South Africa: An Electoral Tremor, Not An Earthquake

Queuing to vote in Cape Town's Athlone district in 2011.
Queuing to vote in Cape Town’s Athlone district in 2011.

In few countries would a governing political party in the throes of internal crisis consider 54% of the vote in mid-term elections to local councils a disappointing result. In South Africa, however, this represents a significant shot across the bows of the ANC 22 years after it took power, a decline of 8% from the equivalent elections in 2011, and almost 16% from its all-time best result in the 2004 general election. (Official results service here.)

The shock is amplified by the fact that only one of the country’s six biggest cities is now securely in the hands of a party that calls itself not merely the governing but the ‘ruling party’. In Gauteng, the urbanised corridor of 13 million centred on Johannesburg and Pretoria that is the economic powerhouse of Africa, the ANC slumped below 50% of the vote for the first time ever. It also lost its overall majority in a number of smaller urban areas dotted across northern South Africa, in and around the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolis on the south coast, throughout the rural Western Cape, and was reduced to just 24% in the nation’s second economic and cultural centre, Cape Town.

ANC activists campaign in one of their Cape Town strongholds, Gugulethu, in 2011.
ANC activists campaign in one of their Cape Town strongholds, Gugulethu, in 2011.

ANC voters drifted off in two directions – on one side to the bourgeois liberal DA which has long laboured under the tag of being a ‘White’ party, and on the other to the radical left-wingers of firebrand Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. Even the Zulu-traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party, long dismissed by ANC strategists as a party of elderly country-dwellers living in the past, staged a modest recovery in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Perhaps more than anything else, however, the ANC suffered from voters in urban townships sitting this one out. Turnout is never especially high in Gauteng townships, but collapsed to what are dismal levels by South African standards this time, below 40% in many of Pretoria-centred Tshwane’s townships and below 30% in some poorer parts of inner-city Johannesburg. Given years of economic stagnation, the constant swirl of scandal around President Jacob Zuma, and the imposition of unpopular ANC mayoral candidates in some key cities, it is no surprise that some voters too loyal to the ANC to vote for anyone else decided to stay at home. On the other hand, the ANC has since liberation been something of a Teflon party, for obvious reasons; we just saw the first sign the non-stick coating might be wearing off.

DA activists in the ANC stronghold of Gugulethu in 2011.
DA activists in the ANC stronghold of Gugulethu in 2011.

There was a theory that one-party dominant systems would be a long-term norm in Southern Africa. Namibia and Botswana, despite having open and fair elections for 27 and 49 years respectively, and high rankings on international human rights indices, have never seen a change in government. Namibia’s SWAPO, a close sibling of the ANC, saw its vote reach an all-time high of 80% in 2014 parliamentary elections.

Instead of South Africa following a similar pattern, it looks set to have a genuinely competitive general election in 2019. It is still advantage ANC. Municipal election turnout differentials based on class and race have, in the past anyway, been much smaller in South African general elections. It is always easier for people to cast a protest vote in local elections: the man on the Soweto minibus taxi may be more cautious about handing national power to two parties who have contrasting but equally serious image problems with the working-class Black majority. The ANC now has an opportunity to take stock and make changes.

Many South Africans continue to live in acute poverty, as here in Cape Town's enormous Khayelitsha district.
Many South Africans continue to live in acute poverty, as here in Cape Town’s enormous Khayelitsha district.

On the other hand, the more frank members of the ANC leadership have acknowledged that its problems are most acute among the young, who take liberation for granted and are demanding more of the future, and this in a country where the population is young and hundreds of thousands of new voters come of age every year. And internal ANC relationships are even more strained than usual – there is significant tension between Jacob Zuma and his KwaZulu-Natal base, the older establishment moderates like Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa, the slick young ‘born free’ generation of ANC politicians emerging especially in Gauteng, and the trade union movement, parts of which have given up on the ANC entirely. And Jacob Zuma is far from universally loved even within the KwaZulu-Natal ANC.

Councils will have to hold mayor-making meetings by 20 August at the latest. South African mayors, although indirectly elected, are figures with significant executive powers, controlling huge spending and with access to potentially enormous patronage networks. Coalition negotiations will take place under time pressure, and could be fraught.

The ANC is still dominant in most rural areas; here at Bethulie in the Free State it polled 76% last week.
The ANC is still dominant in most rural areas; here at Bethulie in the Free State it polled 76% last week.

The DA and EFF share a common interest in clipping in the ANC’s wings and showing they can govern effectively for the majority. There is a surprising degree of rapport among some of their national leaders, driven by increasingly authoritarian ANC behaviour in parliament, from which the EFF has now withdrawn entirely. Ideologically and programmatically, however, they are light years apart. If they can somehow find a common agenda, likely around a dramatic improvements in the delivery of public services and housing to the poorest communities, the prize for both will be significant.

Coalition negotiations will also involve a plethora of minor parties in some cities, notably Johannesburg, but also in the smattering provincial cities lost by the ANC that were the election’s biggest, and least reported, surprise. In only one, Rustenburg (England’s 2010 World Cup base) is the EFF in pole position to secure the mayoralty, and that would involve hard choices for the DA.

How these talks pan out will be an interesting guide to what might happen if the ANC ever slipped under 50% nationally. South Africa uses a nationwide list system with no threshold for elections, which means parties secured a seat in the 400-member parliament with as little as 0.17% of the vote in 2014. Any post-ANC government would probably be the most ideologically broad on the planet.

If diverse DA and EFF-led coalitions can secure stable and good government at local level, the ANC might really be staring defeat in the face. This isn’t impossible. In Cape Town, the ANC’s eclipse began when the DA cobbled together a wafer-thin majority in 2006 with the support of small parties that included radical leftists, ethno-cultural traditionalists, devout Muslims, and the Afrikaner bittereinders of the Vryheidsfront Plus. (Irish political historians may well be thinking “Inter-party government” at this point.)

The margins for error in these situations, however, are low and if coalition talks result in chaos, the ANC will start the 2019 election campaign not just in pole position, but with a significant trump card up its sleeve.


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