ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini. Picture: THULANI MBELE
ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini. Picture: THULANI MBELE

In the annals of history, the events of March 2019 in SA will be unlikely to garner much of a mention. But for the ANC, the month will be remembered as a dark time — in every sense of the word.

Things could hardly have been worse for the governing party. With less than two months to go until the national elections, the ANC is looking vulnerable in SA’s economic hub, Gauteng. Its support could drop from the already low base it achieved in the 2014 national elections (54%), and its shock losses in the metros of Joburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni in 2016.

The high stakes at play were emphasised last Wednesday, when SA’s liberation party stumbled spectacularly. Controversial ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule confirmed that former president Jacob Zuma’s favourites — many of them drenched in the scent of their own scandals — were still on the party’s electoral lists. It is from these lists that party representatives will be drawn to fill seats in the national and provincial legislatures after the votes are tallied.

Days later, SA was plunged into stage 4 load-shedding. The rotating darkness left South Africans with just enough time to contemplate how Eskom had been ravaged by corruption during the Zuma years.

Adding to its list of woes, the ANC on Sunday had to deal with the shock arrest of Mluleki Ndobe — placed third on its KwaZulu-Natal list — reportedly in connection with the murder of former ANC Youth League secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa.

In another almost farcical turn, President Cyril Ramaphosa then got stuck on a Metrorail train for hours on Monday — the result of service delivery that had, literally, come to a halt.

Now, Ramaphosa has been telling the country ahead of the polls that he will be the great reformer of his party — that the corruption that has seemingly been synonymous with the ANC for more than a decade will be driven out, and the party will rise from the proverbial ashes.

The Eskom and Metrorail failures should have been welcome ammunition for opposition parties gunning for the ANC. But it was Magashule’s unapologetic confirmation that Bathabile Dlamini, Mosebenzi Zwane, Malusi Gigaba and Nomvula Mokonyane were still on the lists the party had submitted to the Electoral Commission of SA that handed the opposition a big stick with which to beat the party.

Magashule said the tainted would-be parliamentarians merely face "allegations" of impropriety — they have not been found guilty by a court of law and are innocent until proven guilty. While this is true, perception matters in politics.

That Dlamini and Gigaba have been found to have lied under oath, and that Zwane and Mokonyane have been embroiled in serious allegations of state capture, would seemingly not be an issue for the ANC members who nominated them for the lists.

When the party finally released its full lists on Friday, it also confirmed that former state security minister David Mahlobo and his successor, Bongani Bongo, were there too

In an almost farcical turn, Cyril Ramaphosa got stuck on a Metrorail train for hours

Mahlobo’s possible role in hollowing out the State Security Agency has recently been raised by the high-level review panel into the agency. It found that parallel structures were created during Zuma’s term to directly serve the then president and, in some instances, other executive members.

Bongo was accused of attempting to bribe the evidence leader in the parliamentary inquiry into state capture of state-owned entities — hardly the parliamentary poster child you need if your president has promised to act on corruption.

The ANC’s lists directly undermine its main campaign message: to fix SA.

In the midst of this, the candidates on the other party lists — and questions about what their parliamentary choices say about their campaign promises — were sidelined in a news cycle focused on the ANC.

The DA took the opportunity to capitalise on the mess of the ANC’s lists, with federal executive chair James Selfe telling the media on Sunday: "Whether it is Jacob Zuma or Cyril Ramaphosa who is at the helm of the ANC and the country, the people of SA will suffer, and corruption will continue."

Meanwhile, said Selfe, "the DA lists represent the country’s beautiful diversity and are testament to our commitment to build one SA for all".

The focus on diversity of the DA lists is the result of party leader Mmusi Maimane’s promise of inclusivity. Party members who spoke to the FM are satisfied with the outcome.

The DA claims its lists are the most diverse of all of SA’s parties. They included the tried and tested, such as Maimane, Selfe, John Steenhuisen and Belinda Bozzoli, as well as young MPs including Gwen Ngwenya and DA Youth leader Luyolo Mphithi.

The DA’s parliamentary caucus has drawn criticism for being "too white". But even if the party succeeds in growing its 89 seats to 100, its caucus — based on the list submitted to the electoral commission and the assumption that every candidate on the list accepts nomination — will still be more than 50% white, by the FM’s calculations.

Whether this will be used against the party will have to be seen.

For its part, the EFF — SA’s third-largest party — made no such promises of diversity. At the top of its lists are the EFF’s central command team: party leader Julius Malema, his deputy Floyd Shivambu and national chair Dali Mpofu.

Mpofu is an interesting candidate, given that he opted to not take up an MP position following the 2014 national elections and stayed in private practice as an advocate.

The party has also roped in some of the EFF’s prominent Fees Must Fall leaders, including Naledi Chirwa and Vuyani Pambo.

The action prompted the ANC to issue a statement to promote its own youthful candidates, such as Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, who led the protests as SRC president at Wits alongside Pambo. It also punted its less-than-youthful youth league president, Collen Maine, as one of its representatives on the lists.

Now, whether the lists even matter to voters is something "we don’t know", says political analyst Ebrahim Fakir, from the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute.

Also unclear is whether the tainted characters on the party lists will deflect support from the ANC.

To see how the ANC retains support — despite reservations about people such as Dlamini being included on its lists — one needs look no further than Cosatu House.

The trade union federation, which was the first in the tripartite alliance to throw its support behind Ramaphosa, has called bluntly for Dlamini to be sacked.

What it means

The make-up of the new cabinet may give a better indication of the willingness to fight corruption

But it still has a huge "Vote ANC" banner displayed at its headquarters, regardless of her inclusion on the party lists.

A member of the alliance told the FM that there are many in the ANC who hold negative perceptions about the likes of Dlamini, Zwane and Mokonyane — but that won’t stop them from voting for the party.

For example, the member said he would still vote for the ANC, despite not agreeing on all its inclusions on the list, and then try to influence the matter from the inside to ensure they are held to account.

If the ANC wins the election on a national level, as it is expected to do, it will be Ramaphosa’s prerogative to appoint a cabinet (though this will be in consultation with the ANC and its alliance partners). Who makes that cut may give a better idea of the party’s commitment to clean governance.

But before that happens, regular ANC voters will have to decide whether the party deserves their vote, and whether the electoral lists may influence that decision.

Says Fakir: "Let the voters decide; they will tell it how it is."