The lure of MK, our ‘black swan event’


The lure of MK, our ‘black swan event’

PIET CROUCAMP suspects that the advance of Jacob Zuma's new party is unexpectedly the result of bread-and-butter issues for South Africans.


NEW polls now come out almost weekly ahead of the May 29 elections, which look like they will be truly competitive. As if it were not enough that the ANC's support has in all probability dropped below 50%, a black swan in the form of Jacob Zuma and the uMkhonto weSizwe Party has appeared on the scene. It is still something of a mystery how MK came about and put the ANC's majority under such immense pressure, but it's an exciting new reality that has political analysts bending their brains.

Stephen Grootes came to the conclusion in Daily Maverick this week that the effect of the rising cost of living could determine the voting behaviour of South Africans in less than seven weeks. I think he's right. Food inflation has been the major destroyer of disposable income among all economically active South Africans over the past year. Rising fuel prices have exerted pressure on the roughly 30% of their disposable income that the working class spends on transportation.

The masses without any income take yet more punches because of these economic realities. Eskom's exponential tariff increases make illegal electricity a survival necessity, and in most townships and informal settlements very few people pay their bills, a logical consequence of the rising cost of living that Grootes refers to.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

I can understand why the ANC avoids the conversation about the cost of living, because it is directly to blame. But why is this not a pressing political issue in the public conversation? I also don't know if it would make any sense for opposition parties to remind the electorate that the ANC is the source of the evil. They already know this. There is little political capital to be gained from badmouthing the ANC. The focus should be on solutions to the problem, not on placing blame.

The only way to make political capital from the rising cost of living is to offer practical solutions. All parties promise millions of jobs, even the ANC. Almost all parties undertake to increase state grants, even the DA. ActionSA promises to transform the economy into a rigid free market but also undertakes to introduce a basic income grant of R780 — the inherent contradiction here is patently obvious. The EFF undertakes to double basic grants, but if you can believe the steady 11% support for the Red Berets in the opinion polls, the poor don't really accept this type of populism from Julius Malema. All parties on the ballot undertake to build more houses for the poor, except the Freedom Front Plus.

The DA's election strategy is to point out that the Western Cape is better managed than the rest of the country. Helen Zille even claimed at one point that the poverty in informal settlements in the Western Cape is more tolerable than where the ANC is in charge. While she is probably right, for some reason the argument is not good enough to convince a majority of South Africans of the merits of the DA's conservative liberalism. If I lived in the Western Cape, I would certainly shut my eyes and vote for the DA and its better administration, but I also understand why hardly anyone in Gugulethu will do that.

The opinion polls suggest that many black South Africans fear that a ruling party other than the ANC will abolish grants and make their daily living costs even more untenable. I have spoken to several DA leaders about this, and almost without exception they say that for now the grants are an essential expense for the state, and that they are certainly not thinking about discontinuing them. In fact, in some cases they undertake to increase them. The problem, however, is that white voters in particular are extremely sceptical about this item in the state budget, and the DA dare not focus attention on it as an election promise. This would be the most effective way to cede another 300,000 white voters to the FF Plus, but it might also persuade a million poor people to invest their voting capital in the DA.

Be that as it may, practical solutions to poverty and the rising cost of living can only manifest when there is capital investment or government spending. The first option, however, suffers from distrust towards the state and the economy, and the second option is stifled by the ANC government's prolonged and unaffordable misappropriation of money. Macro solutions such as promises of millions of jobs have no impact because everyone realises there is nothing that can be done about it with immediate effect. Waiting for the economy to start growing and jobs to spring from it as the result of “trickle-down economics" does nothing to address the immediate impact of the excessive and rising cost of living.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the motivations for voter behaviour are a mystery. Grootes makes the valid argument that the living conditions of South Africans are significantly worse under the Ramaphosa administration than under the political management of the corrupt Jacob Zuma. Grootes refers to the depressing reality that nearly half of all South Africans go to bed hungry or suffer from food insecurity. Seven million South African children are part of households living below the poverty line.

Just think of the terrible impact this must have on children. How does a parent explain food scarcity to a child? The story is told of a mother in a poor household who cannot bear to tell her children there is no food in the house. She boils water on an open fire for as long as she can, so that they think she's making food. Eventually they fall asleep hungry. I find this story traumatising.

Victims of crime under Cyril Ramaphosa's Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, have taken on proportions comparable to the casualties in a civil war. In 2017, at the end of Zuma's wasted nine years, unemployment was 27.7%. By 2022, that figure had risen to 33.5%. Now, in 2024, nearly 8 million people are out of work. Even worse, in terms of the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes people who have given up all hope of becoming involved in the labour market, just under 42% of South Africans are unemployed. I can't think of any recent democratic regime that has survived such an enormous unemployment rate.

Which brings us to MK, our “black swan event”. I suspect that in an unexpected way MK is also the result of South Africans' bread-and-butter issues. Frans Cronje, in a conversation with BizNews this week, speculated that Jacob Zuma's image as a rejected and targeted victim of the Ramaphosa administration resonated with the lived experiences of the people of KZN and Mpumalanga. This was after a poll by the Social Research Foundation suggested that the ANC's national support has fallen as low as 37%. Cronje and the authoritative Gareth van Onselen have little doubt that the ANC is ceding significant support to Zuma's MK. The question is, why are voters attracted to MK?

Grootes' point that bread-and-butter issues don't get the attention they deserve in the national conversation is even more valid in the case of MK. The party seemingly only deals haphazardly with the problem of the rising cost of living and focuses primarily on an expectation of regime change — Zuma wants to return to the Union Buildings. He wants to gain power that will enable him and his party to enforce all the radical policies he has always preached but never carried through in the decade when he and the ANC had a near-monopoly on power.

However, the psychology of neglect of ordinary people that Cronje refers to also corresponds with the victimhood of Zuma. This is a raw form of populism, but in an indirect way regime change has roots in the explosiveness of the untenably high cost of living. Underlying the hope for regime change is the bitterly ironic reality that we were all better off under Zuma than under Ramaphosa. Things may have been dire then, too, but the expectations Ramaphosa created and the gloomy statistics of further impoverishment are just too much to endure any longer.

No other opposition party seems to be capturing the imagination of the people of KZN and South Africans in general like MK is. Putting aside the illusions of an independent analyst for a moment, I hope MK does well at the ballot box and that it harbours enough resentment towards the ANC not to enter into a coalition with Luthuli House. (Maybe just a little word of caution: MK still needs to convert its support in opinion polls into votes at the ballot box. I would be stunned if Zuma's party matches its results with the figures suggested by opinion polls.)

The DA and other conservative parties are not convincing enough people of their positive intentions to bring about regime change. Zille and John Steenhuisen were given the opportunity to reach out to black South Africans but did not show the political will to exploit it. If MK is the only party that manages to write the ANC's epitaph, then “so be it". Perhaps we can yet again convince South Africans, as we did in 1994, to live on boiling water, love and hope while we try to fix the devastation wrought by the ANC.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.