Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul & Saul Musker 23 October 2014

Big City Life: SA’s changing political landscape

South Africa is fast becoming a tale of two worlds – the urban and the rural. What should political parties do about it?

The political times, they are a-changin’ – and not just in South Africa. In the United States, in China and in Thailand, in India and in Egypt, a powerful new trend is emerging to reshape the corridors of high power. Understanding it requires a closer look at the way in which populations are shifting, altering the demographic and electoral landscape in dramatic and immediate ways.

Already South Africa’s national election seems only a distant memory, lost amidst a blur of news reels, scandals and lacklustre speeches. But behind the scenes, the gears are already in motion for the next big political showdown – the 2016 local government elections. More than any other, 2016 will be an election about geography. Here’s why.

Knowing that the ANC won 62.15% of the national vote, and the DA 22.23%, doesn’t help you very much. It doesn’t tell you why the ruling party lost support, where, or from whom. It doesn’t tell you the areas in which the opposition has made inroads or those which will require more attention. Most South Africans, however, will stop at those broad-brush figures, content with the obvious conclusions that might be drawn.

Behind the numbers lies a far more compelling reality, which various commentators and political scientists have begun to unravel and expose. Of particular interest is the growing divide between rural and urban – South Africa’s two worlds. Take the Eastern Cape, for example. The Elundini voting district is profoundly rural, measuring roughly 5,000km2 with a dispersed population of 138,000, 98% of which is black African. Here, the ANC won 87.74% of the national vote, up from 81.68% in 2004. The Nelson Mandela Bay district, home to the city of Port Elizabeth, tells a different story. Here, the ANC took just 49.17%, down from 69.39% in 2004. There is, of course, the fact of voter turnout to consider – in Elundini, the proportion of ballots cast to registered voters dropped from 76.6 to 71.4% in the same period. But the number of votes counted still increased as an absolute, and so did the ANC’s majority.

The same trend is evident in districts and provinces across the country – a decline in ANC support in urban areas, with a relative maintenance (and sometimes increase) of support in outlying, rural regions. Overall, the ANC won 55.76% of the urban vote, down from 61.32% in 2009, while securing 71.26% of the rural vote, a decrease of only 0.83%. What can this tell us?

Urban areas are generally more fluid and quicker to change when it comes to political trends. Population density and widespread access to print and other media, for example, contribute to a greater flow of information and increased and more diverse social interaction. Moreover, political parties find it easier to campaign in cities, where they can reach more people more quickly with a wider volunteer base and lower operating costs. In South Africa, there is the added dimension of higher levels of dependence on state support in rural areas, in terms of subsidies, grants and basic service provision. The state has a more immediate and more provisory role in the lives of rural South Africans than in others, and loyalties to the ruling party are more stubborn, less transient.

If urban areas, then, are centres of change – Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Tshwane, Mangaung and eThekwini chief amongst them – it follows that rapid and growing urbanisation presents a serious threat to the ANC’s rural support base. Urbanisation in South Africa began in earnest with the industrialisation of the early 20th century and the subsequent demand for labour in growing cities and towns around the country. Later, rigid Apartheid legislation served to limit and control migration to urban areas by making it difficult for blacks to gain permission to work or live in major cities. The magnetic attraction of the city, however, meant that urban areas continued to grow regardless, in deeply segregated form. After 1994, with the onerous restrictions of the past now lifted, the rate of urbanisation shot up rapidly. If current projections hold true, the UN predicts that by 2050 the urban population of South Africa will number almost 45 million people, compared to less than 14 million rural inhabitants. That spells dramatic change in social, economic and political terms.

In the short term, some analysts suggest that the ANC could survive by solidifying its rural base as a buffer against rising urban support for the opposition. While in purely numerical terms this may be true, such a model ignores the immense influence that urban centres of power can have in shaping a country’s political landscape, even if the rural population outnumbers or rivals the urban. Thailand is a perfect case in point. The Shinawatra dynasty, of which Prime Minister Yingluck was the most recent flag-bearer, relied on the support of the rural, agrarian working-class vote – the so-called “red shirts” – to secure and maintain their hold on power. Earlier this year, however, popular protests in the urban capital, Bangkok, led by mostly middle-class “yellow shirts”, toppled the elected government and brought about a swift military coup which remains in control today.

This proved once again the importance of holding the urban centres of power – in cities, for instance, popular discontent can manifest in large-scale demonstrations and protests which captivate national and international attention, aided by population density, media concentration and urban public spaces. The power of the urban mass can overwhelm even a democratic majority, dispersed in far-flung and isolated rural areas. The moral of the story is that holding a country’s cities is crucial to holding stable power.

