have worked out that it needs R500m. Fifty thousand rand for a Diepsloot branch vote, up to R2m to R3m for Sandton.”

I don’t know why I was shocked at this casual admission of how deep the rot is, as the buying of ANC branches has been common knowledge for some time, along with the creation of fake members and branches.

The ANC’s own organisational reports reflect this, such as this one from October 2015: “Membership trends are a worrying factor. This is more so in relation to the prevalence of gatekeeping in branches and bulk buying of membership that creates branches … tendencies such as the use of money in order to manipulate the outcomes of electoral process in the organisation are totally unacceptable.”

The Mail & Guardian reported that membership fraud is already being investigated in four provinces and that as many as 200,000 memberships in the biggest province, KwaZulu-Natal, are under close scrutiny.

The surprise lies in the sharp rise in the price. Previous talk had been about an average of R20,000 for a delegate’s vote. Measures have been put in place to try and contain this. Cellphones have been banned from voting booths, as they were being used to prove how one voted in order to claim one’s payment.The central auditing of branches has been tightened to try and pick up anomalies. But a call to have members, rather than delegates, vote — because there would be too many to buy — has been postponed for future discussion. And it is common cause that the auditing of branches under ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe is so chaotic that it remains open to dispute.

This trend is significant because it indicates what candidates have to do to win, or what their supporters have to do on their behalf. It means that whoever wins may be as compromised as the incumbent. The deals they will have to make to get there will shape their leadership, as they will have deep debts and large favours to return.

It also opens up another scenario: that the conference gets bogged down in disputes over fake delegates and bought votes. Whoever loses could dispute the result, as has happened with the KwaZulu-Natal provincial structure. This would mean competing claims to legitimacy and victory, with the courts left to sort out the matter — a long, messy and complex business.

• A University of Cape Town-based research project has recorded 255 political assassinations since 2000, part of a general pattern of targeted killing on the rise. In 2016, assassinations that could be identified as politically motivated hit a peak of 27 (one every fortnight) and taxi killings hit 56.

The taxi killings are relevant because they have created an industry of killers for hire, which means it is relatively easy and inexpensive to hire a hitman.

Most of the political deaths have been related to local disputes, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, but with so much at stake in December and so much depending on the control of branches, this trend is likely to grow.

This is one of the most underreported and neglected aspects of our politics, probably because most of these killings have happened in small towns without much media attention.

Already, we have reports of death threats being made against ANC members who have spoken out against President Jacob Zuma. When protesters wanted to march on Luthuli House recently, we saw so-called party veterans mobilising — with jackboots and camouflage clothing — in a way designed to threaten and intimidate.

It is clear that things are getting ugly in the run-up to the December conference. The only question is just how ugly.
• In recent years, we have watched as the institutions fundamental to our democracy come under threat, with many losing their credibility, independence or capacity to function effectively.

It has happened at the National Prosecuting Authority, the Special Investigation Unit, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks), the South African Revenue Service, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the parliamentary speaker’s office and the public protector. These are all institutions of accountability that would be expected to put a brake on the abuse of public office.

The judiciary has remained standing, though a mysterious break-in that led to the theft of judges’ personal details have raised fears that even they are vulnerable to attack.

Can the same happen to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC), which has been the bastion of credible elections in our country since the arrival of democracy?

Will Zuma and his supporters move in much the same way they have moved at other institutions to ensure that they have pliable leadership in the IEC before the next election, when they face for the first time the prospect of not winning a majority? There is no sign yet of the IEC being compromised, but why, we have to ask, do we believe it can remain immune from the pattern we have seen at so many other state institutions?

• Fake news is not a new thing — politicians and others have long used various levels of “dirty tricks” and disinformation to try to influence their fortunes and manipulate voters.
What is different now is that social media has massively boosted the capacity to do this as information can be spread on a mass scale without gatekeepers, verification or ethical consideration, at great speed.

It played a major role in Donald Trump’s election as US president, as well as the Brexit vote for the UK to leave Europe. There were attempts to interfere in the French election.

In SA, we have seen that one faction has made use of British public relations firm Bell Pottinger to try and distort our political discussion and infuse it with racial bile. It is no coincidence that we have had a sudden flood of fake news websites, paid Twitter campaigners and rent-a-protesters aiming their vitriol at critics of Zuma and his allies.

In the US, this is accompanied by attacks on conventional news media, designed to undermine their credibility. We are seeing a rise in the harassment of journalists to such an extent that last week, the South African National Editors’ Forum applied for and won an interdict to try to stop such threats. In the run-up to the December conference, we can expect the scale and temperature of this to rise drastically. We have seen in the US and UK the extent to which it can distort national politics.

Taken together, these trends present a bleak picture of what can go wrong in the next few months. On the other hand, we have seen a resurgence of independence at the SABC and civil society institutions fighting back against the undermining of state institutions, so the fight is not over. These trends present a warning of what we have to watch out for and might miss if we are focused solely on which individual has their nose ahead in the race.

*This first appeared in Business Day, July 12, 2017.

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