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The thrill has gone: Making sense of the 2021 municipal poll results


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

In trying to make sense of the local government elections tsunami that has passed, I offer three theses as a small contribution to the evolving understanding of the electoral outcomes.

The 2021 local government elections curtain has officially closed. There are winners and losers, sulkers and triumphalists. The newly employed, and others joining the ranks of the Neet – not in education, employment and training. Many bureaucrats have entered the world of uncertainty – how to professionally serve in a fractious coalition milieu overflowing with unknown factors. 

The Fourth Estate criss-crossed party tables trying to get objective commentaries of what happened on 1 November. Commentators, like sangomas, have made predictions and produced counterfactual arguments trying to discern “what if”, “what accounts for”, etc. 

Now we are trying to make sense of the tsunami that has passed. In this regard we offer three theses as a small contribution to the evolving understanding of the electoral outcomes. 

Thesis 1: What happened in KwaZulu-Natal

Subject to the declaration of results, here is one nugget about a district and local municipalities in King Cetshwayo, northern KZN:

There are 30-year-old townships in the district that started small, catering for the middle class and bureaucracy of the KwaZulu homeland. These include eShowe, eSikhawini/Skhaleni, Dlangezwa, Nseleni, Melmoth and old suburbs of Richards Bay. 

These townships were a flagship for the Bantustan and apartheid to showcase the “viability” of separate development. They had water and electricity and other minimum basic services. 

They have grown exponentially over the past 20 years and have diversified politically. This density meant these “homeland townships” carried the majority of votes in these generally rural municipalities. 

In places like uMlalazi the ANC enjoyed an absolute majority, having toppled the IFP. But something significant happened there in the past few years: the delivery of services was tenderised and politicised and captured by contending local interests/rent-seekers and warlords. 

This interrupted services like water and refuse removal. Communities there now struggle with basic services. These small towns and cities are teetering on the brink of becoming Mthatha – a municipality that fails on the very purpose of local governance: removing trash so it doesn’t contaminate water supplies and cause water-borne diseases. 

The gunshots across and among these local squabbling rent-seekers/factions/business interests were loud, sending communities into hiding, reminiscent of the political violence of yesteryear – remember “Ngeke ngiye KwaZulu kwafela ubaba…”

Come 1 November 2021, the voters lodged divorce papers, in the hope of liberating themselves from misgovernance.

There are tales of service providers, working with councillors, breaking water pipes so that their water delivery trucks can be dispatched to deliver water at a premium. 

This hypothesis is subject to the release of final results. 

The voters sang “the thrill is gone, baby”, returning to the old blesser, Inkatha (proxy for the KwaZulu government), which delivered services during the flagship days. Check Ngwelezane and Dlangezwa. 

This is only an emergent view, which tries to steer the conversation away from easy answers like “people are angry about the arrest of  Zuma”, “the IFP is now a modern party”, etc. Yes, those factors do matter a lot, but there is a bigger nuance needed than reducing active voter choices to national political discontents. 

Of course, Prince Buthelezi must be credited for many of the votes the IFP got. He said, “Trust us”, and voters affirmed him – the absence of any ideological bond notwithstanding. There are numerous other contemporaneous circumstances that have converged in his favour. 

Remember the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation report on trust in state institutions did conclude that people do not trust local authorities because they believe they are not serving their immediate socioeconomic needs.

Thesis 2: The spectre of Phoenix

Race matters in South African politics. The DA knew this when they erected their racist posters in Phoenix. Here they are, they won most wards in Phoenix.  

Meanwhile the broad church pussyfooted, pursued reconciliation with the perpetrators, living victims in the open arms of the EFF, which profited from the desperation of the people of my hood, Inanda, where it already has two members of Parliament. 

In many other wards, race mattered too, in favour of the FF+ and Gayton McKenzie (it’s easier to remember him than his party’s name). The FF+ doesn’t have to do door-to-door campaigns. Its constituency knows who it is and what it represents. Just like McKenzie milking the “protecting coloureds” cow. 

In the case of Herman Mashaba, it is the same thing. He is profiting from selling “protecting the locals” from invading foreign nationals. 

The madam from the Cape speaks out against identity politics while also milking the same cow dry. 

Thesis 3: Ingulube Esesakeni – Who is our mayor?

There is a known but unspoken reality that the archaic bureaucratic systems of the ruling party are causing a hostage drama. When most major political parties parade their mayors, the movement gets entangled in internal bureaucratic processes and goes into elections without candidate leaders. 

Even with the proposed selection and interview processes, for many voters, voting means buying a pig in a sack (ingulube esakeni) which may yield an unpopular mayor. Someone quipped in Johannesburg: “The DA and Cope mayoral candidates look trustworthy in those posters… I wonder what ours look like.”

This is an important consideration in this era of “personalities” and “influencers” driven by social media likes and trends. So the would-be mayors are unknown and never resonate with constituencies. Their profiles can’t be interrogated before voters make choices. 

There is no more gain in pointing out that the movement is narcissistic, spending too much time dealing with internal contradictions rather than advancing the National Democratic Revolution project. DM


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