2013 Political outlook Understanding the launch of Agang

By Aubrey Matshiqi

There are three interesting things about the launch of Agang: First, it came two months after the Mangaung conference of the African National Congress (ANC). Second, it happened at a time when there was talk of 'political realignment' in opposition ranks. Third, it occurred fourteen months prior to the 2014 elections. In short, the launch of Ramphele's political platform is as much about the ANC as it is about Agang itself. 

In the months and weeks leading up to the December 2012 national conference of the ANC, its leaders argued that Mangaung would be a 'watershed' moment. By this, they meant that decisions would be taken at the conference that would change the lives of ordinary South Africans. 

The detractors of the ANC believed that Mangaung would, indeed, be a watershed moment, albeit for reasons quite different to the sanguine statements of ANC leaders. The expectation was that there would be bruising and divisive battles for leadership as well as open warfare between the two main factions which supported President Jacob Zuma and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe. In the end, the conference was a church service and Zuma beat Motlanthe by a margin much wider than most of us had predicted. 

But what was even more interesting about Mangaung was that the threat of a radical shift in economic policy did not materialise. In fact, there were many positive outcomes for business, the markets and investors. 

The most important of these were the emphatically unambiguous rejection of mining nationalisation, the affirmation of the ANC's commitment to a mixed economy, and strong support for the National Development Plan.

The positivity was carried over to what most agree was a balanced and pragmatic budget speech. For business and the markets, the coup de grace was the ascendance of businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa, to deputy president of the ANC. The expectation is that Ramaphosa will be good for government-business relations. Unfortunately, if Ramaphosa does indeed become a successful bridge-builder between government and business, it is precisely for the same reason that he may be the cause of policy and political tensions between the ANC and its allies in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). So, Ramaphosa may succeed in building a bridge between the ANC and business, but he may also destroy bridges within the tripartite alliance. This scenario should not be overstated, however, because to do so would be to undermine the possible implications of Zuma's landslide victory in Mangaung. 

Zuma's margin of victory means that the ANC is more united behind him today than it was after the Polokwane conference five years ago. Also, he can rely on strong support from an SACP that is led by Blade Nzimande, and a Cosatu under the leadership of Sdumo Dlamini. Both Nzimande and Dlamini are part of the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) lobby which supported Zuma in Mangaung. This means that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who is not a Zuma supporter anymore, is likely to find himself isolated and, in time, neutralised. In this scenario, there will be enough political cover for Ramaphosa in the ANC and the alliance. All of this notwithstanding, we must remember that there are some in KZN who want African Union head, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, not Ramaphosa, to succeed Zuma as ANC president in 2017 and head of state in 2019.

Is Zuma's strong showing in Mangaung an indication of electoral support for the ANC? Does it mean that new political players such as Ramphele's Agang are not going to constitute a threat to the ANC during next year's election?

There are many challenges facing the opposition but two are worth noting: First, the Democratic Alliance's (DA) idea of realignment is similar to that of Agang. They both believe in uniting people who are committed to liberal democratic values who currently sit in different parties, including the ANC. They believe that the ANC under Zuma constitutes a threat to these values. Second, they seek to attract ANC supporters who are unhappy with the performance of the ANC government. 

If these two points are taken together, it means that the DA and Agang will be going for the same groups of voters. The ANC will probably suffer a contraction in the turnout of its supporters but not many will swing to either the DA or Agang. Agang will probably split the opposition vote to the detriment of the Congress of the People and the DA.