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A snapshot of South African party politics in an era of decaying dominance of the ANC

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Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

Party politics as South Africans know it has been changing and the 2021 local elections reveal the exact dimensions. ANC dominance is cracked, even broken in places; the main opposition DA is at a dead end; the EFF is serially not realising anticipated potential and no major new parties are emerging. In the wake of this catharsis, new micro-parties are contesting against a multitude of micro-parties and independents, while they are also chipping away at ANC and DA support.

Jointly, the new micro-parties can change the face of local government in South Africa next week, in many configurations of outright victories or coalitions. Their actions simultaneously attest to a particular type of election: one in which several contests enfold one another like Russian matryoshka dolls. 

The two biggest parties in their respective geographical strongholds contest to win; other modest and small parties compete to win a king-making block of votes, which they equate with “winning”; and micro-parties and independents hope to gain a seat or two, to help swing a particular coalition. Alienation from party politics, low registration and possible lowered turnout are crucial contexts.

This analysis takes stock of the spaces that are generated in this process of decline, stagnation and gradual change of South African party politics. It also considers whether the phenomenon of small, often ephemeral parties is a central part of the future of party politics.

The ANC may very well survive local elections 2021 (retaining an overall majority of over 50%). Hugging President Cyril Ramaphosa’s clean-up image, it has now extended its repertoire to embrace a last-ditch “one more chance” to deliver to the citizens caught in the cracks between the inability of past promises to keep up with socio-economic and demographic population trends. 

Survival in top party position pairs with a lingering popular belief that the ANC is the “parent” party that cares for its “children”, even if it comes with the maltreatment of corruption and apparent inability to learn from past municipal failures.

This ANC, still dominant overall, simultaneously sheds support generally and votes specifically. The party itself dare not split again — that would precipitate a loss of overall majority status. Despite severe delivery lapses, the main opposition does not have the character to take up the slack. Voters rather take one of two routes: non-registration and/or abstention, or embracing small political parties or independents. 

The electorate shrank from 2019 to 2021, and given lower expected turnout, support for small entities will come largely from the ranks of the bigger parties.

The small political parties rose to prominence (for numbers, diversity and being disdainful of many of the Electoral Commission’s rules) in the 2016 municipal and then 2019 provincial elections. A few gained representation. At the 2016 elections, community parties were confirmed as important, king-making local actors. The Karoo Ontwikkelings Party (Laingsburg), Karoo Gemeenskap Party (Prince Albert), Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa (Kannaland) and Karoo Democratic Force (Beaufort West) are examples, albeit uneven in governance probity and ethics.

In the hung councils of metropolitan and some local municipalities, the incredulous African Independent Congress and Patriotic Alliance joined long-time small to modest parties like the Inkatha Freedom Party, African Christian Democratic Party and Freedom Front Plus to help either the ANC or DA construct majorities. These ones are likely to remain players in the local balances of power (except in northern KwaZulu-Natal where the IFP retains control of some local municipalities).

In another sign of the times, Al Jama-ah, a micro-party inclined to cooperate with the ANC, has proclaimed its concern with the rise of “small parties”.

In small towns and cities across South Africa, a multitude of new, small contestants (micro-parties and community organisations that register with party status) have learnt from the king-making prominence of small parties in the 2016-2021 local government term. They are now on the small party bandwagon, contesting to win even just one seat. A total of 325 political parties are registered for participation (205 in 2016). They will also collect proportional representation points. In addition, the number of independent candidates surged to 1,546 (855 in 2016). Mmusi Maimane’s One South Africa has united 245 of these candidates under one banner to help them optimise PR votes.

It is a congested small-party field, signifying a confluence of dissatisfaction with the main parties, and the reality of no big, viable alternative emerging. As a result, success stories like the Karoo Gemeenskap Party (KGP) in 2016 in the Prince Albert local municipality run the risk of being neutralised when available votes stand to be divided not just between the main and micro-parties, but also between the KGP and challenger community organisations.  

The small party industry is clearly not just an opportunistic one. In many communities, there are contestants that wish to ensure the functionality of services and infrastructure development and maintenance, in the place of unimaginable decay and neglect. The Senekal Service Delivery Forum and the Ngwathe Residents Association are arguably two such organisations, Free State-based, that are hoping to gain enough council seats to take over service provision for their communities. 

The challenge will be for the well-intentioned small political parties to emerge above the phalanx of opportunist players, for example, the ones who are using the strategy of harvesting proportional representation votes. Those overwhelmingly unknown micro-parties (often bearing grandiose names) spread nets of one candidate across many wards in one municipality. They bargain on garnering haphazard ballot ticks, gaining enough PR votes and being propelled into the municipal pound seats.

A quick survey of Johannesburg candidate nominations reveals the scope of this practice, also evident in 2016. At the upper extreme, the Justice and Employment Party has one candidate who is nominated in 120 wards, an Al Jama-ah candidate contests in 104 wards, and both the Shosholoza Progressive Party and Economic Emancipation Forum have one candidate per party harvesting PR votes across 97 seats. The practice is legal and acknowledged in the IEC’s Municipal Handbook. 

Given the mixed PR/first-past-the-post electoral system, smaller parties have a better chance to win PR than ward seats — small parties often get their only representation through the PR vote channel.

Hence, a host of the small and micro-parties — new and old, with good service intentions or with dubious plans to be a kingmaker — could be in standoffs for PR seats when the results arrive. As the AIC has demonstrated so well in Ekurhuleni, an obscure, misplaced party can be a high scorer in the stakes for profile and patronage, should it garner just a few PR seats.

Beyond these stakes in the election of the micros, king-making power in hung councils can also be gained by medium-small parties. 

Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA is gunning for Johannesburg seats. Some pollsters anticipate that he could gain a block of votes that may closely match that of the EFF in the city. Should the two combine forces, as they did in Mashaba’s DA city regime, they could be a kingmaker of note between the ANC and DA. The only problem: Mashaba is on record that he will “never” be in coalition with the ANC, and the EFF “never” with the DA. “Never”, of course, is usually a short time in politics.

Hence, forward to South Africa’s three elections in one — the battle of the big ones to stay out of the coalition zone, the medium-small ones to gain bloc-style kingmaking coalition power to the extent of dictating positions and programmes to bigger partners, and the micro ones to gain a seat or two and exert some modest power-brokering role.

This is a snapshot of South African party politics in an era of decaying dominance, when the ANC is fighting back to retain state power, to avoid splitting as a party, and from this interregnum significant new parties cannot yet emerge. DM

This analysis uses insights from Marriages of Inconvenience: The politics of coalitions in South Africa, MISTRA, 2021, Booysen, Susan (ed.). Marriages of Inconvenience launched on 8 July 2021.

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