The biggest winners and losers of South Africa’s local government polls

The biggest winners and losers of South Africa’s local government polls
Municipal elections campaign posters. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

The ballot was marked by the lowest voter turnout in post-apartheid South African history – and, for the first time, the ANC’s support fell below 50%.

The 2021 South African municipal elections were held on 1 November 2021. Here are the real winners and losers:


Inkatha Freedom Party

The IFP looks set to lead at least 16 councils and control nine in KwaZulu-Natal, while taking some 539 seats nationally: a sterling result that has confounded some analysts. But party spokesperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa told DM168 that anyone who is surprised simply hasn’t been paying attention.

“In 2016 [local government elections] we went from control of two municipalities to 13, so this is a continuation of that,” Hlengwa said. The party has been “working hard” and has the “necessary election infrastructure”. Hlengwa said that the IFP’s track record of service delivery in the municipalities where it already governs was evident from the fact that the party was re-elected in all of these.

Hlengwa credited the IFP’s “smooth leadership transition” from Mangosuthu Buthelezi to Velenkosini Hlabisa as reassuring voters that the party was in safe hands. The IFP also used July’s looting and unrest, which hit KwaZulu-Natal harder than any­where else, as a campaigning issue, with Zulu King Misuzulu kaZwelethini dispatched to help calm the waters. The IFP “pushed back on the frontiers of criminality,” Hlengwa said.

EFF and Freedom Front Plus

These two parties, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both recorded solid gains. Both parties have ruled out going into coalition with the other.

The FF+ has almost tripled its seats, off a fairly low base, from 73 seats going into these polls to 220 seats (as of 5 November). It won seats where previously it had none, including in eight Northern Cape municipalities and two in North West. As was the case with the 2019 polls, these gains have come largely at the expense of the DA.

The EFF, meanwhile, came in for some ribbing on Twitter. The Fighters often present themselves as the “government-in-waiting”, and leader Julius Malema had previously predicted a result of 65% of vote share, but they ended up with about 10.42%, a respectable development from 2016’s 8.19% –especially in an election in which the two bigger parties took major hits.

Elections analyst Wayne Sussman told DM168 that, although the two parties’ growth might look similar, “if I’m the Freedom Front Plus I’m a lot happier than the EFF right now”. The EFF might have expected to be the second-largest party in more municipalities, but there are “precious few prizes for the EFF to show at this point”.

Independents like Dr Ruben Richards of Cederberg Eerste

Independent candidates and hyperlocal movements not affiliated with the big political parties both had a moment in these elections, with Mmusi Maimane’s One South Africa moment crowing that collectively they were set to win enough votes to place fifth as a voting bloc nationally.

In the Western Cape municipality of Cederberg, it was a fairytale ending for a local service-delivery platform called Cederberg Eerste (Cederberg First), led by Dr Ruben Richards.

Cederberg Eerste ended up pipping the DA with more than 27% of the vote and enough council seats – three – to make Richards the most likely mayor of a coalition with the DA and smaller parties.

It’s the latest great adventure in the already storied life of 62-year-old Richards, a former clothing factory worker who grew up on the Cape Flats, earned a PhD in religious studies, worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, helped found the Scorpions, has published eight books, and is now a commercial citrus farmer in Clanwilliam.

Richards, a reluctant politician, told DM168 he was called upon by residents last year to facilitate discussions about service delivery.

“I said: As long as this is a community organisation and not a political party,” Richards recalled.

He said Cederberg Eerste mobilised the local community with projects such as litter collection and running a competition for the organisation’s logo and theme song. They targeted both farmers and farm workers in the area.

“We all basically want the same thing,” said Richards. “Clean water, clean roads, clean administration.”

Patriotic Alliance

The Patriotic Alliance’s (PA’s) win of 74 seats nationally (as of 5 November) puts it ahead of more established parties such as the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Congress of the People (Cope). Although the party founded by Gayton McKenzie and Kenny Kunene is still a way off taking control of a council, it could play kingmaker in several places, after winning sought-after wards in Ekurhuleni and establishing its utter dominance in Eldorado Park.

McKenzie has said that the “lowest” council posts it is willing to accept in coalition situations are member of mayoral committee positions.

