At the end of a week turned grey with grief, South Africa held by-elections in six wards. All of the wards were in the municipality of Tlokwe, a municipality whose council has been dysfunctional for months and bitterly divided between the ANC and a DA-led coalition of opposition parties. The council has been equally balanced between the two factions and Wednesday’s by-elections were a long-awaited deciding vote. The ANC ended up sweeping the elections and retaining all six seats. How much has changed between September, when these by-elections were meant to take place, and this December we’re in now? By PAUL BERKOWITZ
At first glance it’s incongruous to hold municipal by-elections while the whole country is mourning the loss of its most-loved son. Some people might see it as inappropriate and be offended while others will be happy that the right to vote is exercised even during our saddest moments.
On one level these by-elections were a poignant reminder of the legacy left by Madiba: the machinery of democracy still ticks over at this extraordinary time, the background hum of freedom is unbroken.
On another level Tlokwe has been the subject of a protracted and acrimonious fight based on party-political affiliations. The parties have accused each other of committing all manner of iniquities, ranging from bad behaviour in council to outright vote-buying. Tlokwe has been an example of democracy at work, but democracy at its most chaotic and fractious. Cynics would argue that it’s been more about the abuse of democratic processes by politicians at the expense of those who vote for them.
The arithmetic behind the stalemated council is simple. There are 52 seats in the Tlokwe council, and up until Wednesday night six of these were undecided. After the September by-elections, the remaining 46 seats were split down the middle, with the ANC controlling half (23) and the opposition parties the other half (DA 19, FF+ 2, COPE 1, independent 1).
The six wards where by-elections were held are wards 1, 4, 11, 12, 13 and 20. They were all ANC incumbencies from the 2011 municipal elections, when the party won four of the six wards with over 90% of the vote, while two wards (4 and 13) were won with less than 60% of the vote.
The ANC needed to retain at least four of the six seats up for by-election to regain control of the municipality, meaning that it could lose one or two wards and still have an absolute majority of council seats. Losing three wards, however unlikely the scenario, would mean that the council would remain hung.
Much has been written about the power struggle in the municipality over the last two years. Apart from the twists and turns and political redeployments in the municipality and province there are a couple of interesting trends in the numbers around the voting. Some of these trends raise further questions.
Changes in the number of registered voters
For the 2011 elections the average ward in Tlokwe had over 3,000 registered voters according to IEC data. Only four of the 26 wards had fewer than 2,500 registered voters – wards 11, 20, 23 and 24. Wards 23 and 24 were won by the DA in 2011. Wards 11 and 20 were won by the ANC and were up for by-election on Wednesday.
Ward 20 in particular had a very low number of registered voters – just 777 in 2011. (Ward 23, in second place, had over 1,800 registered voters.) It also had the highest voter turnout with 744 valid votes cast, equivalent to 96% of all registered voters (the average for the municipality was 61%).
Between May 2011 and December 2013 the number of registered voters changed in all six contested wards, but the increases were largest in the wards where the competition had been closest in 2011.
The table below compares registered voter numbers in 2011 and 2013. More than 1,000 new voters registered in ward 4 and over 600 registered in ward 20. The number of registered voters in ward 20 increased by almost 80% in the two and a half years between elections (although the ward still has the smallest population of registered voters).
There’s been another large percentage increase in registered voters in ward 4: the 1,039 new registrations constitutes a 27% increase on the 2011 figure. Interestingly, voter registration numbers in ward 11 decreased by 131.
How much of the increase in voter registration was due to the IEC’s voter registration drive in November? Probably most of it. It does pose some interesting hypothetical questions: how would voter turnout have differed in those closely fought wards and would any of the results been different if the by-elections had been held back in September?
The large changes in voter registration numbers in wards 4 and 20 must be kept in mind when comparing voter turnout figures in the by-elections with those of the 2011 elections. The absolute number of people voting was barely changed in ward 4 and actually increased in ward 20, but voter turnout percentages fell due to the significant growth in the pool of registered voters.
The ANC hasn’t done well in previous December by-elections
It’s irresponsible to look for voting patterns that aren’t there, but the truth is that the ANC have, by-election-wise, fared poorly in Decembers past. The party has lost not just wards but whole municipalities in the previous two December by-elections.
In December 2011 the party lost three wards to three different parties. One of the wards, in Thembelihle (Hopetown) in the Northern Cape, was won by a former ANC councillor who ran as an independent. The DA and COPE subsequently formed a majority coalition with the independent councillor and the ANC lost control of the municipality.
