It’s hard to build a credible opposition. Ask the Nigerians
The ANC is most likely going to win South Africa’s elections on May 8. For many South Africans who have faced declining economic and social conditions over the past two decades, that’s a scary prospect.
But here is the good news: for all the ANC’s flaws, its expected victory takes place against the backdrop of a healthy democracy. No one is seriously worried about electoral fraud in these polls.
The result will reflect the will of South African citizens — something to be celebrated.
Yes, the ANC may still be trading on past glories, on the goodwill earned during its long fight to rid South Africa of the grip of racism’s evil. It worked hard to free its people and grant them basic dignities. No wonder a majority of voters still feel that the party deserves to lead the country — even if it feels illogical to reward today’s politicians for yesterday’s successes.
But perhaps this decision is not so illogical when you consider the alternatives.
I was privileged to spend time in South Africa last year around the time of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death, and to witness the hysteria as the opposition to the ANC sought to capitalise on her passing to ramp up hate against the ruling party. What I observed made it clear that the ANC is poised to continue to win for a long time.
I say this because to dislodge a winner like the ANC you have to do better than point out its weaknesses (every political party has and will have weaknesses). You have to do better than demonise its leaders (voters are not stupid enough to believe that a tainted politician who is not in office is somehow better than a tainted one who is). You have to prove to the citizens that there is something truly radical and transformative sitting in your belly. Even more importantly, you have to work together.
So far, no opposition party in South Africa today has achieved the credibility to do that.
In my work to do with elections in Africa, I have seen opposition politicians and parties try to jump the gun; try to ride on a wave of unhappiness and dissatisfaction to win elections without doing the difficult work of building credibility directly with the citizens, by earning their win stripe by stripe, by building a compelling connection that resonates deep in the hearts of everyday citizens.
But even in the best-case scenario for the opposition, the ruling party will continue to maintain a healthy control over the nation’s politics, lifted by the seductive charm of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the credibility it has earned over the past 100 years.
If that happens, only one hope remains: that both major opposition parties finally learn their lesson, and exchange bluster for strategy and outrage for connection.
There is a strong model to be heeded in the successful 12-year project to build a credible, united opposition party in Nigeria, leading to today’s ruling government.
That incredibly difficult work must start on the morning of Thursday, May 9. This is because South Africa’s citizens — especially its majority black population, which bears the larger burden of the state’s failures — deserves much better from its leaders.