ANALYSIS

Tshwane metro election is a key litmus test for 2021

By Stephen Grootes 9 March 2020
Caption
The biggest threat for the DA is that it could lose control of Tshwane to the ANC, which means that all the progress it made in the 2016 elections will be completely reversed. (Photos: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg/Getty Images) | Flickr / South African Tourism | Leila Dougan | Wikimedia)

It is clear that Tshwane will hold a metro election after Gauteng Co-operative Governance MEC Lebogang Maile and Premier David Makhura announced on Thursday 5 March that they were taking the province into administration and that a poll would be held within 30 days. The DA is challenging this in court.

The importance of a fight that is to come in Tshwane cannot be overstated.

This election will see all the seats in the council contested, making it unprecedented in terms of scale. While other councils have held elections outside of the local election cycle, we have not seen a metro of this size and importance go through such a poll. This raises the stakes for everyone and will provide important indicators of what will happen in next year’s local government elections.

There can be no doubt the DA would prefer this election not to occur. The party is about to go through a period in which it could be almost consumed by its internal divisions. It is to hold a policy conference followed by a leadership election. These carry the potential for its divisions to spill over, especially on perhaps the most important issue it faces, the question of racial redress and whether race is a proxy for disadvantage.

However, this could also be an opportunity, through clever politics, for the DA to use in a constructive way. Elections tend to bring the different factions in a political party together. This would allow DA politicians to have internal debates in public while uniting on the campaign trail. 

The biggest threat for the DA is that it could lose control of Tshwane to the ANC, which means that all the progress it made in the 2016 elections will be completely reversed. It will have had, and lost, three mayors – in Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane. Herman Mashaba is now forming his own party, Athol Trollip has left the DA and Stevens Mokgalapa was forced to resign. 

The ANC, on the other hand, has a number of major advantages.

It has more resources than anyone else. In an election of this size, that will matter. It has money and organisation. But it also has key figures who can campaign in a way that will dwarf what the DA and the EFF are able to do. The figure of President Cyril Ramaphosa is bound to loom large. There is no equal to a sitting president on the campaign trail in an election such as this. John Steenhuisen and Julius Malema simply won’t get the same attention.

For the ANC, the timing is also very helpful. It will want to hold power in Tshwane ahead of next year’s local government elections because of the huge advantage that incumbency provides. It has also, through its control of Gauteng, been able to control the timing of the Tshwane election. ANC councillors refused to attend the Tshwane council meetings that led to the lack of a quorum for those meetings to occur. Without a quorum, there was no way to appoint a city manager (or extend the term in office of the acting city manager). This allowed Makhura and Maile to formally take the metro into administration. 

Then there is the EFF. Because of its relatively small size, the structure of this election counts against it. It is hard to win all of the votes in a ward, but easier to win some seats through the proportional representation system (councils are composed of two sets of councillors, those elected to represent a particular geographic ward, and those elected through the proportion of votes cast in the council as a whole – this allows voters to vote for the individual they want as their local councillor, and a political party for the council). For the EFF, winning a ward or two would be a significant victory.

It is also campaigning at a time when cynicism about the party and its leaders is increasing. The continuing coverage of the finances of its leaders, along with the collapse of VBS Bank and court appearances on charges relating to firing a gun in public and assault may count against the party with some voters.

For the Freedom Front Plus, this could be an important moment. The party is on a high after increasing its support in the general elections last year. It can cement that by increasing its support in Tshwane. Certainly, there is little evidence that the DA would be able to improve its support there, and the FF+ is the party most likely to benefit from that. 

This election could be fought on local issues (the water in Hammanskraal for example) and national issues (corruption, Eskom, etc). The DA may try to make this a referendum on the ANC and Ramaphosa, while the ANC could campaign around race and the DA’s internal debates around redress. Malema may try to make this about frustration with the lack of change since the ANC’s Nasrec conference.

The elections will provide an important litmus test of what voters are thinking. The outcome will give parties a unique opportunity to gauge the concerns of voters ahead of next year’s full-scale local government elections.

In the UK, certain by-elections (for individual seats based on geographic constituencies) played an important role. They weakened or strengthened party leaders. The same could occur in Tshwane. 

And the poll may shed light on the big question: is SA politics moving towards extremes? Both the EFF and the FF+ could grow their support at the expense of the ANC and the DA, which would be a worrying trend.

And that trend may just continue in the national local government elections next year. DM

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