“No longer will a coloured be treated as nothing in this country,” McKenzie told EWN, which sums up the party’s major promise to voters. It pledged to raise the status and political power of coloured people, who the PA says have been treated like “stepchildren” for too long. It has also positioned itself as strenuously opposed to “illegal foreigners”.

In rural Western Cape, the party also had a strong showing, and looks likely to install Teflon politician Truman Prince as mayor of Beaufort West. “They called us a Mickey Mouse party,” McKenzie reminded his supporters in a triumphant Facebook Live on 3 November.

DA’s Chris Pappas

This week a tweet went viral, saying the following: “While Malema was busy with gossip, insults, and race-baiting, a white young man was speaking to people on the ground about relevant local issues and DA has won the majority vote in a KZN municipality.” The young white man in question is the DA’s 30-year-old Chris Pappas, who helped land the DA its first municipal majority in KwaZulu-Natal in uMngeni (Howick).

Pappas told DM168 the victory was not his alone. “The journey began back in 2004 when we started laying the foundation,” he said. In the past, he noted, voters there criticised the DA for not communicating enough between elections – something the party has now addressed. He also focused on “building trust among new groups of voters”.

Key to this trust was probably Pappas’ fluency in isiZulu. He explained that he grew up in rural KwaZulu-Natal and speaks the language “as my mother tongue”, which he believes gives him a greater ability to connect emotionally with isiZulu-speaking voters.

Pappas already has a 100-day plan for his municipality, kicking off with “a full audit of infrastructure and assets” to assess the state of play after “two decades of poor governance”.


Herman Mashaba’s new party was up against it going into these elections after an error during registration meant that ActionSA could only print its logo rather than its name on some ballots. The party is still bitter about that, but the reality is that ActionSA has done pretty well for a one-year-old, taking 90 seats nationally.

ActionSA’s Johannesburg spokesperson, Sabelo Chalufu, told DM168 the party was happy to have won voting districts in both suburbs and wards, proving that it has “truly multiracial support”: “For a year-old party to win voting districts off the ANC in Soweto is particularly impressive and speaks to our prospects of unseating the ANC in 2024.” He pointed to ActionSA’s winning five seats in the KwaDukuza municipal council, bringing the ANC under 50%, as “historic”.

Chalufu says various factors contributed to the party’s success: a “comprehensive air-war and ground-war” in campaigning, a “resident-centric” approach, the fact that its ranks include experienced public servants, and it had thousands of volunteers.

The party launched an unprecedented post-elections initiative: canvassing the public about which parties ActionSA should enter into coalition with. Mashaba has repeatedly refused to get into bed with the ANC.




The DA will point to its success in uMngeni, the win of a few new wards in KwaZulu-Natal and the consolidation of support in Midvaal and Cape Town as evidence that its performance this election was not that bad. But there’s no hiding a few unfortunate facts: significant losses in the Western Cape outside Cape Town, the continued haemorraghing of votes to the Freedom Front Plus, a major collapse among coloured voters, and the erosion of DA support in townships.

Analyst Dawie Scholtz noted on Twitter that some number-crunching revealed that the DA lost more than half its 2016 support (when it was led by Mmusi Maimane) in Joburg townships. In 2016 the party enjoyed 77% support among coloured voters; in 2021, it is hovering around 54%.

The losses in the DA’s flagship Western Cape will be the most worrying for a party that likes to point to the “DA difference” in service delivery. It lost its outright majority in Beaufort West, Oudtshoorn, Cape Agulhas, Saldanha Bay, Breede Vallei and Langeberg. Particularly confounding is the loss of Cape Agulhas, which News24 recently ranked as the top-performing municipality in the country. (When DM168 asked DA regional head Jaco Londt how he interpreted this loss, he replied that Mossel Bay was actually the best municipality in the country, according to the Auditor-General, and it returned the DA to power with increased support.)

DA leader John Steenhuisen faces tough times ahead. As has been pointed out by many, his predecessor, Maimane, was made to fall on his sword after the 2019 polls. In an election in which the DA’s support dropped from 26.9% in 2016 to 21.76% in 2021, will Steenhuisen have to do the same?


