By-elections: the DA and Cope learn how to steal ANC marbles by and by

By Paul Berkowitz 9 December 2011

There were no fewer than 15 by-elections in wards across seven provinces this week. Much has been made of the losses of three ANC wards to candidates from three opposition parties. How significant are these losses? By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

In 13 of the 15 wards contested the ANC was the incumbent party and in three of these lost its seat to other parties. In Maluti-a-Phofung (Qwa-Qwa) in Free State the ANC lost to the Dikwankwetla Party, in Thabe Chweu (Sabie) the DA took the seat and in Thembelihle (Hopetown) in Northern Cape the ANC ward councillor resigned from the ANC, ran as an independent and won his seat back. In the other two wards the DA and the IFP were the incumbents and retained their seats comfortably.

This has been the fourth round of by-elections held since the municipal elections in May. There have been 52 wards contested in total, with 44 of those being ANC-held, six held by the DA and two by the IFP.

Over these four rounds, the ANC has lost six of the 44 wards it was defending (three to the DA, one each to Cope, Dikwankwetla and an independent candidate). It also won two wards – it took a ward in Cederberg from the DA and one in Umtshezi (Estcourt) from the IFP.

There’s not much in the overall numbers that points to a strong trend for any party, province or municipality. Fifty-two wards is a little more than 1% of the total number of wards, so there’s been no great turnover of wards, despite the heavily-publicised unhappiness of communities in the lead-up to the elections. Most of the by-elections have taken place in ANC-held wards, but the ANC won almost 80% of all wards in the 2011 election. It’s hardly surprising that around 80% of all councillor resignations or deaths occurred in ANC-controlled wards.

Most of these by-elections are not important in the grander scheme, but at least one of the ANC losses is. The victory in the Strydenburg in the Northern Cape municipality of Thembelihle is highly significant for opposition parties in the province. The balance of power in the municipality, in terms of the number of council seats, was previously held by the ANC by a narrow 4 – 3 margin. Mr Danny Jonas, the ANC incumbent in the contested ward, successfully defended his seat as an independent. The ANC now only holds three council seats in the municipality and a coalition of opposition councillors (two from the DA, one each from COPE and the independent councillor) will now govern the municipality, with Mr Jonas as mayor.

Make no mistake, this was a very hard-fought by-election. Premier Hazel Jenkins, Gwede Mantashe and Cosatu all visited Strydenburg in the run-up. The national department of social development held a rally in the town, drawing a strong reaction from the DA. Jonas’s campaign was run by the DA and Terror Lekota of Cope personally campaigned on his behalf. Expect future by-elections in Northern Cape to attract a similar degree of campaigning and resources from the big parties. The DA has identified the province as their place of potential growth.  They will fight hard if they feel they can win more municipalities from the ANC, particularly those municipalities where the ANC rules by a slim majority.

The involvement of the DA and Cope in Jonas’s campaign is an interesting counterpoint to the DA’s recent accusations of a dirty tricks campaign by the ANC in Western Cape. No doubt some in the ANC will look at the DA/Cope actions in Northern Cape as evidence of double standards. The DA and Cope do seem to be staying on the right side of the law in the way they approach local government elections: supporting another party’s candidates is not illegal, although bribery and the use of state resources for party-specific campaigning certainly are.

The DA also actively campaigned for the seat won in the Thaba Chweu municipality in Mpumalanga, with Helen Zille herself visiting the town over the weekend to drum up support. It appears to have worked. Not only did the DA candidate win by an outright majority, but voter turnout exceeded that of the municipal elections. This has not happened in any other by-election this year. Mpumalanga is arguably the ANC’s most secure stronghold, although the Thaba Chweu municipality has been characterised by poor administration and factionalism in previous years. Most of the discontent in the municipality had come from Mashishing (formerly Lydenburg) and not Sabie.

The ANC is not at risk of losing any municipalities in Mpumalanga any time soon, but this convincing defeat in its heartland is not insignificant, despite its claims to the contrary.

Finally, the win by the Dikwankwetla Party in Qwa-Qwa may yet prove significant. The party essentially operates within Free State and largely appeals along cultural and ethnic lines to Sesotho-speaking people. It’s a crude comparison but the party [Dikwankwetla] is similar in many respects to the UCDP in the North-West province. It governed Qwa-Qwa when it was still a bantustan / independent homeland under apartheid.

The party has had limited success in all democratic elections since 1994. It has never won a seat in the national or provincial elections and didn’t win any ward seats in this year’s elections. Outside of Qwa-Qwa (where it won 10 PR seats and could be considered the official opposition) you can count its councillors on one hand.

As an opposition party it’s a political lightweight, and yet it has been included in broad opposition discussions with the bantam- and middle-weight contenders. It’s not clear what it can bring to the party, apart from opening up another front against an ANC that is on the back foot (the party didn’t field a candidate for the Qwa-Qwa by-election). The DA may be happy for the Dikwankwetla Party to run interference in the province, or they might think that the party can make a real difference to the provincial landscape with the right organisational support (handily supplied by the DA).

The 2011 elections were the first local elections post-1994 to capture the public’s imagination, with voter turnouts far higher than in 2000 and 2006. The by-elections that have been held since then haven’t set the political stage on fire, because by-elections seldom do, but they are certainly being taken more seriously by the major political parties. The ANC is distracted by many things on the national and provincial level (witness the taking over of some provincial departments by their national counterparts this week) and these distractions will only increase in the run-up to the ANC’s centenary and its elective conference next year.

The DA is certainly not going to wait until 2014 to exploit the cracks that are widening in some traditionally solid ANC areas. You can also bet that it will do everything legal to manufacture cracks of its own in the municipalities where the balance of power is delicate. Watch this space. DM




Photo: Reuters.


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