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A nasty shock awaits: Don’t underestimate voters’ capacity to punish political parties for their failures at local government level

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Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

There is a long-held, but incorrect, assumption that South African voters are rigid and have a tendency to be overly loyal to their preferred political parties. However, the composition of the class of 2016, in terms of which parties were elected to govern municipalities across the country, says otherwise. The electorate has, over the years, shown a healthy appetite for political flexibility.

A misconception exists, and wrongly persists, that South African voters practice an extreme form of political party loyalty at the polls — to their own detriment. That observation tends to be directed at the majority of the population. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In wards and councils across the country, from the far-flung corners of Limpopo to the rural Eastern Cape to the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, citizens have cast their votes strategically and demonstrated an astute understanding of the political process. The outcome of the 2016 local government elections is a case in point insofar as voting patterns and trends are concerned.

In metros, towns, dorpies, hamlets and villages, the electorate explored alternative political options instead of going for the obvious choices during that election. But the slow move away from the business-as-usual political parties did not happen overnight. It was a gradual process, starting at the municipal ward level.

In their wards, South African voters have taken risks and backed candidates operating outside political party frameworks. Here, too, citizens have experimented and given lifelines to political parties on their last legs. It is also at this level where voters have shown a healthy appetite for political flexibility and tested uncharted waters. In short, local government elections are fair game for whoever chooses to contest the poll.

That is because municipal wards are at the heart of residents’ bread and butter issues. Citizens observe carefully who gets picked to be part of the Expanded Public Works Programme; who among them benefits from government-backed poverty alleviation schemes and who makes the cut for municipal jobs at all levels. In terms of the latter, people keep a close watch, for example, on who lands the cleaning jobs in municipal offices and who gets preference for street-sweeping jobs.

Furthermore, residents take notes on the upkeep of wards in terms of which ones are looked after and which are neglected. In addition, citizens will monitor resource distribution, which can be measured against the availability of recreational facilities or the lack thereof, and community development programmes. These pragmatic considerations are at play for the electorate and tend to transcend political party loyalty.

However, councillors who pull a disappearing act on communities, or become aloof as soon as they’re voted in, often have a rude awakening after their five-year cycle in office comes to an end. Residents make their displeasure known through the ballot box irrespective of councillors’ political affiliation. Hence the one-hit political wonders who earn this status because of their failure to rise to the occasion and the rigours of public office.

The 2016 poll was billed as the “battle of the metros” precisely because of the emerging trends and noticeable voting patterns among the majority population. This segment of the population’s voting behaviour ensured that the 2016 local government elections were evenly poised in the metros, giving opposition outfits a crack at governing councils. It is through no fault of voters that the political parties which were given a chance to lead chose to squander the opportunity.

But testing the patience of voters at this level of government is a risky move because this is where the electorate is most responsive to non-performance and broken promises. At this level, voters are not so lenient, nor are they too forgiving. Voting patterns strongly correlate with and are mostly driven by service delivery.

Although there have been glowing claims and reviews in political advertisements about service delivery, the reality of the matter is that the class of 2016, particularly at the metros — including Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and the City of Johannesburg — has mostly failed to live up to the hype. In the case of Nelson Mandela Bay, this metro is in a far worse state now than it was before 2016. Similar inferences can be made about the City of Johannesburg and Tshwane.

The 2021 poll takes place in under two weeks. Councillors who chose to hoard food parcels at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic are in for a wake-up call. Political parties that were more invested in setting up their own looting schemes in councils instead of sound development plans will find out if the risk was worth it.

The upcoming 2021 local government elections represent a litmus test for voters’ appetite for further political flexibility. But the experience with the class of 2016 may have left a long-lasting bitter taste for such risk-taking among the electorate. And that does not bode well for those parties which have styled themselves as viable alternatives to the governing party, when their own records in councils contradict such assertions. BM/DM

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All Comments 6

    • I concur absolutely.
      The vast majority of voters are not only politically blind but, very unfortunately, too unsophisticated to understand the ramifications of how their vote is cast.
      Instead of withholding their votes, which some do in frustration, they should vote for a party that actually has their interests to heart and delivers.

  • I certainly think you are on to something Xolisa! The trend of coalition governance has emerged and is yet to mature. But indeed the train has pulled off, slowly but surely it is and will gather the much needed momentum!

  • I think you are wrong Xolisa. From what I can ascertain the less sophisticated voter (apart from still aligning the ANC with the party that brought them liberation) conflates the ANC with the govenment or state, and believes it is the ANC that provides housing, electricity, social grants etc, and they will lose thhese benefits voting for another party. This was emphasised recently by CR himself telling people to vote for the ANC as it was the only part that could give them these benfits.

  • I’ll bet you a substantial amount of money let’s say R10, that the ANC wins the election, the DA comes in at 2nd place and the EFF comes in third with a greater share of the vote than last time around.

    And there will be a few isolated places where one or two of the other parties have a good showing in a few wards.

    I say this with confidence because I don’t believe your synopsis is correct.

    I would like it to be correct but I do not believe it is.