To my mind there were three big questions coming into this election. First, would ANC electoral dominance be significantly dented? Second, would the DA make the progress necessary for it to offer a credible national, as opposed to merely regional, threat to the ANC in the future? Third, would the EFF avoid the ‘second season blues’ that has afflicted all the other political start-ups since 1994?
To answer these questions, there were key indicators to look out for, in a number of bell-weather wards.
While the final results, and precise allocation of seats in the most keenly contested and totemically important municipalities – namely, the city governments of Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay – are not yet known, writing at 2pm on Thursday enough evidence of a game-changing sort is already available to justify a clear-minded answer to those three primary questions.
It is already clear, for example, that South Africa is about to enter a new era of coalition politics and government. This will be an intriguing source of invigoration, as well as uncertainty – the commodity that much of the academic literature on democracy suggests is necessary for a multi-party system to be dynamic as well as responsive to voter’s needs, concerns and interests.
In this respect, turning to question one, the electorate has at least in some parts of the country delivered a pretty stinging rebuke to the ruling party, whose support in working class ‘township’ areas has dropped significantly – a negative impact for the ANC that is magnified because voter turn-out was higher in suburban areas where the opposition is stronger.
In ward 21 in Mabopane in the north-western part of the Tshwane, for example, with six of the seven voting districts having reported, ANC support had fallen from 82% at the last municipal elections in 2011 to 59%, with the DA’s vote doubling to around 20% and the EFF harvesting a creditable 18%.
This trend repeats itself, more or less, in other working class ‘black’ areas of Tshwane and seems to have coincided closely with those areas where intra-party conflict and violence erupted when the ANC made such a hash of choosing its mayoral candidate for the City.
In Nelson Mandela Bay, the ANC appears to also suffered a notable erosion of its ‘core’, urban black working class vote. In Ward 56, for example, in Motherwell, with the results of three of the four voting districts in, ANC support had fallen by 20% from 89% in 2011 to 69% now, with the EFF taking 11% from the ruling party and new regional party, UFEC 6% (and the DA gaining modestly, from 1.6% to 4%).
The position in the City of Johannesburg is more complex, with apparently greater contrasts between wards. But, at this point it seems likely that the ANC will not only be forced under 50% in Nelson Mandela Bay and Pretoria. In the former, the DA may be able to form a coalition with smaller party allies such as COPE and the UDM, but in Tshwane it looks like Julius Malema will be the kingmaker in any coalition negotiations.
Regardless of what emerges from those negotiations, the notion that the ANC’s electoral dominance is impenetrable is squashed. It’s grip on power is slipping; it can be challenged; voters across the land are willing to switch sides – despite, or perhaps because of, the heavily-negative, scare tactics of the ANC in the final phase of the campaign.
When the all the votes are finally tallied, it now seems likely that the ANC will be pushed under 60% nationally – a psychologically significant barrier.
How will the two main opposition parties have gained from this? Given that past patterns suggest that municipal election results are ‘coupled’ with the national election that follows three years later. In 2011, for instance, the DA attracted just over 23% of the votes across the municipalities and then an almost identical figure at the national election in 2014.
The DA may, once again, be somewhat underwhelmed by its performance in working class areas. It continues to grow, but the problem is that even if you double or even quadruple your vote, if you are doing so from as low a base as 1 or 2%, you still don’t even break the 10% barrier, which, in turns, threatens its prospects of reaching the psychologically significant line of 30% of the popular vote.
In this respect, the EFF may lay claim to a bigger advance. In some places, such as voting district 32952753 in Tshwane, it garnered over 30% of the votes cast. It’s performance will surprise, or shock, many, even though it was obvious that it has a base to work with from its 2014 result where it regularly attracted more than 20% in voting districts in and around Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni.
The question was whether it could build on that promising start and the answer is a clear yes. And, of course, it will milk any opportunity to be the kingmaker in Tshwane and elsewhere.
There will be twists in this (analytical) tale, but the fundamental shifts in South Africa’s electoral map are emerging clearly enough. The ANC, especially, will have a great deal to think about as the results sink in.
Those looking at the country from outside will conclude that this is a vibrant multi-party, electoral democracy. Looking ahead, beyond the excitement of the contest, and the fascinating prospect of the new era of coalition government, the even more profound question is this: will it result in better government and better prospects for the economy and for the poorest and most vulnerable members of its society? DM