‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’. One can’t help but wonder whether President Jacob Zuma went to bed feeling a little uneasy on Thursday night. While the dust is yet to settle on the outcome of the 2016 Local Government Elections, there is little dispute over the fact that, as leader of the ANC and government, it has been on Zuma’s watch that the ANC’s electoral dominance has diminished.
In the 2011 local government elections, the ANC secured 63% of the vote. At the time of writing, with 89% of stations counted, it appears that the party’s support is likely to dip to approximately 55%. This represents an uncomfortable position for a once near hegemonic party.
The precipitousness of the ANC’s decline – to this point – had been stalled by the politricks of an extensive patronage network, the effectiveness of a welfare state that helps to put food on the tables of one third of South African households, and, over the course of Zuma’s rise, the hollowing out of the Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal.
The potential implicit in the 2016 local government elections was tangible early on; as if the political landscape was shifting substantively. There seemed – especially in urban areas – a steely determination on the part of citizens to exercise their votes and make their voices heard, and that this time around things were up for grabs and the political axis could be shifted.
But the stakes were not only high for Zuma and the ANC: The DA needed to demonstrate their ability to grow beyond their Western Cape ramparts and make good on their claims of being the only credible opposition to the ANC with a national footprint. Moreover, the EFF needed their performance to buttress claims that the party is not a one-hit-wonder, protest party. The EFF needed to demonstrate substance and structure beyond the theatrics of Parliament, rhetoric and stadium rallies.
At the time of writing the EFF has won approximately 7.7% of votes cast, slightly up from its 2014 general election result of 6.4%; a modest gain relative to the party’s ambitions. Despite this almost static electoral performance, the party will play an outsize role in the days and weeks to follow due to its potential kingmaker status in a number of high profile municipalities.
It had been clear for some time that the ANC was going to make heavy weather of this election. Limited opinion polls turned out to be reasonably accurate after all. In three urban metros – Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay – coalition governments will in all likelihood shape a new kind of politics. Johannesburg’s outcome remains less clear, with significant ballots left uncounted at the time of writing.
Despite not breaching the 50% threshold, the DA announced “victory” in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) on Thursday evening, and said it was seeking coalition partners. Bantu Holomisa of the UDM has been approached in due course. The historic and symbolic significance of NMB falling out of the ANC’s grip has probably not quite registered fully with South Africans. The Eastern Cape, after all, is the heartland of the ANC. The party invested a considerable amount of political capital in the metro, parachuting in Mayor Danny Jordaan.
Some will say that the imposition of Jordaan was too little too late, symptomatic of ham-handed, top-down crisis decision-making, and a general manifestation of the ANC’s lack of preparedness for these elections. ANC Treasurer-general, Zweli Mkhize, admitted that the party suffered losses because of its own “internal issues”. Former Secretary General and former State President Kgalema Motlanthe bemoaned that a party afflicted by “bogus” structures had ultimately “lost the plot”. Even Zuma, who too often held himself to be above the law, must feel the sting of this loss?
The DA will be very pleased with its performance. It has again, successfully negotiated a change in leadership at the top of the party ticket while continuing to demonstrate growth at the base. The party’s steady march, has maintained its timbre but possibly still needs to prove it can break into the proverbial sprint come 2019 when it will be tested even further. Notwithstanding the many continued challenges facing the party, news of DA ascendance is now an increasingly ordinary aspect of our politics, to the party’s significant credit. However, should the DA be in a position to negotiate a role in executive power in at least one Gauteng metro, in addition to NMB, it would burnish the narrative of a party on the march and present the party with a significant stage to demonstrate its alternative form of government.
In the short term, the DA must however ask itself larger questions regarding the process of coalition building and the values that will underpin coalitions, beyond simply unseating the ANC. This will require political generosity and tolerance that is often missing in our political discourse. The coalition forming process is likely to be messy, with moments of instability.
The days and weeks ahead will test the DA, ANC and particularly the EFF’s political maturity and nous. While the DA has a record of coalition building in the Western Cape, the outcomes of the 2016 polls leave us in somewhat uncharted waters. The ANC’s Ncebu Faku has said the party will dispute the result in NMB. It is crucial that the IEC deals with any complaints swiftly and transparently, and that all parties accept the results of adjudication.
These elections also raise fundamental questions about the nature and character of the ANC, and South Africa’s urban-rural divide. Since the rebellion against the “philosopher king” Thabo Mbeki, Zuma has assiduously worked his rural, traditional base. Under Zuma, the ANC has retained and strengthened its rural dominance, while concurrently failing to nurture and build urban constituencies. Early evidence suggests that in many urban areas, suburban turnout was far stronger than that evident in the townships.
This election has underscored that the ANC ignores its real and potential urban constituencies at its peril. We are an increasingly urban society, and our future – political, social and economic – will be forged in our cities. Zuma has previously lambasted “clever blacks” who dared to question deepening corruption and state capture. On Thursday, Gwede Mantashe declared that “Black people did not value their vote” as much as white people did. Has the ANC become so out of touch that it has become deaf to protest action and the dismal state of many municipalities? Opinion polls like the Afrobarometer demonstrate that 61% of citizens “disapprove or strongly disapprove” of their local government councillor and that Zuma’s popularity is at an all-time low. For many, not voting has become as much of a protest against the ANC as voting for the opposition.
Our Constitution envisages a powerful participatory democracy that is about more than simply casting a vote every five years. Its meaning lies in the ongoing interaction between citizens and public representatives between elections. Quite simply, the ANC is increasingly distracted by internal factionalism to build substantive links with communities and effectively listen to citizens’ concerns. In small towns citizens repeatedly talk of feeling as if they are “watching a passing show” and voice frustration at obstacles to their participation in the economy of the country.
South Africans have sent the ANC a powerful message ahead of the 2019 general election. The question is whether the ANC can draw on its depleting reserves to deal with the liability Zuma and his band of cronies have become to the party and the state? But more than that is the fundamental existential question as to whether the ANC is capable of renewing itself in line with the democratic, political and economic needs of the country?
The hubris with which the ANC has governed over recent years has pushed our country to the edge of cynicism – not for the first time. People have now said, albeit tentatively, that change is not an elusive concept. DM
Judith February is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Security Studies and Jonathan Faull is an independent political and policy analyst based in Washington DC
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