Why loadshedding is a huge election risk
Loadshedding is a bigger risk to the ANC’s performance in the 2016 municipal elections than any other political issue. Unlike other issues, it creeps into the lives of every South African on a regular basis, even those people who are ill informed, disinterested in the political process or generally happy with the government’s performance. It is more likely to galvanise the opposition, change allegiances and increase voter turnout than Nkandla, Marikana, El-Bashir, unemployment and a weak economy. As such, fixing Eskom should be priority number one for the ANC if it wants to avoid losing votes and control of key municipalities.
Most South Africans are not politically active on a day to day basis. They go about their lives often oblivious of the large issues that are debated in the news and on social media platforms. Many of the issues that attract a great deal of attention in the media have very little direct bearing on their ability to eke out a living. The amount of money spent on Nkandla and who paid for it has little impact on their ability to feed their family, whether El-Bashir should or should not have been arrested does not change their monthly salary, whether bribes were paid to procure the 2010 World Cup does not affect their weekly grocery bills. There are also enough delays in releasing reports, transferring of blame and spin to sufficiently blur the issues for many people who do become involved in debates. Can these issues present a political risk for the ruling party? Yes, but only at the margin, in my opinion. South Africans in general are unlikely to defect or turn out at the polls en masse because of Nkandla and El-Bashir.
The issues that have a direct impact on their quality of living, including weak economic growth and high unemployment are recognised, but are more akin to a slow burn in the background. They are aware of it, they feel the impact, but it is more like a dull ache than a sharp pain. From time to time, these concerns do boil over as we saw in the xenophobic attacks and assaults on monuments earlier in the year. The problem is that so often scapegoats can be found for issues such as low economic growth, high unemployment, weak education outcomes and poor healthcare, whether it be foreigners, the wealthy or our apartheid history. Of course, these issues offer political risk to the ruling party. However, they are not “front of mind” in my opinion. They have been with us for a long time and to date have not made a sizeable dent in the support for the ANC.
Other issues are more regional in nature or limited to specific groupings or occupations. Lack of service delivery touches people in particular areas and leads to protests in those areas, while the rest of the country remains unaffected. Concerns over e tolls have led to protests in the Gauteng area, while voters in the rest of the country go about their lives. Similarly strike actions are limited to certain industries, while the remainder of the work force continues with their day to day lives. We have seen evidence of regional issues leading to changes in political support, including proliferation of the EFF on the back of the Marikana massacre and growth of the DA in Gauteng on the back of e tolls (amongst other issues). These trends are likely to continue in the 2016 municipal elections, but are likely to be regionalised.
This brings us to the issue that is overarching, affecting almost every person in SA and which presents the greatest political risk to the ANC. This is the issue of loadshedding. The regular and relentless lack of power in SA homes focuses the mind of potential voters. A person, who never reads the news and is unlikely to have their minds changed by large political issues, cannot escape the effects of weekly loadshedding. A young South African who has never registered to vote is faced with a walk in darkness to a home lit by candles on a regular basis. Mothers are faced with cooking on gas or open fires in the dark after a long day’s slog at work. Fathers are faced with having to find the funds to replace food that has spoilt because fridges are off for hours on end. Children are forced to do homework by lamp light. It is a weekly reminder of the failings of the government to provide energy security. No amount of political spin can stop the lights from going off. No amount of transferring blame can keep people warm at night. No amount of promises can turn your TV on to let you watch your favourite programme. Loadshedding focuses the mind. It cannot be escaped, whether you are politically savvy or not. When it comes time to register for the 2016 municipal elections and casting votes, if loadshedding remains, it could lead to greater voter turnout and shifting allegiances.
In an ironic twist, the success of Eskom and government in electrifying previously disadvantaged communities has greatly added to the number of potentially disgruntled voters. In 1996, less than 60% of South Africans had access to electricity for lighting. Today, more than 85% of South Africans regularly have their lights switched off due to loadshedding. This means that there are c.25% more SA voters that are irritated, financially affected and at risk of changing their political allegiance than 20 years ago due to loadshedding.
If I was leading SA and my number one priority was to remain in power, there would be no issue in the country that I would prioritise above loadshedding. I would do whatever was required to ensure that loadshedding was a thing of the past well ahead of the 2016 municipal elections. I would get aggressive with Eskom, I would do what I can to shut down energy hungry industries that pay much less for power than its costs to produce (eg. aluminium smelters), I would encourage joint ventures with the private sector to take over the building of new power generation (akin to Telkom’s joint venture to form Vodacom), I would ensure that the unions are onside to avoid further delays at Medupi and Kusile, I would encourage the renegotiation of contracts with coal and diesel suppliers and I would aggressively encourage increased private generation (especially in renewables) by liberalising the regulatory environment. It is not clear that our current government recognises the urgency of the situation and if they do not soon, they may well pay the price at the polls next year.
What do you think of my assessment of the loadshedding situation in SA? Do you agree that it is more likely than other issues to change the minds of voters? Do you think that it will get more young people to register to vote? Do you think that government understands the seriousness of the situation and are likely to address it in time? I would love to hear your feedback.
In the mean time, keep your talking straight!