The governing party maintained a decent showing in areas like the Eastern Cape, but in almost every metro it was hammered. Election analyst Dawie Scholtz pointed out on Twitter that the ANC suffered losses in all Johannesburg townships, including an unprecedented 18% drop in support in what has always been the ANC stronghold of Soweto. In the metro of Johannesburg, ANC support has dropped 26% over 10 years.

But it was perhaps in KwaZulu-Natal that the ANC felt its losses most strongly, particularly after the stunning loss of an outright majority in eThekwini.

“Something has gone horribly wrong in KZN,” ANC provincial secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli admitted to DM168 this week.

Suggestions for the KZN collapse have included the loss of the support of the Shembe church; the July unrest in the province, seen as the unnecessary result of party factionalism; and a rumoured polls boycott from supporters of former president Jacob Zuma. (The ANC has denied the latter, with treasurer-general Paul Mashatile pointing out that Zuma himself campaigned for the ANC ahead of the polls.)

Pressure will now doubtless fall on the head of current party president Cyril Ramaphosa, who this week has shown more engagement with the global climate crisis talks than the ANC’s performance in these elections.

Unfortunately for Ramaphosa, he is the man who was at the helm when the ANC fell to an all-time electoral low of 45.85%, sending the party into a humiliating scramble for coalitions across the country.

South African democracy

As Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood points out, the low voter turnout for these elections means that South Africa has effectively returned to “minority rule” – because only a minority of citizens participated in the democratic process. Although the turnout ended up being slightly better than initially feared, at 12.3 million voters, it amounts to fewer than half of those registered.

The major reason low voter turnout should be a point of concern is because political participation is already biased towards more privileged citizens (those with more money and education). Voting is supposed to be the one democratising instrument at our disposal, allowing everyone – no matter how poor or uneducated – to have their say in the system.

But studies from as early as the 1920s internationally have shown that, when voter turnout drops, it is inevitably poorer and less educated people who tend not to vote. This was very evident from the 2021 South African polling data too, which showed that the wealthier suburbs nationally tended to have far higher turnouts than the impoverished townships.

One may empathise with a lack of desire to vote, but the whole system suffers from a crisis of legitimacy as a result.

Political scientist Arend Lijphart has previously suggested that “non-voting is a form of free riding – taking advantage of the benefits of democracy without contributing to it – and free riding of any kind may be rational, but it is also selfish and immoral”. DM168

View our interactive provincial maps, showing all the council outcomes of the 2021 local government election results, here.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

Note: The 168 article included a report on DA Durban beachfront Ward 26 candidate Sharmaine Sewshanker. It was believed she was a winner, by just one vote, but her victory was shortlived after an IEC audit revealed later that the final tally of votes showed that the ANC had won.  


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Not voting is also a valid democratic choice, though it would have been stronger if there was a campaign to spoil ballots.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    I do not see how ‘not’ voting is ever a wise choice. Effectively, it precludes you from any input & you’re simply a passenger. It also, in a sense, removes your right to complain.

  • Werner Illenberger says:

    I repeat what I said to Rebecca’s article: the clear evidence that DA-dominated constituencies were “plagued” by delays due to “equipment not working”, incompetent IEC officials, people “falling off ” the voter’s roll, and probably other ploys that resulted in many DA supporters abandoning their attempt to vote. In my voting area, typical time needed to vote was 3 hours, and evidence gathered via a Facebook poll shows that 25% of voters ended up not voting. Please visit the Western Cape province, and let me know if you find a single pothole. Then visit all the other provinces, and please don’t tell me how many potholes you find.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    Don’t vote, don’t complain!

  • Werner Illenberger says:

    I repeat what I posted to Rebecca’s article “DA’s post-election spin is Trumpian in its ‘alternative facts’” : the clear evidence that DA-dominated constituencies were “plagued” by delays due to “equipment not working”, incompetent IEC officials, people “falling off ” the voter’s roll, and probably other ploys that resulted in many DA supporters abandoning their attempt to vote. In my voting area, typical time needed to vote was 3 hours, and evidence gathered via a Facebook poll shows that 25% of voters ended up not voting. Please visit the Western Cape province, and let me know if you find a single pothole. Then visit all the other provinces, and please don’t tell me how many potholes you find.

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