The United States is another compelling exemplar of the global force that is urban politics. The Democratic Party commands a majority of support in practically every urban centre, even those (like Austin, Dallas or Houston) which are in the middle of deeply conservative Republican states. Most interesting in the US is the fact that cities seem to have the power to turn people blue – migrants, once exposed to the diverse, liberal city environment, begin to reflect it in their political choices.

Where does all of this leave South Africa’s two biggest political parties?

It is abundantly clear that in order to remain viable in the years to come – for the ANC to retain power or for the DA to make further headway – both major parties will need to zero in on their support in our largest cities. For one thing, the strategists of each party know that winning a large metro sends exactly the right kind of message: we can win a dense, young and politically-savvy region. Cities are our symbols of the future, and controlling them suggests that a party has a strong mandate going forward.

Moreover, local government is a gateway drug for provincial power: remember the DA’s trajectory in the Western Cape, initially winning Cape Town by only six seats in 2006. But these strategists also know that our largest and wealthiest cities will be no easy fight in elections to come. The DA continues to gain in Cape Town, the ANC is beginning to lose in Johannesburg. Both cities are crucial political epicentres; if Cape Town is the polished storefront of our country, Johannesburg is the factory supplying the goods. With the ANC having already lost the former, it cannot afford to cede control of the corridors of industry and big money in the City of Gold.

Urban and suburban voters are increasingly choosing the DA. This will be even more evident in municipal elections, where the ideological loyalties that may stop a voter from giving the DA their national vote are more easily overlooked. Tshwane’s ANC vote dropped below 50% in the national election. The authors know of card-carrying, struggle-activist ANC members in the civil service who vote ANC nationally but will not do so locally. While many voters of the steadily growing black middle class may baulk at giving the DA power to influence grand policy issues at a national level, they will more easily concede – if so persuaded – that the DA simply does city management better.

This means a lot of work for the ANC, which must offer a track record of vastly improved urban management that it currently cannot boast. The DA has been highly effective in leveraging its narrative of governance in Cape Town to political advantage, pointing to its success in increasing the Mother City’s GDP, decreasing her debt and – the biggie for city voters – cutting CBD crime by up to 90%. While its treatment of Cape Town’s informal settlements has been a particular failure, this is less likely to influence the actual votes of middle class suburbanites in Johannesburg or Port Elizabeth, who, while shaking their heads at the injustice of it all, will typically prioritise the crime rate and road maintenance of their own neighbourhood.

Given that local elections, more so than provincial or national, are constituency-based, self-interested voting is (as a rule) more predictable. For the individual voter at a local government level, the concerns are simple: rates and utilities, enablement of business and traders, waste removal, transport, crime and community safety, maintenance and restoration of community infrastructure and access to information. Johannesburg has struggled far more than her coastal rival in recent years to project an image of urban management success. The city is plagued by bad news; from the recent water crisis, to striking city workers, soaring crime rates and the harassment of informal traders at the instruction of the mayor. The corridors of municipal power are haunted by the ANC hydra of ineffectiveness, corruption and political apathy. But as one Cape Town city official joked, “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

The DA could do a lot more to capitalise on these perceived failures. The DA campaign message for local government needs to focus on DA-led changes in areas they’ve won. More focus on what they have done and can do, rather than focusing on curtailing ANC mismanagement, will serve them better. In an election about the bread-and-butter grievances of city dwellers, all of whom are less dependent on the government than their rural counterparts, a message of irrefutable DA competence stands to wound the ANC like no other rhetoric can.

In the coming battle for Johannesburg, if the DA really knows what’s good for it, they will send to the frontlines their own internally-scorned Lindiwe Mazibuko to run for mayor in 2016. Mazibuko is well-known and respected even by those who do not follow politics closely. Not only will her new Harvard credentials and a break from the SA media lend her a hand, but the lingering impression that she represents a shift from Helen Zille and the ‘old DA’ will help her win voters here, making her more palatable to unaffiliated voters than Zille-favourite Mmusi Maimane. In a city that is younger and blacker than Cape Town (49% of city inhabitants are under the age of 34), many will feel unrepresented both by the increasingly geriatric ANC and by the mainstream DA. In Mazibuko, there exists the chance for a bridge.

As for the ANC, what can they do to turn the tide that is currently ebbing against them? They have two options: reverse urbanisation or clean up Johannesburg, and fast.

