Teflon ANC looks solid yet again after by-elections

People of ward 37 in Soshanguve voted in a by-election in September 2018 in Tshwane, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

Super Wednesday delivered reason to celebrate for the ANC and cause for more soul-searching for the DA.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

More than 73% of the wards up for grabs in by-elections on South Africa’s Super Wednesday were comfortably won by the ANC – a reminder that Africa’s oldest liberation movement continues to enjoy electoral success that would be the envy of any political party anywhere in the world.

Analysts had speculated that voters might punish the ANC for the economically punitive Covid-19 lockdown and the corruption that surrounded pandemic-related procurement, but there was little sign of that impulse at the polls. The ruling party won six new wards, retained 64 wards and lost just two – one to the IFP in Nkandla, causing some IFP crowing.

The new wards won by the ANC were, with the exception of one bagged from the seemingly defunct National Freedom Party, captured at the expense of the DA. Media headlines stemming from Super Wednesday – the largest number of by-elections held on a single day in South Africa’s history – have focused on the bruising losses sustained by the DA. But the triumph of the ANC is arguably more telling.

Local elections have seen the ANC underperform in recent years, for good reason. These municipal-level polls are where the rubber should hit the road when it comes to service delivery, an area in which the governing party’s deficiencies are well recorded. Yet voters have responded with forgiveness to the ANC in this regard this time around.

Supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa may well point to these polls as evidence that Ramaphoria is continuing to produce an electoral bump for the ANC. From that perspective, the by-election results may help to strengthen Ramaphosa’s hand as he goes into bruising congress gatherings over the next year.

At the DA headquarters, a game attempt was made to spin the results as cause for celebration. “We are very pleased that we retained the majority of our wards, showed growth in some of them and even won two new wards in a period when we are busy consolidating and stabilising internal systems and processes,” the party said.

But the numbers speak for themselves: the DA lost a third of its wards on Super Wednesday, retaining 14, losing nine and gaining two. The party attributed this attrition partly to its “democratically mature voters who punish us where we have disappointed them”, a slightly Trumpian interpretation of events (“I have the best voters, the most democratically mature voters, even when they don’t vote for me.”). The DA also fingered “the phenomenon of identity politics”, without further explanation.

On Facebook, the party’s federal council chair Helen Zille further blamed the growth of “small ethnic parties”: a possible reference to the DA’s loss of a Johannesburg ward (Lenasia) to the Muslim Al Jama-ah party. It’s not clear whether Zille considers ex-convict Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance an “ethnic party” too, but one of the biggest upsets of the day was delivered by the Patriotic Alliance’s rout of the DA in Ward 68 (Riverlea-Pennyville) in Johannesburg, with the DA collapsing from 46% to 14%.

The poaching of DA voters by the Freedom Front Plus continued in North West province, where the FF Plus win of a Potchefstroom ward off the DA marks the fourth DA ward the FF Plus has claimed in the province. In winning that ward, the FF Plus grew its support by more than 41% from its 2016 showing, suggesting that the threat to the DA posed by the party among white Afrikaans voters in particular is very real.

What should equally be giving DA strategists sleepless nights is the incursion of Patricia de Lille’s GOOD party in the Western Cape, and particularly the Garden Route. In George, GOOD saw its first ward councillor elected after defeating the DA in Pacaltsdorp. GOOD’s Brett Herron noted in a statement: “After winning just 3% of the vote in George in the 2019 elections, GOOD has now emerged as the second biggest party in all wards contested.”

Although the country’s second-largest opposition party achieved growth in Johannesburg, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape in particular, the EFF was unable to convert its noise into ward victories.

But another takeaway from Super Wednesday should give all political parties food for thought. Although the Electoral Commission declared itself happy with the average turnout – 37.83% – turnout dropped almost everywhere by-elections were held.

By-elections traditionally struggle to attract voters in the numbers of the national polls, and Covid-19 is an additional deterrent. Nonetheless, it’s clear that despite a lot of media attention leading up to these elections, the appetite to vote among many South Africans is simply not there at the moment. DM168


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