Expatriate Scots everywhere will have followed the dramatic victory of the SNP at the recent Holyrood polls with interest. And they will not have been alone. I suspect that party political strategists from every corner of the globe will have looked to learn from the success of the nationalists.
Here in South Africa, for example, the leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has recently made electoral gains in Cape Town and the Western Cape that, in many ways, have mirrored the growth of the SNP in Scotland.
Many in the SNP and the DA will probably object to the comparison, as they occupy very different political and ideological spaces. Nonetheless, they have used similar strategies in ascending to power. Both parties got their first taste of government at the head of minority administrations and both exploited the resulting credibility boost to take overall majorities at their respective recent elections.
At the 2006 municipal elections, the DA won the most votes in Cape Town – but, like the SNP in 2007, fell short of a majority. It was enough, however, for the DA’s mayoral candidate (and now party leader) Helen Zille to wrest control of the council from the incumbent African National Congress (ANC).
A minority administration was formed with the support of several smaller parties. Five years of largely effective civic government followed, which were recognised in 2008 when Zille won the World Mayor of the Year award.
Like the SNP, the DA’s first term in office in Cape Town ended in May this year, when their record was put before the electorate as part of nationwide mid-term council elections.
Capetonians clearly liked what they had seen, because the DA was returned with an impressive 61 per cent of the vote and was able to take absolute control of the city for the first time.
Outside Cape Town and the Western Cape, the national results of the 18 May elections may suggest that little has changed. As expected, the ANC swept the board in terms of the national vote with over 63 per cent support and has retained overall control of the vast majority of councils. However, dig a little deeper and the results indicate that the old voting patterns may be starting to change.
The DA has consolidated its position as the single nationally competitive opposition party. With one in four voters nationwide, it is now challenging strongly in many areas and has largely obliterated or absorbed the remaining opposition parties. Most significantly, for the first time it is attracting measurable – if still small – numbers of black voters and is even now winning wards with largely black electorates.
Nonetheless, these gains must still be put into the perspective. Like Old Labour in the Scotland of yesteryear, the South African political landscape remains completely dominated by the ANC. The old adage that Labour used to “weigh rather than count” their votes in Glasgow may no longer apply, but it certainly holds true in large parts of South Africa, where the ANC piles up majorities that would make even Robert Mugabe blush.
When it kicks into gear, the ANC has one of the most effective electoral machines on the continent and one of the world’s strongest political brands. Its core strengths have always been its unmatched “struggle history”, the power and patronage that it can deploy – and, if all else fails, the option to play the “race card” in mobilising its support.
This final “strength” is made possible by to the uncomfortable reality that South African political allegiances remain inextricably linked with identity and race. Whatever their misgivings, black South Africans invariably vote ANC, while white South Africans generally vote for one of the opposition parties. The result is that an election here has traditionally been little more than a racial census.
However, indications from the 2011 election are that this pattern may be weakening – and this has got the ANC leadership worried. The ANC’s traditional strengths of history, power and racial solidarity may, over time, emerge as the movement’s Achilles’ heel.
By its nature, history is always receding into the past. The allegiances forged in the struggle against apartheid will remain forever with the older generation, yet mean less and less to first-time voters. Senior ANC politicians have continued to remind people “not to forget your history”, but these calls are increasingly falling on deaf ears.
Patronage has always a very effective glue to bind together a party of government. The ANC has always been a very broad church of competing interests and factions, so it needs strong glue. Given that it lacks a consistent, unifying ideology and that a lack of policy clarity has been one of the defining characteristics of the Zuma administration, the use of patronage is essential keep the “troops” in line.
This generally works, but the problem comes where power is lost. In constituencies where the ANC has lost control, such as in the Western Cape, the local structures often disintegrate in a bout of faction fighting and recrimination. The ANC has found to its cost that once it loses power, it rarely gets it back.
Finally, if reluctantly, the ANC has always been able resort to the race card. However, this sits very uncomfortably with the ANC’s non-racial ethos and in any case may be increasingly ineffective. A major reason why minorities, including Indians, Coloureds and Asians, joined whites in deserting the ANC on 18 May was the racially loaded and even offensive comments about minorities made by such as Julius Malema, president of the ANC Youth League, and Jimmy Manyi, the government spokesperson.
