The November local government elections are likely to be the most unpredictable and perhaps least supported since the dawn of democracy in 1994.
The unpredictability is positive in that it diffuses the might of the larger parties — particularly the ANC — into something of a more “regular” political player that can be vulnerable at the polls and therefore vulnerable to lead.
By contrast, the potential for a low voter turnout bodes ill for the credibility of the vote. Not that we are likely to experience electoral fraud, but the increasingly tenuous connection between the voters and their elected representatives further distances accountability and the necessary connection to power and service delivery.
Local government is arguably the most important sphere of government when it comes to service delivery. Yet, the potential for uplifting the poor has largely been squandered in recent years by gross corruption, malfeasance and a skills deficit in the affected councils and municipalities.
While State Capture has ravaged the national fiscus, the third sphere of government (local) has had almost mortal wounds inflicted upon it – and largely (although not exclusively) as a result of the deficiencies of the governing ANC.
From cadre deployment to procurement fiascos to patronage-filled appointments, it has simply been a disaster. But don’t just take this analyst’s word for it, take the recent report of the Auditor-General if you can stomach the horror show of waste and wanton destruction it exposes.
With huge budgetary allocations being wasted, local government also has to contend with a quasi-federal system of government that simply does not give it enough autonomy. Reliant on national policy for so many critical aspects of delivery — like housing and electricity provision — councils seemingly have their hands tied when it comes to the state-owned enterprise failures and land re-allocations.
With a national government so unsure of its own ideological direction and so deeply divided on most issues, the clarity necessary at a local level is often sorely missing. What a travesty this is considering the essential role this sphere should play.
The looming elections are not likely to better the practical side of service delivery. In fact, they could muddy the waters even further. With trust in the major political parties — and especially the ANC — at declining levels according to the recent AfroBarometer poll, a gaggle of smaller entities look set to gain from an electorate frustrated and often frightened by the broader political terrain. When voters are angry — and the state of the lived experience for so many in both more rural and metro settings push them to anger — they seek out different political solutions.
Incumbents, therefore, are in danger. A recent political rise in ethno-nationalist political parties like the Patriotic Alliance and Freedom Front Plus suggest that voters are seeking out identity activists to restore some semblance of authority, efficiency and civic engagement. To some degree, this also benefits community-based organisations and higher profile independents.
As the parties that are in power — who, as such, have to defend their track records — both the ANC and DA are in the firing line. Both have internal party issues outside of the service-delivery terrain. Both have relatively new leaders who still need to prove their electoral attractiveness.
As much as the elections are an indicator of the nature of the council/metro political power play, they may also dictate the political futures of both Messrs Ramaphosa and Steenhuisen.
A weak ANC performance will put pressure on Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the ANC’s NGC next year. For all the shouting about step-aside clauses and the CR17 campaign, a messy result for the ANC will unsettle the president and his backers and could even lead to a power putsch if the ANC really does poorly.
The possibility of electoral gains by smaller parties naturally points to more hung councils. Should this be the case, this election could well herald an ANC that will battle to touch 50% in 2024. A weakening of the ANC’s grip at the local terrain can lead to both fright and further flight from the ANC.
This is the most unsettled moment for the ANC electorally since 1994 given its recent internal problems, the Zuma and Magashule affairs, the July insurrection, a flagging economy, low voter registration and candidate selection bickering.
So, the opportunity is certainly there for opposition to gain. And gain they should under these less than propitious circumstances for the ANC. But even here, there are no guarantees.
South Africa urgently needs a more cohesive and united opposition or at least an umbrella alliance of opposition parties to the moderate centre of the ANC.
Instead, the Balkanisation and fragmentation of the DA have set its cause back. One should not underestimate the DA’s tough task of attempting to galvanise its previous support base (let alone find new support) when each and every day, its former leader (Maimane) and star mayor (Mashaba) reinforce all of the narratives (rightly or wrongly) from which the DA tries to distance itself. Not to mention that the two individuals concerned are likely to take some votes away from the DA in their respective independent and party endeavours.
The elections, therefore, are likely to be a messy affair with both the ANC and DA struggling to retain their 2016 showings while shedding support to smaller players. Regional trends (like that of a strong ActionSA showing in Gauteng) might also throw up anomalies as long-suffering smaller towns seek local community leadership. Given heightened tensions in KZN, the political battlefields are awash with uncertainty.
Only the EFF is likely to remain relatively intact, given that it has secured a virtual monopoly on the more populist and radical flank of domestic politics. This gives the party a distinct advantage in a busy playing field where mixed policy messages from the ANC and even the DA create voter confusion.
In watching the results in a few weeks’ time, the critical issue will be to where are the larger parties shedding votes. While chipping away at the power hegemony of the ANC is largely beneficial to a much more competitive South African political scene, the switch to ethno-nationalist parties and to radical populists are likely to set the country back. After all, such electoral shifts from bigger parties can cause them to drift to a more nationalist/populist route in a bid to claw back lost votes prior to 2024.
Similarly, a dispersion of votes is likely to herald an even greater plethora of strange-bedfellow alliances in hung councils. How the ANC (and even the DA) position themselves with smaller kingmakers will be crucial to the relationships necessary for a potential humdinger of a vote in three years’ time when an above-50% ANC cannot anymore be guaranteed.
On just about every level, therefore, the 2021 LGEs are set to define our political landscape in unpredictable yet potentially historic ways. There are chances of a political realignment yet also of an electoral retreat into a new millennium-style laager mentality. And the fragmentation can make already almost-ungovernable local authorities even less coherent.
The extreme irony is that it is likely to occur with a disappointing voter turnout which in itself can change and alter the body politic even further. While the results can change our politics for the better, protecting the authenticity of the elections is incumbent on all participants.
Expect the unexpected but let’s make sure the process is beyond reproach and as well supported by voter turnout as possible. DM
Daniel Silke is Director of the Political Futures Consultancy based in Cape Town. He is a noted public speaker, commentator and contributes to media both in South Africa and Globally. Follow him on Twitter @DanielSilke or via his website at www.danielsilkeglobal.com