Power of the poll: October 27 local elections could be a political game-changer
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s election announcement has fired the starting gun on several processes that may lead to important changes within our society – and the power balance in the ANC itself.
The announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that the local elections will go ahead on 27 October may well change several important dynamics within our politics. While it puts an end to demands that the elections be postponed because of the pandemic, the timing of the vaccination roll-out programme may also change the nature of the election itself.
Ramaphosa’s statement, published on Wednesday night, had several curious aspects to it.
First, as he says in the statement, it is not formally up to the president to officially announce the local election date – this is done by the cooperative governance minister. Ramaphosa says Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma will do this in due course.
But the statement also comes after an unexpected incident in Durban in KwaZulu-Natal last week where, while campaigning ahead of this week’s by-elections, Ramaphosa let it be known that the local elections would go ahead in October.
It would seem unlikely that Ramaphosa blurted that out by mistake. At the time, there were some voices in public saying the elections should be postponed because of the pandemic. While the loudest public voice saying this was the EFF, it is entirely possible that some people within the ANC were making the very same argument in private.
To postpone the elections would have been unconstitutional, and to move them past November would have required a change to the Constitution. That would have led to more pressure to merge local elections with the national and provincial polls.
Such developments would have introduced further divisive streams, both within the ANC and in general society.
Ramaphosa has effectively ended this debate; the polls will now be held, as the Constitution demands, this year.
Others occupying his position may have done this differently. Some, no doubt, would have preferred to create divisions so they could conquer by showing what power the sitting president has.
The timing of the election, at the end of October (and just a week before the constitutionally mandated final deadline), has some intriguing implications.
It is around then that the government intends to have vaccinated all of those who are considered vulnerable to Covid-19. By then, people who are elderly and have comorbidities should have been rendered safe from the virus.
At the same time, it will be known whether the government is ready to move ahead with the next phase, vaccinating the general population.
This means that the government’s vaccination record is bound to be one of the big issues of the election campaign, overtaking local government service delivery issues and councillors’ ineptitude and corruption.
Considering how low the general standard of municipal services is around the country (with the curious exception of councils in the Western Cape), this could even be convenient for some; they certainly could feel that they have more control over the ANC’s track record on the vaccine issue than on providing local government services.
Either way, it is possible that this announcement could serve as an important political incentive to ANC deployees in charge of the vaccine programme.
While Dlamini Zuma has not yet officially proclaimed the date of the elections, all of the political parties who hope to contest now have to start certain processes to determine who will represent them as councillors and mayors.
While each party will have its own process for doing this, it does have the potential to lead to intense intra-party contestation. In a slowing economy, the salary and patronage that a position can provide may be more important than it is at other times.
So, parties within a shot of power could experience internal turmoil.
For the ANC, of course, this is particularly true. While it has more positions to share out, it also has more factions, more groups of people and more constituencies to satisfy. The party appears more divided than ever before, and thus this contestation for positions may be more intense than previously.
It is also in the ANC that people have been murdered for positions, particularly in KZN.
Meanwhile, in North West, the party is still divided. And in Gauteng, Premier David Makhura has bemoaned factionalism in his province
Ahead of the 2019 election, it was clear that ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule played an important role in the party’s list process, determining who would represent it in Parliament and in the provincial legislatures.
The final culmination of that was the election of seemingly tainted people such as Supra Mahumapelo, Bongani Bongo, Faith Muthambi and Tina Joemat-Pettersson to the chairs of parliamentary committees.
However, earlier this year the ANC National Executive Committee announced that its process of determining representatives would change, and there will now be an “Electoral Committee” that will “help our movement to put forward the best and most credible candidates for all elections”.
This committee will be chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe.
This means that a lever of power used so effectively by Magashule in the past will now be less potent. Providing he doesn’t step aside, he will of course still play an important role in this process – but it may be that Motlanthe’s presence will have a far more significant impact.
For example, Geoff Makhubo is the mayor of Joburg, despite the fact that he must have lied about the fact that he did not resign from a financial services company that benefited from decisions he made as the Member of the Mayoral Committee for Finance in the city. He lied to the investigative journalism organisation amaBhungane, and then found it difficult to explain himself at the Zondo Commission.
He may well turn out to be a symbolic test of whether this new electoral committee will in fact help the ANC “put forward the best and most credible candidates for all elections”.
This could have a big impact on the internal dynamics in the party, should it be able to keep people accused of corruption out of public office.
At this stage, it is difficult to make predictions about what the results of the elections will be, and whether any of the bigger metros will change hands.
However, one can predict that these elections will not be boring. And that they could actually change the dynamics in the ANC, and our society, in important ways. DM