South Africa

Analysis: Municipal by-elections

By Paul Berkowitz 18 March 2013

On Monday Citydex released its research note on municipal by-elections which is up on the company website. This review of the last year and a half of by-elections examines the trends in voting and whether the process is serving the voters. By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

My colleague Seitshiro and I reviewed the municipal by-elections that have been held since the 2011 elections. Altogether there have been 139 ward elections since September 2011.The 138 wards (one was contested twice) comprise roughly 3% of all the wards in the country. What did we discover?

The range of wards up for by-elections is broadly in line with the national picture, although the provincial representations are not at all reflective. The wards are held by the ANC and the DA, with a handful of wards held by the IFP and one or two held by the NFP. About 15% of wards are contested in the metros. The urban-rural split is indicative of the overall picture but certain provinces (Eastern Cape and Limpopo) have been overrepresented in the by-elections while other provinces (Gauteng and North-West) have been underrepresented.

Many of the trends were predictable and intuitive. Voter turnout fell in the by-elections from the very high levels set in the 2011 elections. Fewer parties contested the by-elections compared with the municipal elections. More parties contested the bigger municipalities (metros and secondary cities).

Elections in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape saw higher voter turnout numbers, more parties contesting and more municipalities changing hands. Sixteen of the 138 wards were lost by the incumbent parties in the by-elections, and about half of these occurred in the two provinces.

Ten of the municipalities lost were lost by the ANC, three by the DA, two by the NFP and one by the IFP. The DA and IFP won a net number of wards while the ANC and NFP were net losers. Most municipalities were retained comfortably by the incumbent parties but the wards that were lost were often critical wards in closely-fought municipalities.

Four of the wards won resulted in whole municipalities falling to the victors. The IFP won control of Hlabisa and Nkandla municipalities while the ANC took Witzenberg and Matzikama from the DA in the Western Cape.

The IFP was strongly resurgent in the KwaZulu-Natal by-elections following an awful showing in 2011. The IFP was reduced to just one municipality after the 2011 elections but won back another two in 2011 and 2012. The ANC similarly pared some of its losses in the Western Cape.

While democracy has been narrowly served by the regular holding of by-elections, the voting public has little prospect of forcing the holding of by-elections if they are unhappy with their ward councillors. The political parties and their candidates hold all the power, and there is little to no connection between the conduct and performance of a councillor and the probability that the councillor will face a by-election and a challenge to his or her power.

Elections in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape have been characterised by extremely competitive behaviour between the different parties, higher voter turnouts, closer contests and a very high level of animosity and criticism between parties. The IFP has been accused by both the NFP and ANC of campaigning unfairly while the DA repeatedly claims that the ANC is involved in a dirty tricks campaign and is trying to destabilise the DA in the province.

The ANC could yet win another handful of wards and maybe a couple of municipalities from the DA in the Western Cape, and there are one or two municipalities that the IFP will have its eye on in KwaZulu-Natal. Whether the incumbents succeed in beating off the challengers or more wards and municipalities fall, it is unclear whether the increased competition in these marginal areas will benefit the voter. At the moment the only beneficiaries appear to be the party bosses and the candidate councillors on the right side of the party. DM

Paul Berkowitz is a writer for the Daily Maverick. He writes here in his capacity as researcher for Citydex, a division of Empowerdex. Citydex specialises in municipal government research and consulting.

Photo: People queue to cast their votes in the local government elections in Bo-Kaap in Cape Town on Wednesday, 18 May 2011. (Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA)

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