Fixing Johannesburg seems like a tall order, but turnaround strategies have been successful with less time and money than the ANC has in the run-up to 2016. The problems that hamstring Johannesburg are people-based problems. The city does not lack for skill or talent, but political appointments have meant that the ANC does not necessarily put forward the best people from its own ranks. The provincial branch of the ruling party will need to continue to forge a new path away from its parent body, allowing sceptical voters to support them in Johannesburg without feeling as though they are voting for President Zuma. The ANC knows this already; a report brought before the Gauteng provincial conference this month notes that “if the 2014 elections were the most challenging elections since 1994, 2016 local government elections are likely to be even more difficult.” According to the report, the provincial and local authorities will need to tackle corruption, political arrogance, lack of accountability and bureaucratic indifference.

The seeds of this transformation exist already. Speaking in Soweto at the appropriately named Gauteng Township Economy Revitalization Summit, Premier Makhura pledged at least R160 million to township revitalisation and the creation of business hubs. If this and similarly innovative projects are implemented effectively, the changes they bring will be new and exciting around election time, fuelling a forward-looking ANC campaign. This, coupled with a symbolic stand against e-tolls, may be enough for the Gauteng ANC to retain Johannesburg in 2016.

To some extent, the ANC has an easier job in Johannesburg – they don’t need to make people vote for them so much as ensure that they won’t be spitting mad enough to stand in line and vote for someone else: the DA. Could the ANC do it? Yes. But to use a dated term, it will take gumption. Whether they have it or not remains a dubious question.

On a broader level, another strategy for the ANC would be to curb rising rural-urban migration. That’s not to suggest it should curtail freedom of movement; rather, it should remove many of the push factors currently draining our countryside of her people. The two largest problems in these regions are a lack of sustainable, upwardly-mobile employment and little access to state infrastructure.

People end up in Gauteng because, being the seat of both government and industry, the province is associated with opportunity. Johannesburg is the number one destination for those seeking work or mobility. This is not necessarily a rational pursuit; research on urbanisation in China uncovered a trend of migrant workers journeying right past smaller cities where there is work to be had, only to end up out of work in Beijing. The biggest cities have the greatest pull, and many people know no better than what they’ve heard from informal information networks. They do not see the shadows behind the bright lights, until it is too late – returning is often a harder task than getting there.

Here the ANC can affect change on a national level. More support for agri-businesses, working co-operatives and commercially viable farms could kill two birds with one stone: it would keep up support for the government in the hinterland and simultaneously reverse some of the urban migration that turns voters anti-ANC. Again, this is not impossible; targeted rural development programs have worked elsewhere to great effect. Once co-ops get off the ground, people earn more for themselves, leading to the extension of supply chains into those areas. Those businesses will contribute to increasing local employment. AMUL, the Indian dairy co-operative, started in 1946 and grew to be the largest food brand in India. It is co-owned by over three million producers, all with a vested stake in its success, and has since even expanded into international markets. The social business model, such as that employed by Grameen Danone Foods, is worth exploring in our country.

Lastly: we have to peer into the foggy middle future, at what the leadership of these cities have envisioned as positive growth. City planning for Cape Town and Johannesburg could not be more distinct. Cape Town’s electoral success relies on maintaining the standard of living to which middle class South Africa is accustomed; but in order to do this, the poor must, to some extent, remain cheap and desperate labour. The city seems reluctant to admit that it even faces a problem in equality and social cohesion. In light of this, are Cape Town’s recent successes sustainable? On the converse, Johannesburg has explicitly stated that the city will be targeting social integration and structural inequality in coming years. With the likes of Oxfam showing that 76% of South Africans believe that economic inequality is a problem, and with our own local indices showing a decrease in national cohesion, this seems like a potentially prevailing strategy. On the other hand, Joburg can’t afford to haemorrhage business (and wealth) to the Republic of the Western Cape, and must offer sufficient incentives to attract and keep these. Each city will have a hard time balancing incongruent actors.

2016 will be a tale of two cities – of the contrast between Cape Town and Johannesburg. It will be an election of the urban, and not the rural. Will the ANC pick up steam, and project an image of a more inclusive, less segregated, better-functioning and forward-looking city? Or will the DA maintain its urban momentum, using her flagship city to turn South Africa’s biggest consumers? The answers to these questions have implications not just for 2016, but for 2024 and 2029, and for the future of the country. These are exciting times indeed. DM


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