Given this reality of a dominant ruling party (albeit one with inherent weaknesses), the DA had to come up with a strategy to shed its “white party” image and expand its base beyond its core liberal, white constituency.
Taking a leaf out of the SNP’s book, the DA decided to run with an unashamedly positive and upbeat campaign that highlighted its track record of competent service delivery in local government. In Zille, the DA has an energetic, feisty campaigner with a sharp intellect and something of the Anne Robinson about her. She dived into a whirlwind tour of township rallies and was rarely seen on camera without a group of black DA supporters around her.
Unlike in previous elections, the DA resisted the temptation to respond to the goading and provocation of ANC supporters and always kept “on message” about competent service delivery.
Like Labour in the Scottish elections – who couldn’t decide whether to target the Nationalists at Holyrood or the Conservatives at Westminster – the ANC was wrong-footed by this strategy and didn’t know how to respond. They were torn between going defensive on their record or attacking the DA’s record, and in the process rarely presented a positive vision of an ANC future.
The DA also made maximum use of new technology in reaching its potential supporters. Facebook, Twitter and text messaging were used to the full – and, when not addressing crowds, Zille seemed to be perpetually Tweeting.
In contrast, Zuma did eventually get round to sending a Tweet, but even this was widely suspected to have come from an aide. This turned out to be symptomatic of an ANC campaign that was slow to start and that, for much of the time, appeared directionless. The result was that, while the ANC may have won the election, the general consensus is that they lost the campaign and certainly failed to set the agenda.
Yet in the final analysis, it was still an ANC victory – and, for all its slick campaigning, the DA was only able to “do a Salmond” in Cape Town and a number of Western Cape municipalities.
Going forward, both the DA in South Africa and the SNP in Scotland face a number of challenges. The first is to make good on all those election promises. This is a challenge for all administrations, but both the SNP and the DA appear well placed in this regard.
Obtaining an absolute majority does give parties the freedom to push through legislation and set the agenda without needing to compromise. In addition, given that both parties are not in power in the top tier of government, they are generally not held accountable for macro issues such as unemployment, the economy and international relations. This is a considerable advantage as they can get the credit for prudent government without carrying any of the downside risk from “events”.
The challenge for both parties is to sustain a record of good governance in their respective second terms, so that voters feel confident in entrusting them with greater power and responsibility. In the SNP’s case, this additional trust could come in the form of some greater independence, while for the DA it could include further gains at the next South African national elections in 2014.
The second major challenge is to balance the aspirations of both party activists and their newly acquired supporters. This is perhaps the most subtle and tricky exercise and it is the job that party strategists are paid to grapple with.
Ryan Coetzee, the DA’s principal strategist, has said that the DA must be in tune with the real concerns of voters, not just party activists, if it is to grow. “One good way of assessing where a party’s heart really lies,” Coetzee said, “is to ask the question: What makes the people in this party angry?
“I submit that the DA’s anger attaches to things like crime, corruption, discrimination against minorities and name changes, but not to racism against blacks, the state of education, unemployment or poverty. If that division provides some insight into what we care about, then what does it say about who we care about?
“If we are going to become a party that is attractive to South Africans of all races, then we need to find a way to do two things: first, care as deeply about the ‘delivery issues’ that affect black South Africans as we do about those that affect whites; second, find a way to bridge the racial divide on ‘identity issues’.”
Voters can easily spot a fraud, so the challenge for the DA is to change not just the message of its leadership, but the priorities that they hold in their hearts. It is a fundamental shift.
This assessment of the DA’s prioritisation problem in South Africa could equally be modified for the SNP in Scotland. The independence issue has always been at the very heart of the SNP, but the impression (albeit from this distance) is that it is not a high priority for most of the new SNP voters. So the challenge for the SNP is to move the independence debate forward without alienating the huge support that it gained in 2011.
It is apparent that SNP strategists are already grappling with this conundrum and punting a more palatable form of partnership as distinct from complete separation.
Only time will tell whether the SNP or the DA are able to achieve their ultimate objectives. For now though, they are certainly setting the agenda and that has got to be a good start.
Arthur’s Seat and Table Mountain are maybe not that far apart, after all.