South Africa’s 2016 municipal elections – why the excitement?

An in-depth analysis of the results

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Photo of voting station
Municipal election voting station, 3 August 2016. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

It is nearly three weeks since the South African electorate voted in the fourth municipal elections since 1996. The municipal elections are normally a quiet affair, without much fanfare or high profile post-electoral analysis. The aftermath of this year’s elections turned out to be anything but quiet, due to a number of milestones which have some significance in South Africa’s maturing democracy.

Only 22 years after 1994, the number of registered voters who did not vote in the 2016 election (42,28%) is disquietingly high. The profile of those who did not vote is also of serious concern. Indicators are that voter turnout was higher in the middle-class areas of the major metropoles, pointing to a trend emerging of an increase in the number of the urban poor who are not voting. ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe, speaking on radio in the early hours after the results, put the flagging voter statistics down to black people in the townships voicing their dissatisfaction by withholding their votes, while the middle classes voice theirs by making full use of the voting process.

As the indelible ink fades on just over 15 million voter’s thumbs and the realpolitick of coalition building in four major metropoles begins in earnest, the ANC issued its post-electoral press statement following a special four day National Executive Committee. Down just over 8% since the 2011 municipal elections, the ANC dropped 11% of electoral support it received in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The party has lost its voter majority in the key metropolitan municipalities of Tshwane (Pretoria), Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), Ekurhuleni in Gauteng and several others, and further reduced its percentage of the vote in the Cape to only 26.2%. Although the decline is most marked in the large urban metropoles, there is also a decline in some provinces with a predominance of rural areas, such as the Free State (down by 13.34%); the North West (down by 19%); Limpopo (down by 14.7%) and the Northern Cape (down by 7.67%).

Acknowledging that it faces a declining majoritarian support base, the ANC dealt brusquely with the fervent speculation that Jacob Zuma would step down as leader by announcing that while the party acknowledges that the results represented a serious set-back, the leadership has agreed unanimously to “take collective responsibility for the poor performance”. The press statement outlines a 14 point programme to address the decline, which includes heightened consultations and collaboration and ends with a commitment to address unemployment, poverty and inequality. These measures are aimed at re-engineering the ANC and dealing with “perceptions of the ANC being arrogant, self- serving, soft on corruption and increasingly distant from its social base”. Implicit in this acknowledgement is that the liberal and left leaning middle classes, who are the public articulators of these perceptions, matter.

The DA, the preferred party for the conservative voter, is emerging as the largest beneficiary of the ANC’s loss of middle class support, a disturbing trend, as their policies have not shifted significantly to approximate any concrete allegiance to social transformation and greater socio-economic equality. Although the DA increased its electoral support by a mere 2.94% nationally since the 2011 elections, it has won a significant percentage (63%) in the Western Cape and a slender plurality foothold in a second metropole besides Cape Town: Nelson Mandela Bay.

The party’s national share of the electorate has been climbing steadily in municipal elections, from 16.32% in 2006 to 24.08% in 2011, to 27.02% in 2016. Whether this means that the middle classes are consciously shifting to the right is not an automatic deduction, as the ANC has lost significant ground representing a left agenda anyway. Through advocating “clean and transparent governance” in the face of the majoritarian arrogance displayed by ANC leaders and their associates in the face of public disapproval, and by capitalising on the corruption exposures and scandals which have dogged the ANC and those associated with it, the DA has carved a role for itself as champions of liberal rights and morality, thereby attracting more votes from this small but vociferous constituency.

The EFF, formed shortly before the 2014 parliamentary elections, won 6.35% of the vote, earning the third largest number of seats. This was not in itself, too remarkable. Their results trailed far behind the ANC at 62.15% and the DA at 22.23%. This year contesting the local government elections for the first time, the EFF won 8.24% of the vote.

ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe once remarked that it is cold outside the ANC – referring to the poor performance of those parties formed by leaders splitting from the party. Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement (UDM) has never managed to win more than the 3.4% achieved in the 1999 parliamentary elections. The party’s voting percentage has been steadily declining at all elections since and now stands at 0.61%. Congress of the People (COPE), formed by dissenting Mbeki supporters in preparation for the 2009 parliamentary elections won 7.42% in 2009. But by the municipal elections two years later, the party leadership was at odds with each other and their voting percentage had dropped to 2.22%. Their percentage currently stands at 0.45%.

Constituted after Julius Malema and fellow ANC youth league leaders were expelled from the ANC, the EFF has held onto its small electoral base over two elections. EFF’s strategy of zeroing into key spontaneous protests to attach its brand to it and recruit new followers; staging anti – Zuma disruptions in parliament; mass rallies and street visits in poor communities has captured the attention of radicalised youth and those disaffected with ANC and alliance politics. Through their followers, the activities and their songs they are laying claim to inheriting a political legacy drawn from the PAC, UDF and ANC and have successfully made themselves the black political face against government inaction around accountability and reparation for the Marikana massacre.

Although their voting percentage has not increased significantly since 2014, the inertia of the ANC youth league means that they have a strong chance of continuing to capture radical youth who are against a Zuma-led ANC, as they claim to be against elitist corruption and the true “party for the poor”. Given to flirting with Mugabe-style African nationalism and woefully short on policy, ultra populist party leader Julius Malema holds iconic status amongst EFF rank and file. The consolidation of its proportion in a second election indicates that EFF has staying power potential. Only the DA and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have sustained above 5% for multiple elections since 1994.

Historically, the IFP has had a separate and independent constituency in KwaZulu-Natal, although the ANC made serious inroads into this, especially with Jacob Zuma’s taking over the leadership, as he comes from the province and had some appeal amongst IFP and traditional leaders. From its heyday when it won 9% of the vote in the 2000 municipal elections and 8.5% in the following parliamentary elections, the IFP declined to 3.5% in the 2011 elections. The marginal increase in the 2016 elections to 4.2% was affected by the disqualification of a splinter faction which formed the National Freedom Party (NFP) for not paying its registration fee by the deadline. The IFP has severe limitations in extending its scope much beyond its regional base.

None of the other parties contesting these elections managed to reach 1%. At the end of the day, despite all the excitement, the ANC still maintains a firm majority of 5,086 seats, versus the DA’s 1,023 and the EFF’s 731. Other parties and independent candidates collectively have 427 seats. By virtue of this, politics in South Africa is still dominated by the ANC.

Yet the future is not rosy for the ruling party. The results confirm that the ANC has lost the liberal to left section of the middle classes, and secondly, is showing fragility in its command of full support from the impoverished black majority, especially its small activist vanguard. Cracks are emerging in the mighty edifice. The vast ANC consensus was based on its anti-apartheid legacy, which is now wearing thin in the face of unswerving economic and social deprivation, and gross displays of greed and corruption from within the political elite and their corporate allies.

This August the 60th anniversary of the Women’s March and 30th anniversary of the UDF will facilitate more ANC claims of an unbroken teleology of human rights and individual sacrifice. Yet so many former heroes of the anti-apartheid years who were also former leaders of the ANC, have either split off or are now criticising its current leadership. Leading these are Ronnie Kasrils who places culpability squarely with the ANC government for Marikana; former president Kgalema Motlanthle, who scathingly accused both members and leaders of being devoid of the kind of political ability and consciousness required to maintain a united and non-racial society and Trevor Manuel who called for Zuma’s resignation after the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Public Protector’s recommendations. There is no shortage of others.

For years, The ANC has been struggling to claim that it is against corruption while being led by someone who has deftly managed to sidestep multiple corruption charges. Then came Nkandla. The slander and unpleasantness levelled against the Public Protector after her Security in Comfort report, articulated by party backbenchers is not forgotten. Clientalism, now referred to as “state capture”, was not an ANC invention. Entrenched for decades through the Broederbond under National Party rule, its post- apartheid form was cultivated through Black Economic Empowerment under Mbeki’s leadership. There is, however, little denying that it has now reached epic proportions under Jacob Zuma, with the Guptas being merely the tip of the iceberg.