In December 2012 the ANC lost a ward in the Nkandla municipality to the IFP and with it the whole municipality. The party also received a big scare in at least two other wards and could have had an even more torrid time in other KwaZulu-Natal municipalities on the day.
Turnout in December by-elections isn’t generally that different from other by-elections. It may be a little lower due to the proximity of holidays. Turnout has been high, however, in the wards where the ANC has lost and has come close to losing.
As an ANC party official, you don’t have to be superstitious to be worried about the threats of low voter turnout and unexpected election results.
Coordination failures amongst the opposition
The DA (with COPE in tow) has had a flexible approach to opposition and coalition politics, based largely on necessity. In municipalities where it does not govern outright it will sometimes campaign for by-election seats and sometimes support the campaigns of other opposition candidates, particularly independent candidates.
The party recognises that its appeal is limited in certain areas, at least in the short term, and that its big-picture success depends on successes of its partners. It has supported the successful campaigns of independent candidates in the Northern Cape, forming majority coalitions with them and COPE. In Tlokwe it has supported some of the independent candidates running against the ANC.
The strategy worked in ward 26, which was won by an independent in the September by-elections. It almost worked in ward 20 on Wednesday. Too much independence can be a double-edged sword, as the party is finding out.
Independent candidates that are doing their own thing and aren’t coordinating their efforts with the DA have ended up hurting the party too. On Wednesday two independents split the vote with DA candidates in wards 4 and 13 and the ANC retained these seats.
Would an opposition candidate have won these two seats if the vote hadn’t been split? Maybe not. There might still be an upper limit to the successes of the DA and any independent candidates, at least in the short term. The ANC, however, won’t be complaining about the extra choices on offer.
After all of the analysis, the final results reflected an unambiguously good day for the ANC. The party won all six of the wards, although it could have easily lost up to two of its seats.
In ward 1, which is largely a rural ward in the north-west of the municipality, the ANC retained the seat it had won with 93% (DA 6%) in 2011. The party’s support fell to 82% as an independent candidate ate into the ANC’s share of the vote. Turnout fell from 66% to 45%.
Ward 4 was a hard-fought affair and the ANC almost lost the ward to a DA challenger. The party had won the ward in 2011 with 53% of the vote to the DA’s 41% (FF+ 4%, COPE and IRASA 1% each).
The ANC retained the ward with just 42% of the vote to the DA’s 40%. An independent candidate received the remaining 18% of the vote. The 299 votes that had separated the ANC from the DA in 2011 shrank to just 42 votes on Wednesday, and the DA will be disappointed by how closely it missed winning the ward.
The ANC retained ward 11 with a slightly reduced majority. The party had won the ward with 93% in 2011 (DA 4%, COPE 2%) and this share of the vote fell to 86% on Wednesday (independent 13%, PAC and UCDP 1%). Voter turnout fell from 62% to 40%.
Ward 12% was solidly defended by the ANC. The party won the seat in 2011 with 93% of the vote (DA 4%, COPE 3%) and retained the seat with 92% (independent 8%). Voter turnout fell from 65% to 43%.
Ward 13 was another ward where the opposition would have hoped for an upset that just didn’t come. The ANC won the ward with 59% in 2011 (DA 32%, COPE 7%). The party retained its seat with just 47% of the vote and would have been relieved that the DA (31%) and an independent (21%) split the vote between them.
The independent, Sesing Johannes Johnson, was the former ANC councillor who was expelled by the ANC earlier in the year. His appeal to the electorate was enough to reduce the ANC’s share of the vote to below 50% but not enough to pose a serious challenge to its incumbency. Voter turnout fell from 62% to 45%.
In ward 20, another former ANC councillor-turned-independent, Palesa Aaron Mohlope, came closer to retaining his seat. He received 91% of the vote as an ANC candidate in 2011 (COPE 5%, DA 4%) but could only muster 39% on Wednesday. The new ANC candidate won the ward with 61% of the vote.
Voter turnout fell from 96% to 66% but the number of valid votes cast actually rose from 734 in the 2011 elections to 893 on Wednesday. This was a result of the almost 80% surge in voter registration numbers in the ward.
The ANC now has 29 seats in the 52-seat council. That’s one seat fewer than the party won in 2011, but it has regained firm control of a municipality where it’s been out of power for months. Was it the spirit of Madiba that convinced so many people to vote on Wednesday, or the efforts of the political parties to coordinate the voting process over the past few months? Right now that question is only of academic interest to the ANC. December this year is gloomy all around but these by-elections have been a silver lining for the party. DM
"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11