What has facilitated this, and is new, is that under the ANC watch as the ruling party in government, citizens have witnessed a continual charging and changing of the heads of various investigative and enforcement agencies, from the Police to the National Prosecuting Authority to the Asset Forfeiture Unit to the Scorpions to the Hawks, all in defence of protecting the dubious activities of party members and allies. Any appointment made by the president, whether sound or not, is viewed with intense suspicion and scrutinised from all angles in the media. This is not the fault of the media, as claimed by party loyalists. This is a problem caused by the ANC through its behaviour in government.

A second, grievous failure, is the ANC government’s inability to manage, let alone alleviate, spontaneous protests. These spontaneous outbreaks of protests shadow economic ebbs and flows, and currently are often fuelled by arbitrary responsiveness by government to real problems and deprivation. The government’s reaction to respond with escalating state violence led to the Marikana massacre. The attempts to manipulate and silence the media has led to the recent SABC protests against its COO, from within the broadcaster and without. Choosing party leadership interests over transparency and anti-corruption led to the ‘firepool” demonstration, the height of absurdity, making the party the joke and the entire country laugh. By closing its ranks in the interest of party unity on the issue of the public protector’s recommendations and later on the constitutional ruling against it, the party played right into the hands of critics and weakened any moral high ground it may still have laid claim to.

Currently the elite pact, a consensus based on agreement between ANC command of legislature and executive, and capital’s command of economic heights, still holds. The ANC recognition of the importance of this in the rapid backtracking on the finance minister’s appointment is proof of this. Yet the elites provide little protection when the pact with your social and electoral base, which in the case of the ANC is the urban and rural black poor, begins to waver.

As our past history has demonstrated, the elites will merely form a new pact with whichever party wins majority consensus. With much less of a track history for social transformation, both the DA and EFF are eager and likely candidates. Neither of them presents a credible left alternative to the ANC, and the ANC is still best placed of the three to win back the support of the poor. But without real, systemic change of the party system, this will not improve the chances for a better calibre party leadership in South African politics.

Most disturbingly, the ANC has failed to demonstrate any indication of inspirational leadership to its social base. Aside from Nelson Mandela, the ANC has chosen its leaders badly. While acknowledging that it is impossible to step into Mandela’s shoes, one is forced to marvel at the weakness of his successors. Thabo Mbeki will go down in history as the leader who lost his party; Zuma, maybe, as the leader who lost his party’s majority. Perhaps it is high time that the ANC leadership adopts collective responsibility for this decline.

Poverty alleviation, service delivery free of corruption and clientalism, state transparency and a police service trained to respect human life are of the highest priority. Yet even sincere attempts by party representatives to deliver these can be completely sabotaged by a leadership dominated by those in pursuit of private enrichment, which sets them at odds with this agenda.

Mbeki’s Aids denialism and inability to weld his party behind him and Zuma’s acquisitional greed have taken a severe toll on the party’s popularity. The electorate will soon know if a Zuma acolyte rises as the new leader, with the implication that corruption and clientalism will continue. If Cyril Ramaphosa emerges as the leading candidate, he will have to perform a Damascean repentance of the role he had, as a Lonmin director, in the Marikana massacre, or face similar mistrust.

Regardless of who emerges as leader, or whether the 2019 elections continue to consolidate the trend of evening out the electorate between the three parties, only a change to the party list system can reverse the current monolithic hold that parties have over their representatives. The list system encourages sycophants and inner-party cabals. Direct constituency representation builds up political leadership from the ground and brings fresh troops into the party by creating politicians who have dual loyalties, both to their constituency and to the party. Any reform that the ANC embarks upon that does not have this at the centre will not affect the critical party reform it requires to retain the majority it still holds today.

Ryklief is the General Secretary of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Local Elections 2016

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